Defenders of R. Kelly implore listeners to separate the music from the man, which is a good rule to follow in general, but the specifics of his case make it a little harder to do. If the child pornography allegations leveled against him weren't so heinous (not to mention detailed and allegedly supported by videotapes), and if he weren't so quick to paint himself as a martyr -- highlighted by, but not limited to, him bizarrely empathizing with Osama Bin Laden in a 2003 interview with Blender Magazine -- it might be easier to ignore his trials and tribulations and focus on the art. Of course, a whirlwind of similar charges, including an annulled marriage to the teenage Aaliyah, doesn't exactly help matters either, nor does his music. His catalog is soaked in sex and gleefully shallow, celebrating the pleasures of the moment, whether it's carnal ("Bump n' Grind") or corny ("I Believe I Can Fly"). The heightened graphic sexuality of his oeuvre feeds suspicions that the allegations, even if they can't be proved, have weight, which makes it very hard for some listeners to hear Kelly's music without thinking of the scandals.
And, when it comes down to it, Kelly doesn't really want you to forget those scandals either. Without them, he can't play the martyr, which he eagerly does, both directly and indirectly, on the music he's made since the scandal. Instead of getting defiant -- as did Michael Jackson, when he attacked prosecutor Tom Sneddon in the embarrassing, barely veiled "D.S." -- Kelly spins his notoriety for sympathy, acknowledging that he's a flawed man and a sinner, but he believes in God and he's just looking for love and peace. That, in a nutshell, are the themes of Happy People/U Saved Me, a double disc containing two distinct albums (just like OutKast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below). The first, Happy People, is a seductive, late-night album about positivity and love, the second all about salvation and God. This is no coincidence. Kelly is heading off any allegations that he's a criminal by painting himself as a saved sinner who still struggles with temptation, struggles that are chronicled joyfully on Happy People and with remorse on U Saved Me. It's hard not to believe this character redefinition is a calculated move -- not in the least because it coincides with the lack of a Parental Warning label and a noticeable abandonment of his trademark explicitness -- designed to strengthen the fans, lure the listeners who don't care, and win over, if not skeptics, at least potential jurors.
On both Happy People and U Saved Me Kelly's motives are transparent as they were on "Sex Me" -- there's never been much subtext to his music, which makes his newfound sincerity suspect, particularly on the religious U Saved Me. He may switch the specific sins -- instead of a pedophile and pornographer, he's a drunk driver on the title track, merely a rogue on "How Did You Manage" -- in effort to absolve himself of guilt from any real-life accusations, yet this still gives him the opportunity to ask for forgiveness for any number of unnamed sins. No matter how Kelly pleas for forgiveness though, he's singing as if he's already been saved, as if he's taken salvation for granted. That's the essence of U Saved Me: it's one of the rare religious albums where it's all about the man, not the Lord. In contrast, Happy People is all about the women and, at times, the healing power of love. It's a seduction record and seduction has always been Kelly's strength, so it shouldn't be a huge surprise that it, overall, is the more successful album of the two, the one that sustains its romantic mood and delivers it with stylish economy. As a record, it's assured and coherent, with little flab and a consistent vision; it's one of his strongest efforts. But U Saved Me isn't far behind as a cohesive work either, perhaps lacking the hooks of its companion, but never deviating from its religious schmaltz, which is delivered with the conviction of a good carnival huckster.
Since Happy People/U Saved Me delivers two distinct and cohesive albums, it could conceivably offer further ammunition for those defenders of Kelly who claim that he's made the best music of his career when under fire. There's some validity to that argument. Kelly has shrugged off the celeb cameos that littered his prescandal work (though, be honest, would Celine Dion guest on an R. Kelly record these days?), and he's turned away from any contemporary beats, relying on the classic '70s soul that has always been at the core of his best music. He's turned inward, and that insularity has helped focus him, giving Happy People the feel of an old-school loverman record and U Saved Me a saccharine piety, qualities which enhance both records. But the problem with Kelly the musician remains the same -- he's a record-maker, not a songwriter, crafting grooves and sounds that may be seductive but have no substance whatsoever. He has genuine skills as a record-maker, as Happy People proves better than nearly any of his other albums, but those skills support music that's decidedly flimsy and falls apart upon close listening, when the hooks seem threadbare and the sentiments are either sleazy, self-pitying, or a repellant mixture of both. Happy People/U Saved Me capture this flaw better than nearly any of Kelly's work, which might make it a definitive work of sorts since he's at the top of his game as both a craftsman and conman. For those that believe the con, it's as seductive as ever, but for those that see through his act, it's harder than ever to stomach.