Nothin’ Wrong with a Little R. Kelly
This fact shouldn’t shock anyone, but Robert Sylvester Kelly has different ideas about commitment than most. The man who crooned about all the women he’d like to bed in “Every Girl” (spoiler: It’s all of them) couldn’t see through to their endings any of the first 20 songs he offered Friday night. Just as Kells seemed to get comfortable amidst the throbbing soul of “Your Body’s Callin’,” the effervescent jam “Freaky in the Club” seduced him away with one eye still on the hook to “Hotel.” From the expiration of the pre-show countdown (R-minus 10, 9, 8…), his Single Ladies tour stop at a sold-out War Memorial Auditorium played out sympathetically to both his peculiar two-decade-long solo career and his still-raging libido. All of his hits were available, and true to the only kind of commitment that Kells knows, they were all going to get a turn in one hell of a raunchy and shamelessly enjoyable exhibition.
At 45, his primary audience is older and better dressed, and thanks to the phenomenal success of the neverending, glorious insanity of his “Trapped In the Closet” hip-hopera, has absorbed a white hipster quotient that none of his peers have begun to approach, save for possibly D’Angelo. Even after being acquitted of child pornography charges four-anda-half years ago, there are still a good number of people who would line up like it was Black Friday for a shot at Kells. Those people, however, were not present, and certainly not seated around the reserved “Single Ladies” section by his catwalk.
For the actual single ladies in the room, the mash-up was only a part of his tease, but scared to perform he was not.
Whereas Friday’s main-room headliner, rapper Rick Ross, was alleged to have cancelled his gig over physical threats from the Gangster Disciples — the gang founded by the same Larry Hoover whom Ross frequently name-checks as his peer — Kells could have expected a mugging of his own. With a stage and wardrobe white as the driven snow, a bedazzled microphone and two stocked bars with matching attendants flanking him, he wasn’t making any effort to run.
Like a radio dial spinning though a spectrum devoted only to the King of R&B, Kelly’s pristine, pseudo-operatic tenor sailed through the hits while his eight-piece backing band laid down shifty, agile grooves. “Bump N’ Grind” was accompanied by a host of ladies filling the empty bar seats as the bartenders served up Grey Goose mixed into some pink concoction. As if “F*cking You Tonight” and “You Remind Me of Something” weren’t already invitations to arm’s-length intimacy, his vamping through “Strip for You” and his request for permission to do so was practically poking the enraged bull. Those five ladies might have gotten to drink on stage with Kells, but only one got to pet the Sexasaurus.
Then the teasing got a little too real. Just as he wrapped up a flirtation with “Promise,” Kells turned and thanked the audience for a wonderful evening. It was just over 30 minutes into his set. “What? I’ve done played every hit I ever had,” he said, as he proceeded to rattle off, one-by-one, his set list to that point. “ I did ‘Hotel,’ ‘That’s That,’ ‘F*cking You Tonight,’ ‘Gigalo,’ ‘So Sexy,’ ‘Promise.’ You want more? Okay, I’ma get drunk and do every song I’ve ever had.”
He almost wasn’t exaggerating. If there was any question that R. Kelly’s voice isn’t among the finest in R&B, an onslaught of gorgeous a capella numbers answered it quite decisively. Again, “R&B Thug,” “Sex In the Kitchen” and a reprise of “Bump N’ Grind” arrived in their abridged form, but rather than focus on the hooks, Kells delivered the awesome B-line quotables for which he’s best known. A stunning rendition of Antonio Caldara’s operatic aria “Alma Del Core” revealed a his incredible range, while “Real Talk” skipped the appeasements and went right for the savage emotional drama, delivered with blunt artlessness and mesmerizing recitative at the same time.
“What they eat don’t make us sh*t, real talk,” and “Girl, my mama ain’t got to screen no calls for me,” he cooed with increasing violence to an imagined recipient. His preface in the video for that song is possibly the finest summary of what makes R. Kelly such a magnetic enigma. When he says something as innocent as, “I’m going to fix myself a drink,” it paints a picture of a worldclass intoxicologist prepping top-shelf spirits for his most discerning customer. As he adds, “Of course, we got the stogies poppin’ off over here,” it suggests that they’ve ascended from inertia to some higher state of being merely from being in his presence. His gravitas is what sells his often ridiculous lyrics, but when Robert Sylvester Kelly wants to speak genuinely, he’s speaking straight to the heart.
“I wanted to share a few of my wishes.
I wish all the violence would stop,” he said without an ounce of irony in his voice. “I wish all the kids would put their computers down. I want to wish you all a merry Christmas. I wish I could get a hug right now.” Fortunately, there was no shortage of volunteers.