If much of last night's R. Kelly concert at the Fabulous Fox Theatre felt like a victory lap, it's because the man had reason to celebrate. As the show wound down, he acknowledged the elephant in the room: The infamous court case in which Kelly was accused -- and found not guilty -- of fourteen counts of child pornography. "This whole tour is my first since my court case," Kelly told the crowd. "And I'm still here!" Cue the piano ballad "I Believe I Can Fly," a song of triumph over adversity and about a strong belief in God's graces.
Kelly's sex scandal left a sizable blemish on his public image, no matter the verdict, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in last night's full house who seemed to care about his proclivities in the bedroom. It's an important question: Do we forgive the sins of our heroes so long as they keep making hit records, or directing great movies, or winning golf tournaments? The answer appears to be "Yes," at least for R. Kelly. He had the crowd in his pocket through a nearly two-hour string of his own hits as well as songs he produced or guested on. Early on came snippets of Twista's "So Sexy" and his own "I'm a Flirt," stripped down to their essences and streamlined for mass crowd satisfaction.
Taking the stage in a white leather jacket, red scarf and Cincinnati Reds hat (does he not know that a red Cardinals hat would have totally matched his ensemble?), Kells seemed happy to be home, as it were, in front of an adoring crowd who seemed to know every line to every song. This tour was called the "Ladies Make Some Noise" tour for good reason: The emcee shouted the phrase nearly a dozen times at the show's start. For their part, the ladies responded in kind. It's worth noting that, for this show, the word "ladies" wasn't used ironically: there were very few girls in the crowd, or many people under the age of 35. After 20 years in the music business, Kelly has become something of a nostalgia act. His new disc Untitled was largely ignored in favor of well-known hits and baby-makin' slow jams.
Early in the show, Kelly asked the crowd, "How many of you ever made love to my music?" The rapturous response was all the excuse he needed to plow through a series of slow, occasionally seductive tunes. At points during the concert, Kelly's backing band would play an extended, simple groove (though, really, all of Kelly's grooves are simple) and let the singer place any number of verses or choruses over the backing track. He touched on Notorious B.I.G.'s "Fuckin' You Tonight" (which caused Kells to ponder, "there's something about those words") and his own lovably ludicrous "Sex in the Kitchen." More successful were the slightly longer versions of his biggest hits: "Bump n' Grind" became a sing-a-long, while "Ignition" was shortened to only one verse.
It would seem that Kelly's court troubles gave him a little dose of humility, as he spent large portions of the night paying tribute to his musical forbears. He gave a shout-out to his collaborator (and, before his incarceration for tax evasion, St. Louis citizen) Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers by playing a few songs from their musical partnership, including "So Contagious." A pre-recorded video paid tribute to Michael Jackson, which gave Kells time to put on a tuxedo and croon two Sam Cooke songs, "Bring It on Home to Me" and "A Change is Gonna Come." In light of his scandals with underage girls, he wisely sidestepped Cooke's classic "Only Sixteen."
The night came to a close with "Happy People," which featured a Stevie Wonder-like groove, a host of local ladies dancing on stage, and a shower of red and white confetti. For all of his sins, both in his private life and on record (thankfully "Trapped in the Closet" was absent from the set list), it's hard to stay mad at R. Kelly. He writes fun, if sometimes achingly stupid, songs about sex. That's it. That's his job. And, as it turns out, he's pretty good at it.