R. Kelly: Happy People/U Saved Me

Katie Zerwas

R. Kelly

Happy People/U Saved Me

Label: Jive
US Release Date: 2004-08-24
UK Release Date: Available as import

The career of R. Kelly has been plagued with incendiary sexual scandals, the flames of which Kelly has brazenly fanned in public and in his musical oeuvre. Not so on his latest effort, a double album entitled Happy People/U Saved Me. His cleaned up language and upbeat odes to "stepping" and Jesus dance around the X-rated elephant in the middle of the room, as the self-proclaimed "pied piper of love" welcomes all with a wink and a nod to the greatest show on Earth -- his "bedroom". These tantalizing teasers will doubtless thrill and titillate many listeners, but it's not the only reason this album will be the talk of the town. Continuing what is perhaps on its way to becoming a trend in R&B/hip-hop, each disc is itself a coherent statement and together marks a renaissance of classic funk and gospel styles that Kelly has reinvigorated with modern imagery and flavors. The album can be seen as a successful dance record, but it can also be viewed as the reiteration of an all too common narrative of the sinner who drowns in lust and hedonistic ecstasy, only to emerge and be reabsorbed into a mystical union with the Powers That Be.

Happy People is the sort of record that is destined to become the soundtrack to a season. Nostalgia is built into the album with its overt references to chipper funk legend Bill Withers and the slow grooves of Marvin Gaye. R. Kelly seems focused; the melodies are loose and melismatic, the beats are spacious and direct. What is offered is not something original, so much as purely satisfying. Kelly instinctually understands the insatiable human demand for popular dance beats as he declares on the opening track, this "music ain't music, but hit music". Kelly also recognizes that part of the drive to dance is a desire to escape into the music, and each track paints a distinct homage to the various facets of escape in the contemporary era, through popularity, television, voyeurism, the anonymity of the club scene, and the sexual conquest that such clubs can offer. The idea that "happy people keeps the world turning," seems at turns naïve and visionary; happiness is easy, so long as it is possible to believe that.

The message of the second disc, U Saved Me, tacks on another dimension to this problem. The two discs taken together present a sort of sinner/saved dichotomy wherein R. Kelly presents himself as self-assured party-goer and prodigal son on "Happy People", who then wakes up in the morning feeling hollow and craving divine salvation. The Sinner-Kelly is rich, charming, and famous, whereas the Saved-Kelly is a humble regular-guy who faces life's struggles with Job-like faith. The two discs are so different both musically and substantively that it seems as though Kelly views his two selves as irreconcilable. For Kelly, life is nothing but a binge-and-purge cycle of sin. And yet, both albums emphasize a sort of mystical union or dissolve. On Happy People Kelly suggests "sometimes life can be a dream, when you're living on the big screen", whereas on "U Saved Me" the same reinvention of self can be achieved through prayer.

Yet, the debate established by the juxtaposition of the two albums is clearly not well balanced. While the salvation-through-Jesus position gets the last word and Kelly's many pleas and parables make a persuasive case, U Saved Me just isn't as strong a record as Happy People. The first disc finds Kelly honing his already well developed skills at creating effortless dance hooks, but on the second disc Kelly seems to be trapped in staid evangelical idioms and drowning in itchy church choir robes. If Happy People is a fresh reappraisal of funk-based dance music, U Saved Me is a retro velvet hologram Jesus mistakenly salvaged from the trash bin. The beats are dirge-like and uninspired, as what once felt open and airy now feels hollow. Every track features the same wandering melody and preachy lyrics and are barely distinguishable by the timbres shifted into place on what sounds like a pre-programmed Casio keyboard. There are few highlights to speak of, with two shining exceptions. "How Did You Manage" is a dark and tremulous homage to faith and self-doubt that is both musically compelling and lyrically graceful, and proof that Kelly has the potential to write meaningful gospel and not repetitive self-righteous schlock. "3-Way Phone Call" also stands out, a fascinating mini-opera that may have actually achieved the "pocket symphony" concept of Brian Wilson, but that doesn't make it a popular chart-topper.

Regardless of the album's shortcomings, the time was clearly right for R. Kelly to reinvigorate the dance scene and enliven popular public discourse with both optimism and faith. Kelly tactfully sidesteps overt political rhetoric and sexual scandal, but makes it clear that if we want to live together in peace and harmony we must quit hating on one another. Perhaps the most pessimistic observation one could make is that people just aren't that happy any more, and so, as Kelly asserts "this album is going to change things". In some ways, this is one of the most comprehensive dance albums because it refuses to stop just short of prescribing a remedy other than mere escapism. On the other hand, the devil is in the details, and time will tell whether or not Kelly can find an audience for his monotonous pop evangelism.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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