There is probably not another singer in any genre who can claim to be as single-minded as R. Kelly. From the moment he steps onstage for his hugely entertaining show, Kelly has only one thing on his mind: sex.
The set list for Kelly’s show reads like a page from Craigslist’s “Casual Encounters” page: “Sex in the Kitchen,” “Sex Weed,” “Strip for You,” “Feelin’ on Yo Booty” (performed both straight and, with Kelly donning a cape, top hat and mask and standing in front of a music stand, in broadly mock-operatic style). If he’s not singing about actually doing the deed, he’ll tell you how he plans to get “the ladies” in the mood to do the deed; if he’s not singing about that, he’s boasting about the many ways he can satisfy those ladies — including a long list of synonyms for how they’ll feel once he’s done with them that culminates with “bobble-headed.”
The music is as unwavering as the singer — mostly slow vamps with plenty of room for vocal improvisation. In the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Ronnie Isley, Kelly croons his seductions in a high reedy tenor equipped with just the right amount of tremolo to sound sincerely vulnerable. He can also, when needed, drop down into a growl or turn into a pleading, pure-voiced preacher, albeit one who advises his flock to yield to the temptation.
The show reaches its lunatic climax with the first three chapters of “Trapped in the Closet” — Kelly’s magnum opus, a steamy soap opera (now 12 chapters and counting) that piles on the cliffhangers. Kelly doesn’t even bother to sing. What “Mr. Show Biz” (as a neon sign that opens and closes the show calls him) really wants to do is act, as he lip-synchs, wildly acting out the parts of the straying wife, her aggrieved husband (soon revealed to be a pastor) and his gay lover. It’s an act of hubris that could destroy most performers, but Kelly is so invested in his perf, he almost manages to make it work.