R. Kelly: Live last night

r kellyR. Kelly toned down the X-rated shock tactics and allowed his historically great songbook to be the focus Tuesday night at Constitution Hall. (Photos by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

Live Last Night

By Chris Richards

Could R. Kelly's freakiest, deakiest days be behind him?

So it seemed as the R&B lothario's "Ladies Make Some Noise!" tour landed in Washington Tuesday night, Kelly swapping his usual X-rated shock tactics for a toned-down, NC-17 playfulness. The concert was the first of a two-night stand at DAR Constitution Hall and the singer's first appearance in Washington since being acquitted on child pornography charges last year.

Compared with the visual pomp of Kelly's recent tours, Tuesday's offering seemed almost spartan: No pyrotechnics, no smoke machines, no cannons blasting rolled-up T-shirts into the crowd, no weird masks or silly capes. This is, after all, a recession.

What was left was the man, his band, a few dancers and what will someday go down as one of the greatest songbooks in the history of R&B. By dialing back the bells and whistles (and gratuitous wardrobe changes), Kelly revealed the hidden elegance of his craft. His arrangements were sturdy, his melodies were crisp and his lyrics flowed like conversation -- albeit the kind that normally costs $1.99 a minute.

(He just can't stop singing, after the jump.)

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He romped through more than 30 songs during a wonderful 90-minute performance, many of which were truncated into ringtone-sized nibbles, each starting with a sweet kick before evaporating into a premature and unceremonious conclusion. But while the tunes were frequently interrupted, Kelly couldn't stop singing. Rather than address his adoring fans in a speaking voice, he would simply croon his stage banter. In a roaring tenor, he asked the audience, "Have you ever made love to my music?" (The high-frequency screams that followed meant "affirmative.")

The banter-crooning continued when he asked his roadies to remove a troublesome rug from the stage. "I almost tripped three goddamn times," Kelly sang, repeating the phrase over and over, until it congealed into an impromptu refrain that eventually had the crowd singing along. It would have been hilarious had it been real. Reports say he pulled the same stunt in New York and Chicago.

Fake-spontaneity aside, Kelly clearly understands his gift. He's a rare Midas who can turn prosaic phrases into golden pop hooks. Plenty of those phrases populated the lyric sheet of his 2007 album "Double Up," an effort where Kelly doubled down on the absurdity quotient. But onstage, he skipped that disc's freakiest fare -- "The Zoo" and "Sex Planet" -- and he performed only one song from his forthcoming album "Untitled," the tepid lead single "Number One."

Such omissions offered few clues about where Kelly might be headed as he settles into a life where interminable controversy no longer swirls. Remember, this was a man who seemed to relish calling himself a "sexasaurus" as the moral outrage surrounding his trial came to a rolling boil. Are listeners less interested in a less-embattled R. Kelly? The fact that Constitution Hall was only about three-quarters full on Tuesday suggests as much.

But Kelly didn't flinch at the empty seats and thanked his fans for staying loyal during the trial. "I could have been gone," he said. "But by the grace of God, I'm still here."

Moments later, he was belting out "I Believe I Can Fly," one of his biggest hits -- not to mention one of the most bloated, overwrought power ballads ever written. But something felt amiss. There were no gospel choirs in sight. Bald eagles weren't soaring across the video screen in the background. Kelly wasn't sporting a white tuxedo. He was wearing jeans and T-shirt. It all felt so pleasantly and profoundly normal -- the biggest shock of the night.

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By David Malitz |  November 25, 2009; 10:37 AM ET Live Last Night
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

R. Kelly previously would consider himself "The King Of R&B." Really? He might need to talk to people like Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye on that one. As far as the LIVING KING OF R&B...it would be hard to argue with him.

He came out in 1992 along with another top artist by the name of Mary J. Blige. They both stood the test to time during their trials and tribulations. They both dealt with some deep seeded inner demons that almost derailed their careers.

Would I call myself a real R.Kelly fan? Nope. Some of his music is great and very memorable though. I was doing my last year of high school when I first heard "Vibe" and "Honey Love." Wow. LoL

So far, I've heard some of his songs from the new CD. He sound more mature on this one than the last CD. Keep up the good work Kelly.

Posted by: BigHustla | November 25, 2009 11:33 AM

I don't think the fact that the venue was not sold out speaks to R.Kelly but rather is speaks to the outrageous ticket prices of many of the artists shows during this recession. Also, it is around holiday time and people are holding on to those dollars in order to hit the Black Friday shopping.

Lower those prices and schedule a little better and then you will see people really show up and show out for R.Kelly.

Posted by: lacairaine | November 25, 2009 1:08 PM

R-Kelly should be jailed for his music alone.

If you like R-Kelly's music, you're either mentally challenged or strait out stupid.

Posted by: TheOneSon | November 25, 2009 2:25 PM

@ oneson

You cant be stupid if you wanna hear and appreciate the way that R. Kelly makes highly constructed pop and R&B music sound so completely impromptu. But you can ignore that if you're a prude. Sorry.

and dont ever make allusions about mental challenges. You dont have one. People who do have it a lot harder than you.

Posted by: ngraham1 | November 25, 2009 2:58 PM

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