Ever since Ray Charles wailed the sanctified booty call of “I Got a Woman,” gospel has been a volatile part of black pop. An R&B bump-and-grind man like R. Kelly can try his hand at gospel moves — even sneaking the line “leaning on the everlasting arms” into the theme for a Bugs Bunny movie — while minister Kirk Franklin works the other side of the street, taking his spiritual jones into funky territory. Franklin made noise last year on the God’s Property smash “Stomp,” bellowing preacherly invocations while a choir sang hooks from an old disco hit or two. His fourth album, The Nu Nation Project, is the big payback: After decades of soul singers and rappers borrowing church flava, Franklin calls in the IOUs for his hip-hop gospel.
Nu Nation gets pop juice from R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige and Bono, all of whom guest on the ballad “Lean on Me.” But Franklin is the real star here, sampling P-Funk, rewriting Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” and just getting his praise on. He revisits the hip-hop boom of “Stomp” in “Revolution” and “Praise Joint”; meanwhile, “Something About the Name Jesus” offers more trad, down-home harmonizing. Franklin raps, sings, produces and generally moguls around. (He even has a new book, Church Boy, somewhat quizzically billed as his “only authorized autobiography.”) Nu Nation gets an amen for trashing musical boundaries, and it sure has a catchier beat than Marilyn Manson.
R. Kelly puts a lot of church into his music — even in salacious ballads like “Half on a Baby” — and that’s just part of his always-wearing-shades allure. The mystery man spends his excellent double album, R., proving that he can do it all: He rhymes with Jay-Z and Foxy Brown; he croons with Celine Dion; he goofs on tango and opera; he speaks fluent pillow talk in every pop dialect. R. gets the party started with “Home Alone,” which features rapper Keith Murray, Sugarhill sound effects and Off the Wall-style disco guitar as Kelly voices his intention to “freak you to the floor.” But he also scores in smooch ballads like “Get Up on a Room,” whispering, “Baby … we’re both just sittin’ here … we need to get somewhere … private” until you’re ready to toss him the keys. He also tries his hand at yodeling, for reasons known only to the man called R. himself.
Once upon a time, Kelly’s productions for other singers, such as Aaliyah and Changing Faces, were inevitably livelier than his own records, but success seems to have fired up his brilliance — you take the R. Kelly who sings the drippy ballads and the R. Kelly who rides his pony through the funk jams and you’ve got two of the most lethal musicians on the planet. His overly Mase-style rapping aside, Kelly covers every base: beats, melodies, vocals, production, enigmatic-bald-guy cool, lyrics. Yes, lyrics — Kelly faces up to the bleak conscience of a do-wrong man in confessions that put Elvis Costello to shame, especially in “One Man,” “When a Woman’s Fed Up” and “Down Low Double Life.” You can hear that Kelly really does believe in sin, and that gives him moral weight in gospel moves like “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time.”
Every guest star who enters Kelly’s parlor emerges better for the experience — even Celine Dion, the human anti-NAFTA petition whose dancing on the VH1 Divas special cried out for stricter work-visa controls. And he tops it all with “I Believe I Can Fly,” a modern standard so ruthlessly inspirational, it makes “The Greatest Love of All” sound like “Welcome to the Jungle.” For the five minutes of “I Believe,” you hear seasons change, tides turn and colts grow into stallions; Dorothy returns to Kansas, Moses beholds the Promised Land, Babar is crowned king of the elephants, Aeneas reaches Rome. There’s no point getting sick of the song now, since you’ll be hearing it in commercials, grade-school talent shows, figure-skating exhibitions and Very Special Episodes for the rest of your born days. It sums up R. Kelly’s fulsome pop outreach — like his man Kirk Franklin, he wants to sing the sacred, but he doesn’t sleep on the profane. At heart, R. Kelly really just wants it all, and he gets all his fascinating musical and spiritual contradictions together on R., suffering for his sins and savoring every minute of it.