Happy People / U Saved Me
he Pied Piper, as the story goes, came to the town of Hamelin in 1284 playing his flute and swiftly cured its rat plague. After refusing to pay him for his services, the Piper came into town the next Sunday and played the same tune on his flute, luring all of the children to nearby mountains (while their parents were in church) and into a cave which closed as the last one stepped inside. They were never seen again.
The Pied Piper of R & B has now been in public for a little over a decade, releasing six solo albums, appearing on countless others and ghostwriting a chunk of the Billboard R & B hits along the way. And now the Piper returns with a double album divided into two distinct portions. The first, Happy People, lures the children to the club with its steppin’ sound and the second, U Saved Me, keeps the adults in church with a collection of inspirational songs.
The mood for both is, in a word, joyous. A mood that emerges on record at a strange time, considering that Kelly is still facing criminal charges in Chicago for a now infamous child pornography tape. But it also makes sense, because for the first time in his career Kelly has actively toned down the raunch and reached for the soul of his audience. He’s traded it in for the aforementioned joyousness, gracefully going to pains to acknowledge the temptations he faces on Happy People and to in turn repent for them on U Saved Me.
The former is the more obviously successful of the two, being a slight tweaking of his well-established formula. But instead of mining for the newest productions and high-profile collaborators, Kelly goes it alone on both accounts. For the music, he employs a house band that colors the proceedings with a healthy slice of the 70s funk and soul—making the connection explicit at the ending of “If I Can Make the World Dance” when he mentions that he wrote the song for Marvin Gaye and that “Love Street” was influenced by the sounds of Quiet Storm bastion Frankie Beverly. Lyrically, he’s in typical form: unleashing elaborate metaphors when needed (the aforementioned “Love Street”, “Red Carpet (Pause, Flash)” and opener “Weatherman”). Luckily, each is backed by infectious step rhythms allowing one to gloss over the sometimes clumsy comparisons to the subject of the song. Some of the more straightforward songs on the disc are not as lucky, however.
It’s not the not the fault of the lyrics necessarily. But when Kelly slows things down for a mid-album break of “If” and “The Greatest Show on Earth” the nearly giddy mood set forth in the opening salvo of steppin’ tracks is stopped in its path. And while “If” does suffer from some unfortunate lyrics, “The Greatest Show on Earth” only suffers from its liberal doses of swelling strings and piano trills that are over-the-top, even for Kelly.
But it’s really nothing compared to the second disc’s genuflection to sentimentalism. U Saved Me is its title track’s video to the nth degree: strange; sometimes frightening; sometimes laughable; a bit seedy and always, oddly, defiantly uplifting.
The album begins with the trinity of “Three Way Phone Call”, “U Saved Me” and “Prayer Changes”, which lays out the map for the entire record. On these songs Kelly engages in character sketches, unabashed balladering and inspirational hooks. Each employ ever-swelling crescendos leading into massive choruses that feel more like hosannas than actual song.
But, as might be expected, in its latter half, the preaching begins to take its toll. And it’s easy to see why. With the stripped down production highlighting Kelly’s vocal and lyrical acrobatics, it’s hard to focus on much more than the lyrical content. When tracks like “Peace” and “I Surrender” boast both interesting production and lyrics to match it works. But on, say, “Leap of Faith” and “Spirit” the Piper falls flat.
Despite the second record’s greater inconsistency, it nearly matches up content-wise to its cousin. When taken in concert with one another, it works even better. But is it good enough to match up to Kelly’s best work? There are singles aplenty: “Prayer Changes” and “Red Carpet (Pause, Flash)” could easily attain the heights of the lead singles from the album and, as coherent statements, the album’s better any of Kelly’s previous work. But something still nags. Where exactly is this Pied Piper leading us in the end? Why do we have this smile plastered to our face as we step along? Why do we empathizeso easily while hearing about his trials and tribulations? It’s the magic of the Pied Piper. And it’s in full effect.