[For more photos, see Colin Young-Wolff's slideshow “R. Kelly at Nokia Theatre”.]
Who: R. Kelly (with openers Marsha Ambrosius and Keyshia Cole)
When: Saturday, June 11, 2011
Where: Nokia Theatre at LA Live
Here's what we wrote for the Page Two preview on the current print edition of LA Weekly:
R. Kelly is a god-level genius and he's coming to town this week. He puts on some of the most amazing performances we've seen, with a kind of old-school showbiz know-how rarely seen these days outside of old Sinatra or James Brown YouTube clips. You should do whatever it takes to go.
Had you heeded our advice (and, yes, the tickets at LA Live's most massive venue are salty) you would have not been disappointed, as our friend Robert from Chicago delivered his customary blend of virtuosity, class, fun, preachin', cussin' and a healthy dollop of bonkers.
Oh, and a showstopping performance (in every sense of the word) of “Real Talk” as an a cappella one-man play.
Here are the highlights:
The crowd: If you at the audience members depicted on the LA Weekly slideshow, you might get the completely erroneous impression that the R. Kelly audience was anything other than overwhelmingly, and by this we mean well over 90%, black. This might be because our intrepid photographer was kept outside the venue until it was time for him to come in and shoot his allotted 2 or 3 songs from way back. The audience members depicted on the slideshow are surprisingly diverse. Inside the auditorium (and in the parking lot, concession stands, merch booths, etc.) it was black and it was beautiful.
Every shade, neighborhood, social stratum, fashion style and kind of flair in the LA black community was represented. R. Kelly has called himself “the King of RnB” for a while now and–never mind the frat dude following he might have picked up after his campy “Trapped in the Closet” hip-hopera or from the brilliant Aziz Ansari routine— his shows are a clear demonstration that as far as black culture is concerned, from Chicago to the coasts to the South, he wears that crown quite comfortably. Men and women of all ages were there, singing along to even the most obscure verses. Real talk.
The openers, Marsha Ambrosius and Keyshia Cole: Ambrosius had the unfortunate duty to rev up the crowd as the audience was slowly filing in (epic lines for drinks held many in the lobby for a while–a great chance to people-watch. Protip: Cosby sweaters and other Coogi wear are still holding strong with the R. Kelly demographic). The former Floetry songstress gave a thoroughly professional, enthusiastic set, performing medleys of other people's hits, her own current novelty single “Hope She Cheats On You (With A Basketball Player)” and the shoulda-been-a-hit song she wrote for Michael Jackson back in the day which she has now recovered for herself, “Butterflies.”
Then it was time for a much longer set by Keyshia Cole. And here we may get in trouble with some of her fans: Keyshia has hits, charisma and can even belt out a chorus or two, but last Saturday sister couldn't really sing. She consistently ran out of steam after a verse and a half and had to lean on the backing track or on audience participation. Her two dancers, however, can dance, and they're stunning, so no complaints.
The pre-show music: For some reason, old TV tunes (Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, Mr. Ed, Addams Family). No, we don't know either. It's an R. Kelly thing.
The whole “Love Letter” show is supposed to play like a movie: Pre-recorded film clips sandwich the R. Kelly performance, with the final one providing bona fide end-of-movie titles before the lights go up. There's no encore: once the titles roll away, R. Kelly has left the building.
There's a black-and-white intro inspired by Casablanca, where Kelis plays a bisexual cheater: Yup. Kells does his best Bogart (a rather ghetto Bogey) in pristine silvery colors with a platinum Kelis playing his no-good moll who left him and broke his heart. And, yes, since this is R. Kelly's world, Kelis left him for “another woman.” Twists upon twists upon twists, per usual.
There's a fully functional cigar bar/actual bar on stage: R. Kelly starts the show getting a cigar from said bar and smoking it. At the end of the show, drinks are poured and a bevy of audience ladies are brought onstage for a sip of Kell's champagne. That's not a euphemism, by the way–the show dancers do double duty as cocktail waitresses and everyone onstage gets to toast with the King of RnB.
And then there was the music itself:
Every R. Kelly show is, in essence, a greatest hits show: If you've seen an R. Kelly show you know that it's very rare that he performs a song in its entirety. The whole performance is built around stop and starts and blackouts between medleys. When he does perform and entire song (see below), he goes all out and it's a showstopper. Still, everyone gets generous helpings of everything one has come to hear.
“Bump and Grind” is now a lewd choral opera performed by juicy mouths from an enormous, multiply-partitioned film screen: Try to picture that if you can. That's exactly how it is.
The “Strip Song” makes an appearance, but no stripping occurs: “You go first,” R. Kelly compels all members of the audience of the audience, inviting them to play a game of strip-chicken with him.
However, everyone gets to see an enormous projection of R. Kelly's cock: It's at the end of one of the montages. He's wearing sheer silk shorts and climbing the stairs of what appears to be a church. Or his home. Or his home-church. Still, clearly visible slow-mo cock, and everyone claps and hoots.
R. Kelly's mom writes a letter to you, the audience, to introduce a moving slideshow (from the grave): A very moving letter from R. Kelly's mom is read where she tells us how proud she is of Kells' success and the current tour and uses words like “LOL.” At some point in the letter, it is implied that she's writing this from heaven, which would have to be the case because she's been dead for years.
“Ignition (Remix)” is performed in its entirety: With an epic instrumental coda played live by the crackerjack band at hand. It's one of the clear showstoppers, the other one being…
“When a Woman Loves”: After an entire show of ad-libs, jumping in the middle of the audience, a cappella belting (that “Real Talk” workout–wow), sensual cooing, and just singing his ass off, R. Kelly puts on a suit and the retro horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like a super-sexy Malcolm X, and gets ready for the showpiece of the Love Letter album and tour. And he nails it (of course), like a mutant Sam Cooke from a different dimension where soul singers are also street philosophers, surreal producers, filmmakers, psychos, psychics, psychoanalysts, and conceptual Casanovas.
And then he brings some audience lovelies onstage for some champagne, while he shakes hands with the audience and the end credits (and some bloopers!) roll, all scored by an pre-recorded R. Kelly rendition of “My Way” (yup, Sinatra's and Elvis' and Paul Anka's) that you won't find in any album:
“Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.”
Yes, R. Kelly did, and he does, and long may he do it.