The mark of a true artist is the willingness to experiment within ones chosen medium. It's this kind of dedication to craft and change that has given the world blessed talents like Picasso, Marvin Gaye and Toni Morrison. Yet, in the postmodern era of soul music, the number of artists with the desire to go beyond the expected can be counted on one hand.
Without a doubt, Chicago native R. Kelly leads the pack when it comes to rhythmic innovators. Ever since his first solo masterwork 12 Play, R. Kelly has proven that he is unafraid of challenging himself either on the mic or in the studio. As he recently told the readers of America magazine, "I'm not just a guy who does R&B, not just a guy who does pop. You can look at me like a movie director. I might make an action movie one day, I might make an inspirational movie about a person going to church to get their life together the next. I just come up with concepts."
From the street beats heard in collaborations with Jay-Z (The Best of Both Worlds) and teen pop of B2K ("Bump, Bump, Bump") to the symphonic pop he's constructed for Michael Jackson ("You Are Not Alone"), as well as his own classics ("I Believe I Can Fly", "When A Woman's Fed Up"), R. Kelly has no problem slipping into various musical personas.
As prolific as he is talented, R. Kelly's eighth album (and second double-album) Happy People/U Saved Me takes the listener on a joyful journey from the wildness of Saturday night stepping to content peacefulness of prayer on a Sunday morning. While straddling the thin line between party music and sacred soundtracks has been a part of the soul man dilemma since the days of Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, this windy city bro has way of making both sonic genres seem like a religious experience.
After introducing the world beyond the borders of Chi-town to the bliss of "Stepping" (a dance craze that began on the South, but has since become worldwide), R. Kelly has decided to take a return trip into the danceland utopia that has couples doing more swinging and swaying since the days of the Hustle.
Never one to half step, R. Kelly has created an entire disc of dancecentric tracks called Happy People. Indeed, this is music, as Kelly passionately says on the thrilling "Weatherman," the opening track, "This is music designed to touch your soul and put your spirit at ease." With a hypnotic title track that also serves as the first single, Happy People is bound to become a Chi-town classic.
Taking on the role of a radio jock who intros each track with a little DJ babble, R. Kelly is able to talk about many subjects within the context of stepping grooves. From the glare of fame on the stunning "Red Carpet (Pause, Flash)" to the examining personal relationships on the beautiful "Love Signals," our man in Chicago leaves little unsaid. "Stepping is therapy," R. Kelly boldly states on "Love Signals," giving one the impression that all of life's problems can be worked out on the dance floor.
Recruiting legendary strings arranger Larry Gold, who has worked with artists ranging from The O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and The Roots, the duo manage to soar on the majestic "The Greatest Show on Earth." Combining Gold's stirring strings arrangements with R.Kelly's own sense of drama, "The Greatest Show on Earth" proves to be the centerpiece of this perfect disc.
From the relentless beats that move your feet on Saturday night to bathing in the Lord's sanctified light on Sunday morning, R. Kelly switches gears on the second disc U Saved Me. Indeed, from Al Green to Donny Hathaway, many R&B artists have been pulled between the proverbial secular and sacred.
While other artists might be content name-checking the Lord at award shows and on the back of CD covers, R. Kelly has decided to dive deeper into the sonic seas of redemption and baptize himself in the celestial light. As writer Rob Marriott once pointed out, "R. Kelly can church it out with the best of them."
Opening the U Saved Me disc with the urban operatic "3-Way Phone Call," featuring Kelly Price, Kim Burrell and Maurice Mahon, R. Kelly tries to ease his troubled mind by conversation and testifying with friends. Leading us the path to glory, this tearful track is both melodramatic and grounded, this track begins the cycle that is U Saved Me. Segueing into the title track, we are introduced to the remainder of the congregation in this aural church.
"U Saved Me" is an ingenious testimony from the points of views of various (drunks, drug dealers, etal) problem personalities. From the preacher in the pulpit to flamboyant hats on the heads of old women to the soaring choir rocking and clapping and swaying to the Baptist beat, the genius of U Saved Me is its ability to conjure the beauty of Sunday morning in song. "I surrender to you," he croons on "I Surrender," and one can almost see rays of light beaming through stained glass windows.
On the last track "Peace," R. Kelly experiments with African cadences combining the tribal beats with his own divine sounds. "Shine your light on me," R. Kelly pleads, showing us that no matter how big we think we are, we're all small in the eyes of the Lord." Fuelled by the power of prayer and remarkable rhythm, as Kelly confesses on the standout track "Prayer Changes," the R. has crafted ten tracks that will make one feel the light of inspiration.
Showing two sides of one man, Happy People/U Saved Me is a daring audio document of R. Kelly's duel life in the big city: of weekend strutting and Sunday morning kneeling; of multicolored gators stepping after midnight and silk cloaked choirs singing at dawn. As usual, R. Kelly is boldly going where most soul stars fear to tread. Can we get an Amen?