Steppin' Wolf

Super-freak turns smooth and frothy Jesus freak, tries to prove he's not your steppin' stone

Now, you may have heard some rumors about R. Kelly. Certain of his alleged untoward tendencies have been brought to the public's attention via—of all things—the Internet. The consequences have been disastrous: Kelly was asked not to perform at a Congressional Black Caucus fundraiser in September, and his eighth album, Happy People/U Saved Me, only hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 (2003's The Chocolate Factory nailed No. 1). On second thought, maybe things haven't been so bad after all. Indeed, no matter how low their budget or questionable their taste, his videos are always very popular, he still manages to pull off that weird Zorro mask, and he's touring with Jay-Z (they're playing MSG Friday and Saturday). So why has the super-freak gone Jesus freak?

Happy People/U Saved Me is a low-concept two-disc set, with one song for each of the original 21 child-porn charges brought against him (seven have since been dropped). Chicago stepping soundtrack Happy People is, if this is possible, the smoothest and frothiest album of the year. U Saved Me is chicken soup for the soul man. Its born-again ballads are fundamentally frothy, in their heavy-handed, gospel-tinged way. But for one only somewhat explicit track ("The Greatest Show on Earth," in which—I'm guessing you ladies won't mind—the ringmaster pursues your "spot"), the discs either hew to the ballroom or the basilica—not the bedroom (or the basement). Though lots of people assume carnality is all Kelly's got, this album proves otherwise. His beats and voice have morphed to match the mood, but a tiger in the sack doesn't change his stripes. And really, who needs to know he's sticking his key in her ignition when we can hear the engine purring?

I often feel for the wrong guy; it's an emotional underdog thing. The vice presidential debate even humanized Dick Cheney for me, particularly in the way that he seemed to rue betraying his lesbian daughter. R. Kelly is probably a very bad person, but I tend to think of him in tragic-figure terms, as somebody who is illiterate (so reports Vibe) and who never got over the death of his mother. He says he identifies with Elvis Presley (with whom he shares a birthday)—fine. He also identifies with Osama bin Laden (with whom he admittedly shares a reputation for appearing online in disturbing footage)—hello. Is he gonna end up in prison or getting pills handed to him in a little plastic cup?

R. Kelly's not a reverend, and that's what appeals about his preaching: You can hear his struggles with faith even in his boilerplate. And unlike Mase, Al Green, or even the de-freaked Prince, dude doesn't have to disappear to take up with his God. He doesn't believe in a puritanical existence, either. The Happy Peopledisc is utterly hedonistic: warm, breezy, and a clean break from hip-hop's and r&b's experimental riddim idiom. Every song is a stepper. Rap started when DJs isolated the breaks. Stepping—a Chicago style mostly danced to by blacks over 30 (check out the positively mature ballroom video for "Happy People")—sounds like loops of smooth funk outros, easy and eternal. There are no micro or macro dynamic shifts. Kelly butters the muffin; melody and groove mingle as he babbles positivity, from the sub-Sesame sentiment "Love Street" to "It's Your Birthday" (great songs both). The stepping style is so likable here that it hardly occurs to you how original, in a radio context, it truly is.

Kelly doses U Saved Me, much less consistent and predictably cloying in churchy, piano-laden parts, with all the drama Happy People so effectively glosses over. Call it 12 stepping. But as on disc one, even the hoariest instructionals transcend the pulpit. God fucking cures cancer, domestic abuse, and a college baller's bad grades in the choir-revved "Prayer Changes" and "U Saved Me," and yet the unmistakably pop uplift raises all boats—not just, say, Noah's ark. R. Kelly may be sunk, but you'd never know it.

 
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