Throughout his Grammy-winning career, R. Kelly has often sought to portray himself as a man torn between the willingness of his spirit and the weaknesses of his flesh, but frankly, it's never seemed much of a battle. Sure, Kelly has created soaring Sunday choir anthems such as "I Believe I Can Fly," yet he's never more convincing than when his indefatigable libido is running amok on such songs as last year's inescapable "Ignition."
Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that Kelly's well-practiced duality would need to stretch out on a double album with two distinct agendas -- the upbeat, danceable "Happy People" and the more melodramatic, contemporary gospel of "U Saved Me."
On "Happy People," Kelly presents himself as a pied piper of positive vibes. The world's a wonderful place, full of love, glad tidings, and, Kelly assumes, lots of people smitten with his midtempo club hit "Step in the Name of Love," since that's the primary groove on the album.
From anyone else facing multiple child pornography charges -- as Kelly, still awaiting trial, has been since early 2002 -- all this perkiness could come across as naive, if not downright nutty. But Kelly's giddiness could be genuine. Not only has his career not been damaged by the allegations, he'sprospered, winning awards and selling millions of records. Even his "Best of Both Worlds" tour with Jay-Z, once aborted because of Kelly's legal problems, is back on track and set to go next month in the singer's native Chicago.
So don't scoff at Kelly's upbeat, what-me-worry mood. Rarely has he sounded so lighthearted and at ease as he does on such songs as "Weatherman," "Love Signals," and `If I Could Make the World Dance." It's infectious and pleasant, but it also has a lulling effect since there isn't much rhythmic variation among the songs. The one exception is the string-laden "The Greatest Show on Earth," the second line of which has clothes hitting the floor. No, he isn't singing about the circus.
Although a bedroom ballad, it's still pretty tame compared with some of his older material. Still, by disc two, "U Saved Me," Kelly feels the need to repent. On "3-Way Phone Call," featuring Kelly Price as a devoted friend and Kim Burrell as Price's "prayer buddy," Kelly is a man trying to mask his tribulations as others reach out to him. Heartfelt as R. Kelly probably wants this to be, the song feels a bit creepy. While he's never been short on nerve, one still has to ponder how he could write the line (which Price sings), "Rob, God will forgive you for your sins."
On "Prayer Changes," Kelly extols the power of chats with the almighty as a cure-all for whatever ails you, from a failing marriage to bad grades. With Kelly's straight-ahead writing style -- lyrically, he's never been big on nuance or subtlety -- the song sounds as if God has a drive-through express service window.
As always, Kelly has produced these songs to a fine shimmer, but his incessant supplication wears thin. And he does himself no favors with his heavy-handed approach as a troubled soul, primed for redemption, whose feet are now firmly planted on the path of righteousness. He never refers directly to his ongoing legal difficulties, but they hang over "U Saved Me" like a shroud. Between all the gospel sweeps and crescendos, and there are plenty, Kelly comes across as a reformed bad boy pleading his case even before his trial has begun.
Then again, faced with the dire possibility of serious jail time, Kelly may well be a man as much in need of the Lord as of a good team of lawyers.