The impulse to write off R. Kelly, to reduce his records to mere by-products of a probably irretrievably damaged public image—for good reason, given the child-molestation charges against him and the plausibility of those charges—is easy for folks who can’t be bothered to actually listen to his records. I was one of those people for a long time, until I downloaded “Ignition Remix” from iTunes after reading about it so damn much, particularly on the I Love Music message board. The music that’s provided me the most sustenance over the past two months has been Kelly’s—namely, both “Step in the Name of Love” and its remix, programmed next to each other on my iPod and together constituting a groove epic that starts simple and keeps blossoming; Kelly’s exhortations take on a preacherly cast near the end of the remix, and when he reaches full flight, it’s so overwhelming it’s a shock.
“Happy People” is the semiofficial third part of the series—”Ladies and gentlemen, this here’s another one for all the steppers,” Kelly announces at the top, while the groove is yet another reconstitution of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” only moving disco-ward (hi-hat sweep more prevalent than bass bump). Where “Step” and “Remix” strip-mined the classic R&B bump, filling out seemingly empty spaces with as little as possible without making it seem like you were just hearing air, here he’s luxurious: lithe guitars wah-wahing on the offbeat, subtle conga fills, the same strings and flute on “Remix” only turned about 45 degrees, and, crucially, a plethora of slightly differing vocal overdubs that give his soul-shouter side less room but make up for it in two-part harmonies that nag a little and cushion everywhere else.
You’d think playing this groove out for not one, not two, but three singles that repeat more or less the same lines and rhythmic/coloration ideas in the space of a year would get tiresome. It probably would in lesser hands. But Kelly is committed to, obsessed with, exploring every nuance of that groove—add a fillip here, cut the bass line back there, approach the singing differently. “Remix” was a masterpiece of soul-shouter intensity, but on “People” he barely raises his voice, preferring a light croon that’s almost middle-of-the-road. What sets it apart is that he does it a bunch of times, all at once—usually, there’s six or so vocals going on, including a simple two-part doo-wop “whoa” that anchors the background. Then the breakdown: “Uh. Uh. Uh. All right. Uh-huh,” he begins, right on the beat, as deadpan as Kelis only more understated and maybe sexier. “Now if you wanna step/You gotta play it by the rules/You gotta do what I do/When I do/What I do.” It sets you up for a reprise, one at a time, of those multiple vocals, in particular the harmonies. It’s definitely a coda—he’d probably be a fool if he tried to extend this groove any further, which isn’t going to stop me from wanting to hear it if he does. And let’s be thankful for this much: Unlike “Remix,” this time around he doesn’t mention the Pied Piper at all.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get to Bollywood”
(Be Like Water 7-inch, U.K.)
Here’s a great idea: Instead of just using Weblogs to discuss and debate music, why not use them to disseminate music as well? Granted, plenty of bloggers have been hosting occasional MP3s and/or .wav files on their sites for years, but in the past few months there’s been a concentrated wave of folks who devote their energies to bringing you the goods—one or two a day, usually up for a limited time, and, of course, carrying the disclaimer that you’re supposed to erase the material from your hard drive once you’ve gone out and bought the thing, ahem ahem, yes yes, (clears throat). The best I’ve encountered so far is Fluxblog, the dominion of New Yorker Matthew Perpetua, who posted this sweet little Michael Jackson remake the other week. (It’s probably gone now, since like most MP3 bloggers Perpetua only keeps things up for a limited time, though it’s also on Tom Middleton’s forthcoming mix CD, The Trip.) According to Mike of the excellent blog Troubled Diva, “Don’t Stop” is a lightly remixed version of “Chhupke Kaun Aya,” a 1981 track by Usha Uthup, a Bollywood “playback singer,” the common term for the vocalists who fuel India’s massive film industry (some 800 movies a year, most of which are musicals). Kitschy, sure, but when has that ever gotten in the way of good disco?