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Pied Piper has lost his touch

Joe Meixell | Thursday, September 2, 2004

For more than a decade R. Kelly has been the King of R&B.

The Pied Piper, the moniker which Kelly currently uses, has more No. 1 hits than any comparable artist of his genre and has won numerous Grammys and Soul Train Awards along the way. Much like his literary counterpart, Kelly has enchanted the public with his music. By exploring such topics as sex, lust, love, gang violence and Christianity, he has gained a diverse following including devout R&B fans and teeny-boppers. The same man who created the raunchy sex-anthems, “Bump and Grind,” “You Remind of Something” and “Feelin’ on Yo Booty” also generated such inspirational hits as ” I Believe I Can Fly” and “The World’s Greatest.” Still, with so much success, Kelly has had his fair share of problems. The much-publicized R. Kelly Sex Tape of 2002 accompanied his recent indictment for sexual misconduct with a minor. Such transgressions have done much to damage the singers’ reputation and ultimately jeopardize his career.

R. Kelly’s new work, “Happy People/ U Saved Me,” represents an emphatic appeal to the public for a second chance. The double CD, unlike his previous efforts, attempts to reconcile Kelly with his fans by avoiding all sexual overtones and ramping up the “I am a sinner and God is good” mantra. The balladeer tries his best to let the listener know he is sorry for his mistakes and grateful for the opportunity to redeem himself. Nevertheless, since the CD is so unlike Kelly’s other works, one is never really sure if it’s a public relations move or an actual movement towards Christ by the Pied Piper.

At any length, the first album, “Happy People,” displays why Kelly has clearly lost his way. The album is a collection of 11 songs whose main purpose, as stated by Kelly too many times in the introduction of each song, is to make the listener dance. Nearly every song employs what has become known as the Chicago step beat: a slow relaxed groove reminiscent of some of Frankie Beverly’s work. With his songs titled “Love Street,” “Love Signals” and “Steppin’ into Heaven,” Kelly makes it obvious that by loving and “stepping” everyone can be happy. Despite the subject matter, every track ends ups sounding like a remix of the remix of “Step in the Name of Love” from Kelly’s last release, “Chocolate Factory”.

The lone standout on “Happy People” is Kelly’s tribute to Marvin Gaye, “If I Could Make the World Dance.” With its relaxed mellow beat and smooth melody, the song sounds a lot like Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.” Even the lyrics are reminiscent of Gaye’s call to peace: “Picture us in a land / where there is no more war / shakings hands with my brother / respecting my sister / I’m offering a dance that heals / a melody that you can feel / love is the key all it takes is you me / If I could make the world dance.” If only Kelly would realize how to make more songs like this song, he might actually get the listener to dance without having to ask or tell him or her to.

“U Saved Me,” the second disc, is what one might consider Kelly’s heartfelt apology. Each and every song is a gospel testimony for 2004. They use the lyrical styling often found on Kelly’s urban hits while surrounding them with lush contemporary R&B beats and melodies. Many of the songs focus entirely on the power of prayer. For example, “Prayer Changes” tells the story of a family suffering from numerous issues such as alcoholism, domestic violence, marital troubles and difficulties performing in school. The refrain of prayer changes lets the listener know prayer can make all things possible – even Kelly shedding the old role he embraced as a smooth-talking sex addict.

Overall, “Happy People / U Saved Me” reveals two significant things about Kelly. First, even though he is not quite the artist the world knew before the sex scandals, he is still capable of stringing together not one, but two albums that are below his old standards but not bad to listen to. Although the songs on both albums are somewhat repetitive in terms of both sound and message, the message itself will appeal to Kelly’s core listeners and will even get a few people to dance.

Nonetheless, these albums demonstrate Kelly’s difficulty in reconciling his past transgressions and his Christian faith with his pop icon status. No longer is he willing to explore sex in a manner few have ever attempted before or even move R&B in a slightly different direction. Thus Happy People/ U Saved Me begs the question: Will the Pied Piper ever be able to redeem himself after leading the children so far astray?