Billboard – If you are one of those people who finds the music of R. Kelly a little too thoughtfully subtle, it’s probably time you witness the method by which he closes the main set of his Light It Up tour: by dry-humping some speakers until simulating an orgasm of such fierceness that he passes out and must be literally dragged off the stage, while his backup singers repeat the phrase “tomatoes, vegetables and potatoes” ad infinitum.
If you’re able to put aside the volumes of baggage associated with an R. Kelly concert in 2006, it’s possible to regard him solely as a practitioner of bizarre performance art. Kelly has climbed to the top of the R&B ladder on the synthetic, super-potent sexuality that could easily kill a mortal man. Here are lyrics Kelly uncorked, with an delightful lack of irony, during his sold-out Jacksonville show: “Sex gave me the munchies and now I’ve got to eat it up,” “Tonight I’m gonna pull a switcheroo — do you mind if I strip for you?” “It’s like ‘Jurassic Park’ and I’m your sexasaurus.” Sexasaurus! And that’s not counting those aforementioned side dishes.
But if you’re not able to ignore that baggage — primarily that Kelly was indicted on charges of child pornography in 2002, but has yet to stand trial — the show goes from eye-rollingly foolish to exceedingly uncomfortable. When the charges against Kelly first came to light, the singer responded by issuing a series of aggressively sunny and godly records like “Happy People,” “U Saved Me” and the uproarious “Heaven I Need a Hug.”
But as Kelly’s image has proved enduring and the trial against him pushed back repeatedly, he’s grown more comfortable reactivating the hyper-sexualism that’s, for better or worse now, his calling card. By the time this tour hit Jacksonville, Fla. — a trek for which he’s billed himself as “Mr. Show Biz” for some reason — it was in full swing. “[They told me] to control myself tonight,” Kelly told the sold-out house, adding that he was “instructed” not to cuss or touch himself “here,” pointing at his nether regions. “I told ’em, ‘I’m a grown-ass man. I can do whatever the f*** I feel like on this stage!'”
And that he did (after taking the stage, inexplicably, to the theme of “Welcome Back Kotter”). But even stripped down to strictly musical terms, Kelly’s show was a mess — sprawling and ambitious, but lacking all direction. To maximize his hit output, Kelly, with a soulful and swinging live band, played only snippets of his songs (except for “Trapped in the Closet,” of course — more on that later). That meant hopscotching from one chorus of “Bump N’ Grind” to just a smidge of “Step in the Name of Love” and a few tokes of “Sex Weed.”
Clearly, Kels was out to give his fans as much bang for the buck as possible, but the effect was more like an attention-deficit DJ with an itchy fast-forward finger. But maybe that’s for the best. Even when they get a Latin seasoning (“Fiesta”) or genuine emotion (“I Wish”), there’s a brutal sameness to Kelly’s catalog, a slow-jam chokehold that rarely relaxes, especially over two hours.
But that was during the songs, which Kelly took frequent detours from playing. There was an extended give-and-take with the audience about their sexual histories, a video of Kelly getting into a fight on a basketball court, some dance routines, several minutes of closed-curtain dead space and a strange “Weird Al” interlude in which he donned a “Phantom” mask and cape to perform an “opera” version of “Feelin’ on Yo Booty.” And by performed, I mean lip synched.
He took a similar tack in staging “Trapped in the Closet” — namely, he didn’t sing it. Rather, when he arrived on stage for his “ghetto opera” (only at the end of Chapter 1, during which fans were treated to four minutes of watching a closed closet door that had been positioned on stage), he took on the parts of all four protagonists. When the gun was pointed up he was himself, when he was pleading he was the wife, when he went all fey he was the gay boyfriend, while lip synching most, though hardly all, of the lyrics. “Trapped” is impossible to stage in its current incarnation, of course, but this was drama-club stuff.
In a way, this was all frustrating. Kelly remains a supremely watchable performer, and his supple voice is in fine standing. Moreover, his strategy for the Light It Up tour, which involves taking that live band into smaller markets and venues, allows for a greater degree of accessible intimacy than a hundred skits involving humping objects possibly could. But at best, Kelly’s act is constantly on the brink of self-parody, especially in light of recent humanized records by John Legend and Anthony Hamilton. And at worst, his persistent defensiveness about the myriad troubles surrounding him is constantly on the brink of self-defeating.