R. Kelly: 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.)
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.
By David Malitz |
November 25, 2009; 10:37 AM ET
Live Last Night
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