For the sake of the serious musicians and even serious funk/soul/jazz devotees? The fact that R.Kelly bought in 80’s era George Benson guitar understudy Bobby Broom to play on his 1993 solo debut 12 Play speaks volumes about the breadth of Kelly’s musical vision and talent. Though always acknowledging the man as a top notch composer? It was my blogging partner here,Rique,who hipped me to explore deeper into the joyous grooves of R. Kelly’s more recent work. One that stood out strongly in my mind was the title song from Kelly’s 2004 album entitled Happy People. Again,it has a way of projected two simple words that speak volumes more as well.
Beginning with a scratchy vinyl from Kelly’s MC,DJ Wayne Williams a spirited gospel/soul piano ushers in the song which Kelly himself announces as being “another one for the steppers”. Following this a scaling,high up on the neck Southern Soul guitar and horn fan fare starts up a slow paced funky soul groove. The rhythm is very similar to that slow Afro Latin type percussion that provided an important link between both the grooving Philly ballads of Thom Bell,the slow grooving sophisticated Southern Soul of Willie Mitchell’s Hi studio sound and the hardcore funk coming out of the early/mid 1970’s. Which in turn marked the beginning of the disco era.
The melodicism of the song also comes from a number of different places. There’s a clear,crisp and wavering high synthesizer line-as well an adjunct of the high on the neck Southern Soul guitar from the intro of the song. There’s also slap bass accents which provide the deeper end of this melody,as well as being rhythmically supportive as it is by nature in funky music. There’s also an string (or at least string type) orchestra that introduces the vocal chorus-before the bridge where Kelly directs the stepping dance affair he’s singing about to mainly the percussive beat,one keyboard line and that slap bass. All before returning back to the full arrangement as it closes out.
Considering R.Kelly came out of the more vocal and performance oriented soul/R&B attitude of the early 1990’s? He had by the turn of the millennium evolved into an artist who appreciated the art of melodic arrangement and the rhythmic process in his music. Even if he was often more in the position of utilizing the more hip-hop techniques of turntablists and samples to do so. He knows how to make modern musical methods and technology present a soulfully organic groove. And more over? He understands the art producing this down to a rich,creamy sheen.
In terms of concept,R.Kelly injects a huge amount of musical history into this one song. Vocally he’s evoking the smokey falsetto coos and calls of both Ron Isley and Al Green. He also utilizes the rich,gospel vibrato that was actually a carry over from Stevie Wonder’s enormous impact on the stereotypical new jack swing era male vocalist of Kelly’s generation as well. The fact that Kelly is able to project everything with great vocal clarity also adds to this. Everything from vocal soul to the melodic end of funk is strongly referenced by all of this. And it plays strongly to the basic lyrical content of the song as well.
The music video presents a soulful,cool and funky dance party in an ornate golden cathedral-covered in Renaissance art yet also featuring a live band and horn section. As well as a crowd dressed in funky urban hats,suits and dresses-many literally stepping in time. Stepping,which to me seems to be an extension on the hustle and the electric slide,is referenced along with the warm lyrical content of this song. It basically asks the listener to relieve their stresses by taking enjoyment in an elegant party atmosphere and dancing to the rhythm of the music in their life. It’s the basic link in that chain of the blues,jazz,soul up through today. And this is one of those songs that just puts it all together so well.