What Is Soul?

Not R. Kelly. Not anymore.

The Afro-Atlantic spiritual tradition gone mainstream. The voice of freedom. A ham hock in your cornflakes. All of these terms have been used to describe soul—the concept, the music, the expressionist modality. But how about this one: soul as a commodity. That’s what R. Kelly’s latest, Happy People/U Saved Me, is. Half breezy retro R&B and half contemporary gospel, it’s a feel-good pill, a slice of soul wallpaper. A smooth after-work cocktail that manages, just for a while, to keep your mind off the man mixing the drinks.

Soul music and commodity music don’t often intersect, but Kelly, with a little help from circumstance, has created a hybrid worthy of Fox Mulder’s attention; a soul album that you refuse to let into your soul. Commodity music offers you straightforward, no-frills ear candy: a dope beat, a cool melody, something to hum, work, and play to. Soul music, on the other hand, is all about connection and identification, participatory drama. An artist establishing a bond with his audience. Ask Mary J. Blige why her fans re-imagine her intonation lapses as “the sound of her pain.” Or Kelly why his fan base, throughout his two-year-long child porn/underage sex scandal, has insisted that we focus on the music, not the man.

But if soul music is truly about splicing art and life, separating the two leaves you with something less than either on its own. Kelly may be innocent until proven guilty, but those close to Kelly’s case have noticed maddening hints and word play in some of his tunes. His long-standing “Pied Piper” handle is too ironic to ignore—the Piper ends the classic fable by abducting all of a town’s children. And on U Saved Me’s ” Prayer Changes,” he assumes the character of a “young girl” in an “abusive” relationship.

Alrighty then. Better to ignore empathy altogether and just go for the straight head nod. Or, in this case, the kind of perfunctory “thank you Lord” most often associated with rap award shows (where winners thank the Almighty for blessing their ode to shaved pubises). That’s what makes this set ultimately a letdown. Kelly doesn’t open up much, and when he does, you feel as if you might get slimed if you stand too close.

Happy People is the more enjoyable disc mainly because it doesn’t require any real emotional connection. This is Kelly re-creating the silky soul of the Marvin Gaye/Frankie Beverly era (props to Kelly for name-checking the latter, one of the most mainstream-invisible of the classic ousters). Kelly’s fluency isn’t in question here—tunes like “Red Carpet (Pause, Flash)” and ” If I Could Make the World Dance” more than do justice to his influences. It also shows that commercialism has less to do with talent than inclination. Underground hip-hop heads relentlessly dissed rap artist Nas during his “Nas Escobar” phase, yet none was dumb enough to try to take him on in a rhyme battle, at least not without riot gear. Similarly, Kelly could have made this music earlier (if for no other reason than to winnow the bad seeds out of the “Nu-Soul” granary). He just chose not to. Now, with last year’s “Step in the Name of Love” still echoing off inanimate objects, he dives into the retro scene full-bore, with often-stellar results.

But Happy People isn’t soul music. It’s tribute paying, channeling, whatever you want to call it. Copping Marvin’s inflections doesn’t automatically make you heir to his social conscience. It is, however, a smart business move—snatching up the classic soul crowd, while counting on his upcoming tour with Jay-Z to update his thug love image.

Then again, Happy People can withstand a few cynical barbs. But U Saved Me rises and falls on your belief in Kelly’s sincerity. Gospel music values that quality even more than musical facility—believe otherwise, and you have turned a demonstration of faith and commitment into a floor show (and backhanded all the believers who can’t hold pitch).

Though U Saved Me has some fairly gorgeous moments, Kelly impresses you as a wayward soul not quite sure of the direction of his spirit. That’s at best. At worst, he comes off like a slick con man throwing a spiritual pity party; about as convincing as O.J. wearing a dashiki. Using religion as the last line of defense is a sure sign of depravity—true believers, as a friend once said, use it as their first. For Kelly, who has been referencing his gospel roots all his career, to decide to give his life to the Lord at this particular point seems just a bit convenient. Even if you are inclined (as is this two-service a week church musician) to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The disc-opening ” Three-Way Phone Call” recruits Kelly Price and Kim Burrelle for some spiritual counseling (utilizing the vaguely cheesy “singing conversation” approach Kelly resurrected on 1998’s “Down Low Double Life”), with the pair assuring Kelly that God “will forgive him for his sin.” But public confessions are inspiring only if one actually fesses up to something. Other than his complaints about people talking about him (I mean, how self-absorbed can you get?), Kelly’s vague allusions leave one with an unsatisfying sense that he is stressing over the fact that he has done something—he just isn’t going to tell you whether it’s worth seven minutes of gospel-musical melodrama. In fact, the disc should have been titled after its best tune—the Wonder-ish ” Diary of Me.” Kelly spends nearly as much time talking about his problems—asking that listeners pray for him, referring to his hardscrabble roots—as he does about the Lord.

Nothing wrong with prayer requests and testimonies, but the fans who have stuck by him over the past two years are probably already offering up prayers for him. Those who have convicted him in their minds probably are saving theirs for someone who isn’t a millionaire. The rest are probably just blasting Happy People while they go through their spring cleaning, or whistling the hook to ” How Did You Manage” in the middle of an interval training session on the treadmill, content to get a few sonic happy pills while waiting for all the dust to settle.