Live review: R. Kelly at Nokia Theatre
The R&B singer performs a free-form, medley-style hit parade during his first tour since his 2008 court case.
Not long into his show Thursday night at the Nokia Theatre, R. Kelly found himself needing some assistance from the technical crew. A long red carpet, positioned onstage between two cordoned-off areas in which a group of female fans played the part of a group of female fans, had begun to bunch up, endangering the R&B star's not-so-fancy footwork.
"Move this rug," he sang extemporaneously, his band vamping smoothly beneath him. "I almost tripped three . . . times." Kelly repeated the phrase, obviously enjoying the sound of his off-the-cuff creation; he added a bit of melisma as the band's playing thickened into a proper groove.
"Y'all laughing now," the singer then told the audience, which had broken into appreciative chuckles. "But you know next year this . . . gonna be on the radio."
That's probably true -- for more than a decade and a half Kelly has been making hits out of unlikely material. In last year's "Hair Braider," for example, he extolled his stylist's virtues (among them the fact that she drives a black Impala), while his 22-part "Trapped in the Closet" saga contains a dwarf, a mobster and a pimp with a debilitating stutter.
Kelly boasts one of R&B's most expansive catalogs, and at the Nokia he seemed determined to showcase as much of that work as he could during his 90-minute set. That meant truncated versions of tracks like "Fiesta," "I'm a Flirt" and "You Remind Me of Something," the last of which inspired another stream-of-consciousness riff, this one about how the song put the singer in mind of "that old-school Kells.""Y'all remember all them songs?" he asked, and for those that didn't he provided a helpful review.
Boiled down to a single verse or chorus, some of Kelly's tunes improved; he's not above belaboring a point, particularly when he starts trying to unpack the philosophy of a player. Others, though -- such as the effervescent "Ignition (Remix)" and "Strip for You," in which he made a delightful rhyme of the song's title and "switcheroo" -- felt unnecessarily hurried. He could (and should) have performed "Step in the Name of Love" for two or three times longer than he did.
After a while, Kelly halted the hit parade to address an issue he said he hadn't planned on mentioning. (Yeah, right.)
"This is my first tour since my court case," he said, referring to a heavily publicized 2008 trial in which he was acquitted of several child pornography charges. "And I'm still here!"Kelly then launched into a frenzied rendition of "I Believe I Can Fly," his signature 1996 mega ballad. Midway through he paused to tell a story about leaving the courthouse in Chicago after the verdict was read. As he drove home to his children, he recalled, he turned on the radio and discovered a song that seemed to reflect the moment: "Never Would Have Made It," by the gospel singer Marvin Sapp. Medley time, it was clear, hadn't ended. "I Believe I Can Fly" turned into "Never Would Have Made It," which then morphed back into "I Believe I Can Fly" with a few lines borrowed from "Heaven I Need a Hug."
Kelly ended the sequence by flapping his arms as though they were wings. Improbably enough, this lover of language had moved beyond words into a realm that required action.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times