It's an unspoken rule in American life that another man's faith is not to be challenged, even that of an accused pedophile following the long R&B tradition of spiritual and sexual conflict. Yet unlike last year's fascinating and frustrating Chocolate Factory, which appeared at the height of R. Kelly's troubles without a whiff of premeditation, these separate secular and sacred albums seem more like a shrewd attempt to persuade a jury -- if not of innocence, exactly -- then certainly that he's a harmless, devout, and repentant fellow.
The mainstream-oriented Happy People is one long, midtempo groove begging to be disturbed, featuring Kelly at his most saccharine and calculatedly bland: "If I Can Make the World Dance" even dumbs down "What's Going On" into a potential Pepsi commercial.
U Saved Me, on the other hand, is where the real musical thrills -- and charges of opportunism -- await. Whether he's reworking "I Believe I Can Fly" on the inspirational title track or offering a gentle reminder that "Prayer Changes" everything from attitudes to school grades, there's no disputing the majestic heights Kelly's pop-gospel can reach, or the way his aching, conversational tenor keeps it human. But when Prince sang about climbing "The Ladder," for example, he wasn't trying to escape charges that he'd screwed a 14-year-old girl. As much as Kelly deserves credit for bucking urban music's gutter obsessions and exalting God, the "Peace" this collection craves will ring hollow until Kelly's sins are judged here on earth.