R. Kelly

The career of Michael Jackson must have taught R. Kelly a few things, because on this new double disc, he fully implements a strategy that his predecessor could not master: When life takes a nose dive, make the music positive. Relentlessly so.

The result is that everything on "Happy People/U Saved Me" comes from a position of relative strength, at least in a public-relations sense, as Kelly awaits further action in the child pornography case against him.

Musically, when the songs aren't strong, they're at least firm in their resolve.

The first disc, the secular "Happy People," is superior because of Kelly's under-control vocals and airtight R&B production -- tracks such as "Love Signals" and the single "Happy People" succeed with warm '70s stylings and simple bass lines. It all lacks the lust-and-crime conflicts of his most ear-catching work, but part of the fun is imagining that Kelly's dirty side must be rattling in a cage somewhere.

"U Saved Me," meanwhile, is a gospel-lite session that dwells in the literal: "Prayer Changes," "I Surrender" and "U Saved Me" don't say much beyond their titles. Kelly's spirituality and libido have always been messily entwined, but upon surgical separation, his religious convictions don't bring much artistic inspiration with them.

Except for Disc 2's closer, "Peace," that is. Over no-frills percussion and major-key piano chords, Kelly gives a relatively relaxed performance.

Sure, it could fit on the soundtrack of a cute Disney extravaganza, but it's a welcome break from the predictable ballads that precede it. If anything, it's like a big punctuation mark at the end of a carefully phrased statement.

-- Joe Warminsky

R. Kelly is scheduled to appear with Jay-Z at MCI Center on Oct. 7.

The first disc of R. Kelly's new two-disc release is far superior to the second.