His career is predicated on wild, at times dangerous impulsiveness, but the structure of an R. Kelly concert is surprisingly uniform. A blitzkrieg half-hour medley, seemingly designed to demonstrate how many hit songs the singer can afford to just shrug off, gets the ball rolling, followed by a bizarre bit of psychosexual theater, with a ballad section and some old-school soul jams bringing down the curtain. This predictability doesn’t make the overall effect any less thrilling, however, and Friday night at the Nokia Theater, the 45-year-old displayed all the time-honed instincts of a natural showman.
Of course, the word “predictable” is always relative when the subject is R. Kelly. Even though he’s spent the last several years churning out predominantly chaste, retro-leaning projects — most recently this summer’s “Write Me Back” — one rarely forgot that this was one of the most satyr-like, scandal-plagued superstars of the last few decades, and nearly all the night’s unscripted moments were libidinous in nature. Kelly hardly even reacted when a front-row fan took a healthy grab of his crotch; an improvised a cappella song about pleasuring himself while listening to his own music went on for a good two minutes; and after an excited audience member managed to whisper a lengthy request into his ear, he quipped, “Girl, I’ve never even heard of that…and I’m R. Kelly.”
Yet this was nonetheless a more dignified incarnation of the singer, as even his most prurient moments relied more heavily on cock-eyed lasciviousness than the gonzo sleaze of yore, and the mise-en-scene added to the sense of uptown glamour. Billed as the “Single Ladies” tour (though it’s hard to recall Kelly ever dedicating his music to any other demo), this year’s jaunt featured a stage decked out with cream-colored satin curtains, an eight-piece band recessed far back into the stage beside a grand, gleaming staircase and two onstage bars on the wings, where nattily attired bartenders served drinks to women throughout the show.
Wearing a white leather jacket with the word “single” lit up in rhinestones on his sleeve, Kelly took little time to warm up, launching immediately into a nonstop half-hour’s worth of song fragments that left him drenched in sweat from five minutes on. While this treatment was surely the most efficient way to acknowledge the depth of his catalogue — Kelly touched on more than three dozen songs through the night, all of which he either wrote or co-wrote — it all seemed little more than an extended tease. (Any aud members who paused to tie their shoes could have missed “Freaky in the Club,” “Bump N’ Grind” or “Ignition (Remix)” completely.)
The show improved significantly when the pace settled down, and Kelly lingered long enough to actually inhabit “12 Play” and “Fiesta.” Though the latter-day converts who appreciate Kelly’s depravities more than his talents might have been disappointed by the lack of “Trapped in the Closet” material, he did nod to his more outre side with a solo rendition of the gloriously unhinged recitative “Real Talk,” to widespread audience tumult.
While often ignored in the wake of his more cartoonish antics, Kelly’s voice remains one of the most potent instruments in contemporary R&B, capable of great sweetness, grit, sinewy insinuation and daredevil flights of melisma that would leave most singing show contestants gasping for air. The use of pre-recorded backing tracks at pop shows is so widespread these days that it often feels silly to get upset over it, but watching Kelly go strong for nearly two hours without any technological enhancement served as a simple reminder that concerts are considerably more riveting when the singer is actually singing.
For this reason, the balladeer portion of the show was more successful than most, especially as it started with standout new track “Green Light,” which grinded with all the more force for its relative subtlety. Though a main-set closing “I Believe I Can Fly” was clearly intended to hit an emotional high point, the song — as saccharine as it is toxically overplayed — couldn’t touch the preceding “I Wish,” which swapped out the inspirational platitudes for evocative, melancholy details.