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R. Kelly seeks salvation, not 'Bump & Grind', on new album

‘Happy People/U Saved Me’ a mix of romantic jams, inspirational music, plus other reviews
/ Source: The Associated Press

R. Kelly turns his back on "Bump & Grind" for "Happy People", the kinder, gentler Ma$e, Steve Earle takes a stand, former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson puts thoughts to "Paper" and Nancy Wilson offers an elegant, sophisticated collection in this week's new releases.

“Happy People/U Saved Me,” R. KellyThough R. Kelly is known for writing gorgeous love songs and inspirational, thematic ballads, let’s face it — he’s also known as the King of Raunch. After all, this is the guy who, during a tour last year, teased the audience with a preview of a song that he said would be on his new album, titled “Sex In the Kitchen,” with the unforgettable lyric: “Sex in the kitchen, over by the stove, on the kitchen table, by the buttered rolls.”

If that’s the side of R. Kelly you love the most, then you may be disappointed by his new CD, “Happy People/U Saved Me.” There’s not a single “Bump & Grind” type song on the double-disc project.

On the first disc, “Happy People” he’s still vibing off last year’s “Step in the Name of Love” groove from the “Chocolate Factory” album: The 11 romantic jams on the “Happy People” side are reminiscent of that hustle track. The second disc, “U Saved Me,” is completely inspirational, featuring songs that would give Donnie McLurkin a run for his money.

Jive

Given that Kelly himself is still facing an uncertain future — he is awaiting trial on child pornography charges in Illinois — the material on the “U Saved Me” disc seems even more poignant.

The stirring “Prayer Changes,” much like the title track, talks about the power of God to reverse desperate situations. “When it seems you can’t go on, and all your strength is gone, go on it won’t be long, I know prayer is gonna change things” he sings feverently, backed by a choir. The emotional “How Did You Manage,” a broken sinner questions why God still has love for him. And “Diary of Me” sounds almost like a Stevie Wonder track, from Kelly’s vocals to the piano-centered melody.

“U Saved Me” is definitely the better of the two discs. “Happy People,” both the title track and actually much of that entire album, sounds like various remixes of “Step in the Name of Love.” But that’s part of Kelly’s gift — remaking past grooves, wrapping them back up to us and still managing to make them seem like something fresh. Though the tunes sound familiar, they’re still engaging.

Alas, there are no freaky-deek songs that R. Kelly fans have come to know and crave. But a true artist doesn’t need sex to sell his music — and maybe, Kelly is finally realizing that.— Nekesa Mumbi Moody

“Welcome Back,” MaseMase has converted his comeback album, “Welcome Back,” into a spectacular act of hip-hop subversion.

His born-again Christian lifestyle — no to drugs, yes to monogamy — is folded into the same impossibly catchy, sample-heavy soundscapes he once used to request a “quickie” with “no hickeys, ’cuz wifey’s with me.”

Five years after walking away from music to lead a ministry, he’s done charming the pants off fans. As proof, he even samples Jermaine Stewart’s chaste 1980s hit “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” on “Keep It On.”

The former P. Diddy protege is still wealth-obsessed. Only now a certain percentage goes to the church, not a new Benz. “I got to preach, I got to tithe, so I need my money right, right now,” he raps on “I Owe.”

Such themes go courageously against the grain of party rap. And they almost get this 12-track CD tossed in the Christian bin, where fervent religious messages can overshadow the music.

But Pastor Mason D. Betha knows when to let his old Harlemite out, having shoulder-dipping fun on “Breathe, Stretch, Shake” and “My Harlem Lullaby,” which hilariously interpolates Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.”

He evokes nostalgia on the languid chorus of “Do You Remember,” but doesn’t really need it. Songs like the Rick Rock-produced “Into What You Say” and disco-driven “Money Comes and Goes” are so addictive you just might forget those shiny suits, and forgive Mase a little for his current holier-than-thou attitude.

Ma$e is doing what he does best, with a religious twist, and fans of his reliably unhurried flow should welcome this intriguing album.— Ryan Pearson

“The Revolution Starts Now,” Steve Earle
One thing’s certain: Steve Earle hasn’t started trying to win over Toby Keith’s audience.

Artemis

Earle’s latest, “The Revolution Starts Now,” is even more deeply political than his 2002 album “Jerusalem.” It’s also more uneven.

It’s one thing for Earle to take a stand; despite the pasting he took for “John Walker’s Blues,” musicians’ political musings — be they Earle’s from the left or Keith’s from the right — are crucial to the national discourse. The problem with “Revolution” is that music sometimes takes a back seat to message.

Intense beats and fatalistic background instrumentals evoke a country past its prime, wandering into the darkness. But the material vacillates wildly between genius and The Taking Of A Stand.

The memorable “Rich Man’s War” juxtaposes American GIs and a Palestinian suicide bomber. The spoken-word “Warrior” is almost impenetrable. Other tracks are populated with cynical politicians, lying colonels and young men manipulated by larger forces. He offers up a whimsical, insolent mash note to Condoleezza Rice (“People say you’re cold, but I think you’re hot.”). And as with “Jerusalem,” he saves his best song — “The Seeker” — for the end.

“I used to listen to the radio,” Earle sings in “F the CC,” “and I don’t guess they’re listening to me no more.” But as long as he keeps his musical standards up, there’s a crucial place in our “Oops! ... I Did It Again” world for his take on life.— Ted Anthony

“Paper,” Rich Robinson
Sure, the nonconformist Black Crowes broke up in 2002, but they haven’t gone into hiding. Frontman and Kate Hudson arm candy Chris Robinson ventured out for his second solo CD last June. And now, little brother and former Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson puts down his thoughts on the refreshingly retro “Paper.”

Keyhole

On first listen, the 14-track CD is a time capsule of coarse rock, conjuring up artists such as Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd. On second listen, it’s an engaging entry from someone who should’ve stepped away from the pack earlier.

This is Robinson’s first outing as a vocalist — and it shows. Of course, Robinson is no Jim Morrison. The repetitive lyrics are bearable only for his slick riffs. “We live in a broken dream,” Robinson moans on “Enemy,” the most Crowes-y track on the disc.

Clocking in at over seven minutes, “Places” is an epic song in the vein of the Alan Parsons Project. The violin-filled “Answers” demonstrates Robinson’s range beyond old school rock. The lyrics are probing; the orchestration is hopeful.

Like the Crowes once were, “Paper” is an eclectic blend of rock, soul and blues. Robinson should no longer be in the shadow of the Crowes or his big brother. “Paper” proves he deserves to be a solo artist now.— Derrik J. Lang

“R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal),” Nancy Wilson
As she contemplates retirement, 67-year-old Nancy Wilson offers up an elegant, sophisticated collection of 12 songs that are “near and dear” to her, but she never got a chance to record before in a career spanning half a century and more than 60 albums. Wilson has always maintained high standards and there is nothing formulaic about this CD. Each tune has been given its own custom-tailored arrangement featuring different top-notch jazz soloists such as alto saxophonist Phil Woods and trombonist Bill Watrous.

Wilson has always described herself as a “song stylist and storyteller” rather than a jazz singer, but the swinging jazz chops of her early days are on display on the two bright and brassy uptempo big band numbers: “Day In, Day Out” and “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart.” Wilson’s forte has always been the romantic ballad, and she doesn’t disappoint on the melancholic “Goodbye,” in which her voice goes from a smoky whisper to an impassioned cry, and on “I Wish I’d Met You, with an exquisite arrangement that blends in background vocalists and Joe Negri’s guitar. Her R&B and pop sides come out on “Why Did I Choose You,” a duet with the smooth R&B singer Kenny Lattimore honoring Marvin Gaye, and “Little Green Apples,” a tribute to her late pastor O.C. Smith that salutes marital bliss.

Some of the tunes feature distinctive collaborations: “That’s All” in which vibraphonist Gary Burton engages in a call-and-response with the singer; “How About Me” with Paquito D’Rivera’s mellow clarinet accompaniment; and the Brazilian-flavored “Minds Of Their Own (Dois Corregos)” which blends English and Portuguese lyrics sung by Wilson and its composer, Ivan Lins. But the most touching pairing of all comes on the closer “Blame It On My Youth,” which pairs Wilson with pianist George Shearing for the first time in a studio since their memorable 1960 album “The Swingin’s Mutual.”

The opening lyrics of the first track, “An Older Man Is Like An Elegant Wine,” on which the singer is joined by two jazz veterans, saxophonist Woods and Toots Thielemans on harmonica, perfectly describe Wilson’s performance on this CD: “Some things are worth waiting for/Some things improve with age like a vintage wine growing mellow and fine.”— Charles J. Gans

“Tambourine,” Tift MerrittBecause of her work with Two Dollar Pistols and the Carbines, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt is most often associated with North Carolina’s alt-country scene. That bag has never been big enough to hold Merritt, however. Her new recording, “Tambourine,” features a wide range of influences, including California mellow-rock and classic Tin Pan Alley songcraft.

With its mid-tempo lope and harmonic guitar hook (played by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell), “Tambourine’s” “Ain’t Looking Closely” recalls the ’70s folk-rock of Carole King and Wendy Waldman. Merritt’s lyrics, too, owe a debt to King, who became an integral member of the west coast folk-rock scene after churning out ’60s hits at New York’s famed Brill Building. The wistful theme of “Write My Ticket,” for example, brings to mind “Home Again” from King’s classic 1971 recording, “Tapestry.” “This city must belong to someone,” sings Merritt, “But it don’t belong to me/ From the window I got here/ I count the traffic through my tears/ Wanting to write my ticket home.”

With her new record, Tift Merritt joins contemporaries such as Laura Cantrell and Amy Allison, who have outgrown the limits of the alt-country tag. Like “Tapestry” and “Love Has Got Me” (Waldman’s 1973 debut), “Tambourine” is a genre-defying mixed bag of styles made coherent by heartfelt performance and forceful songwriting.— Paul V. Griffith