R. Kelly, his reputation tarnished by accusations of pedophilia, is one of the few innovative voices to emerge from a generation of shamelessly innocuous soul crooners. The spectacle that was Friday’s performance laid testament to both Kelly’s finely tuned skills as a vocalist and the wildly unpredictable lengths he will go to satisfy his own artistic whims.
The set began, unassumingly enough, with a handful of slow jams and hit singles from early in his career. Songs sounded a bit dated, as the unidentified six-piece band added a sappy mixture of wind chimes and digitized keyboards to the slowly plodding drumbeats. Oddly, the benign backdrop catered to Kelly’s impassioned vocal performance. He strutted across the stage with the sexually charged bravado of Marvin Gaye and Bobby Brown — pairing lewd gestures with blisteringly emotive soul singing.
A crystal-encrusted cane was used as a phallic symbol, and a number of choreographed sketches involving Kelly and his dancers were indulgently conceived to the point of sheer absurdity. Plumes of neon smoke, leopard print bikinis, oversized zoot suits, even a five-minute orchestral rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony conducted by Kelly found their way into the two-hour set.
But it is that scattershot blend of passion and farce that makes Kelly so compelling as a modern-day purveyor of R&B music. He writes sing-speak dialogues about ghetto life, and Friday night, he unabashedly performed a three-minute operetta dedicated to “big booty girls.”
As predicted, protesters gathered outside the Forum before the show to publicly condemn Kelly, but no one who actually bought a ticket seemed affected by their presence. Inside the arena, longtime fans and casual concertgoers welcomed Kelly to Los Angeles with a series of rapturous ovations.