It’s official: R. Kelly has split up. His latest two-CD set has two titles and two missions: Happy People aims for dancing and romancing, while U Saved Me calls for fervent prayer. Instead of trying to mix his secular and devout sides, as he did on his 2003 album, Chocolate Factory, he has chosen to separate them almost completely.
Like so many rhythm & blues superstars — from Little Richard to Al Green to Prince — Kelly has long been a divided soul, endlessly trying to reconcile carnal impulses with Christian faith. Also like Prince, Kelly makes most of his music by himself in the studio, while drawing freely on the history of soul. There’s plenty of gospel in Kelly’s music, most obviously on his megahit “I Believe I Can Fly”; practically everything else, from 1995’s “Bump N’ Grind” to last year’s “Ignition,” is a smoldering make-out groove.
But in the earthly realm, Kelly has had nearly as much trouble as Michael Jackson. Since 2002, Kelly has faced pending charges of child pornography, stemming from a videotape that purportedly shows him having sex with an underage girl. His album after that, the suavely deranged Chocolate Factory, tossed together lust, tributes to monogamy, praise for God and a little bit of gunplay.The new double album, unfortunately, shows more control. Whether it’s a heartfelt conversion or his latest spin strategy, Kelly is doing his darnedest to stick to positive thoughts. He avoids the profanities that peppered Chocolate Factory, and he is committed to coming across as a nice guy.
Happy People, the disc aimed at radio and club play, shows a professional smoothie at work; it’s slick, insinuating and ultimately a little tepid. Nearly every song uses the rhythm of steppin’, the Chicago dance that Kelly is determined to spread to the world, making the disc sound like a spinoff of “Step in the Name of Love,” from Chocolate Factory. The steppin’ groove stays on the slow side of midtempo, and the subdued, steady pulse puts Kelly in full Marvin Gaye mode: not just the crooning but the invocation of love as both sexual intimacy and goal for mankind.
Kelly wants everyone to visit “Love Street” and to send out “Love Signals,” and he insists that universal concord would prevail “If I Could Make the World Dance.” He hasn’t given up come-ons — “The Greatest Show on Earth” is a slow-motion ballad set in his bedroom — but compared to his lubricious past, Kelly is downright PG this time around.
But the turbulent, soul-searching Kelly hasn’t disappeared. He’s all over the gospel testimonies on U Saved Me. “3-Way Phone Call,” which starts the disc, isn’t a menage a trois but a sung conversation in which two devout women, portrayed by Kelly Price (as Kelly’s “sister”) and Kim Burrell (as Price’s “prayer buddy”), cajole a reluctant Kelly into staying strong and praying harder. “Trouble follows me,” he moans; “Trouble can follow where you lead,” Price admonishes. Then, as the three voices entwine and rise, a simulated choir kicks in, Kelly pleads, “I’ve sinned/Forgive me!” and a grand crescendo resolves all doubt.
Kelly is the master of the ultraslow groove, and the songs on U Saved Me take their time, then use gospel’s strategic buildups to sweep Kelly toward faith. They tout prayer and salvation as miracle cures for alcoholism, cancer, unemployment, thuggery, domestic abuse, even a basketball player’s poor grades. And Kelly sounds humble throughout U Saved Me, as if he’s willing himself to believe as much out of desperation as conviction. “After I’ve been so bad, O Lord/How did you manage to forgive me?” he groans. It’s gospel testifying, not courtroom testimony, but where Happy People only exercises Kelly’s technique, U Saved Me adds some heart.