R. Kelly wouldn't recognize irony if it knocked down his door and arrested him as a child pornographer. A supremely unselfconscious writer and performer, he invests his cornball lyrics, honeyed come-ons, and saccharine sentiments with such unrestrained conviction that they never feel calculated. For Kelly, clichés qualify as profound universal truths, and too cheesy is seldom cheesy enough. On U Saved Me's story-song "3 Way Phone Call," he receives a concerned phone call from his sister, who recommends they hook up with her "prayer buddy" for some two-on-one spiritual phone action. Of course, most pop stars would regard the idea of reaching out to a "prayer buddy" in a time of need vomit-inducingly Pollyanna-like, but in Kelly's world, cynicism is as foreign as shame, and contacting a prayer buddy qualifies as an act of compassion that yields monumental rewards.
On the gospel half of his new double-disc set, Happy People/U Saved Me, Kelly hard-sells faith with the same purple passion and ham-fisted appeals to emotion he's previously used to peddleto borrow from one of his subtler song titles"The Greatest Sex." Kelly's spiritual spiels often come couched in appeals to self-interest. In back-to-back tracks (the title song and "Prayer Changes"), faith overcomes, in short order, alcoholism and a seemingly fatal accident, unemployment, criminality, cancer, abusive relationships, poor grades, and the hardships of a troubled marriage. In Kelly's black-and-white worldview, Jesus isn't just dependable; he damn near comes with a money-back guarantee.
U Saved Me runs out of inspiration, divine or otherwise, well before its final song ("Peace," which sounds depressingly like an outtake from the Lion King soundtrack). But that isn't the case with Happy People, the set's psychotically upbeat first disc. An album that makes Up With People sound like Joy Division, Happy People embraces an ecstatic brand of cheerfulness so far removed from the realities of everyday life that it creates a kind of altered state. Forget rose-colored glasses: On the album's first disc, Kelly views the world through a hazy prism of pixie dust, rainbows, and candy waterfalls. Reining in his trademark lasciviousness for the brassy showmanship of an overly ingratiating wedding singer, Kelly has crafted an album of buttery, joyful, unabashedly poppy soul that demands to be played at weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and bar mitzvahs. Happy People isn't seductive in spite of being cheap, plastic, and deluded. It's seductive precisely because it's so cheap, plastic, and deluded.