R. Kelly w/Keyshia Cole, Marsha Ambrosius
Thursday, June 30
Better than: A 45-minute R. Kelly show.
It’s probably fitting that R. Kelly is opening his shows with a black-and-white film, starring him, one where he’s at first bummed out while dressed to the nines and sitting at a bar—but then through the help of remembering his past glories, the tours that have taken him all over the world, he comes out of his funk and gets ready to show the world his performing bona fides.
Kelly’s unabashed dedication to leaving it all out onstage is impressive and, at times, euphoria-inducing. Thursday night’s set list started off with the more demure portions of his catalog—the title track to his throwbacky, thrilling Love Letter; the ebuillent “Happy People—but quickly got down and dirty once “Freaky In the Club” came into play. There was a push-and-pull during “Strip For You” to see whether an audience member or Kelly would be the one to doff clothing first. (Although Kells demurred once he saw that one woman in question was with her significant other.)
At times the show felt like a manic victory lap, with him revisiting certain songs that had already appeared on the set list, dropping in half-verses of other tracks to cheers from the audience, ripping through vocal runs as if he was just warming up, and high-fiving the crowd members closest to him while the rest of the room handled singing duties. The night dripped with sex, of course; he noted that he’d been told that the juxtaposition of Love Letter‘s classically romantic material and his more bedroom-minded songs might be jarring, but that didn’t stop him from busting out a bit of “Sex In The Kitchen” and asking various sections of the audience if they’d be into some post-show action. (You can probably guess what the answer was.)
There was one moment during which his eroticism was slightly jarring; at one point he veered between the angry bits of his Ron Isley collaboration “Friend Of Mine” and his own “Real Talk” and the unabashed sexuality of “Number One” and “Feeling On Your Booty”; that the audience devoured it ravenously could probably go near the top of the long evidentiary list explaining breakup sex. It should be noted, also, that he meshed together his songs while standing in the middle of the Prudential Center’s lower reaches, and he probably would have stayed there for longer if an overly excited audience member hadn’t pelted him with a bra. (Underwires can be dangerous, ladies! Better to throw camisoles.)
And then there were the absurdist moments, the ones that made plain how Kells is just having a lot of fun with the leeway afforded him by his ability to play arenas—the fully stocked bar onstage, complete with cocktail-sipping bartender, for example. At one point midway through the opening of “Bump N’ Grind” was turned into a virtual choral opera, with one of the female dancers handling conducting duties as a video screen of mouths (just mouths—well, OK, there was some facial hair in the mix as well) sang “My mind is telling me no, but my body, my body is telling me ye-eh-ess” in anguished unison. If he arranged that (and there’s no reason to assume that he didn’t) there has to be some sort of R&B opera in his future, or in his vaults.
The eroticism died down before the encore, when everyone left the stage and a letter from his mom took over the screen. It was sweet and brimming with pride, and it was interspersed with promo photos of Kelly and shots of him from yearbooks and school picture days; that she died of cancer in 1993 only became apparent to the whole crowd when she noted that it was her “love letter from heaven,” although it made the song that followed—the stirring “When A Woman Loves,” which also appears on Love Letter—seem more rooted in maternal adoration than that from a romantic partner. Either way, that song’s a towering achievement, one of Kelly’s best vocal performances both on record and live.
The show ended shortly after that, with a bunch of women on stage sipping cocktails from the stage-right bar and Kelly greeting while his version of—yes—”My Way” blared from the speakers. It had all gone by so quickly, in a whirlwind of innuendo and bravura; but then again, the best performers are always the ones who leave you wanting more.
Critical bias: Bummed that he didn’t play the smooth-jazz Love Letter standout “Taxi Cab,” but you know, it’s not like that ruined the night or anything.
Overheard: “Don’t you threaten me with a good time, Kells. Lay it on.”
Random notebook dump: When I walked in, Marsha Ambrosius was holding court on an unadorned stage, doing some crazy falsetto runs that made me think she was channeling Prince. Unfortunately, I only got to see one full song of her set (the dedication to the departed “Far Away”); she capped off her allotted time with a touching rendition of the Soul-Glo jingle.
Set list (nb the medleys might not be complete, although I was writing as quickly as I could):
Step In The Name Of Love / Red Carpet (Pause, Flash) / Chocolate Factory
Number One Hit
Freaky In The Club
So Sexy / Hotel / Thoia Thoing / Slow Wind
Strip For You
Bump N’ Grind (acappella)
Home Alone / Gigolo / Snake / Use To Me Spending / I’m A Flirt
Fiesta / Number One / Friend Of Mine / Feeling On Your Booty / Real Talk / Bump N’ Grind
Sex In The Kitchen / Slow Dance (Hey Mr. DJ) / Bump N’ Grind (Intro) / 12 Play
It Seems Like You’re Ready
Your Body’s Calling
When A Woman’s Fed Up
Down Low (Nobody Needs To Know)
[Letter from Mom interlude]
When A Woman Loves
Step In The Name Of Love
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 1, 2011