The R. Kellyest moment of R. Kelly’s concert Friday in Tampa might’ve come during The Zoo, when the singer, perched in a white throne, draped in dancers and a white silken robe, warbled the lyric, "I’m your sexasaurus, baby," with a completely straight face.
Or perhaps it was when he acted out a live, voiced-over skit with a blinking robotic blimp named R-Bot that puttered around Amalie Arena with little evident purpose beyond delighting its master.
Or it could've been when he shot up via trampoline onto a second stage to belt out a few of his most heartfelt and inspirational bars, from Bump N’ Grind to I Believe I Can Fly, a cappella.
All of these moments screamed R. Kelly – silly, sexy, soulful and at times very, very strange. Over the course of his two-hour concert, these moments kept right on coming, one after the next, eventually sketching out a portrait of one of R&B’s greatest and most mystifying performers, in all his freaktacular glory.
That Kelly wanted to play around with his image was evident from the jump, as he emerged in a puff of smoke amid a chorus of dramatic, vampiric chanting, as if we were witnessing a summoning of Mephistopheles himself. His first few songs were among his most menacing, as he chomped on a stogie and tossed wads of cash to the front rows during Make It Rain and My Story.
But it didn’t take long before he got to the silky, over-the-top slow jams that are his specialty, including the Biggie Smalls duet F--- You Tonight. It didn’t take long because Kelly breezed through most of his songs at a lickety-split pace, delivering some as medleys and others as one- or two-minute snippets. By the end of the night, he’d performed at least part of some 45 songs – a veritable Buffet of R. Kellyness, to borrow the name of his latest album and this tour.
But while the night at times felt like you were skipping around a playlist, it’s not like the list was set to random. Kelly spliced the night into five loosely themed segments, each with its own outfit, divided up by video skits and games.
Following the opening Hard Set came the Sexy Set, filled with such boudoir-knocking, lyrically lascivious tracks as Cookie, Slow Wind and Strip For You, with Kelly literally dripping sweat from the stage while warbling out his love for the women in the crowd.
Then came the Party Set, with Kelly dishing out samples of enjoyably bouncy grooves like You Remind Me of Something, I'm a Flirt, Fiesta and Freaky In the Club – and, of course, Ignition (Remix), with the crowd beeping and tooting right along.
It was during the Party Set that Kelly, for some reason, seemed to reference his troubled legal background, specifically charges of child pornography and allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors.
While pleading for a lady on Honey Love, he howled: "All you have to be is 21, 21, 21 and older, and you can come home with me! You can play house with me! You can be the mother and I’ll be the daddy!" It’s hard to imagine what he was going for here – laughs? winks? approval? – but it was a bafflingly inappropriate bit of banter. Not only did it fall flat live, it felt more uncomfortable the more you thought about it afterward.
But when Kelly stuck to classic ‘90s grooves like 12 Play, Your Body’s Callin’ and Down Low, the crowd of more than 6,000 was putty in his palms. He never shied from showing them love (and why would he, considering tickets started at $65), thanking his "Day 1 motherf---ers" and "my ‘Leave R. Kelly Alone’ fans" for their 29 years of support.
"No matter what, y’all still calling on Kellz," he sang.
Over the last two sets – the Gospel Set and the Soul Set – it was easier to see why those fans keep coming back. When Kelly gets real, he can still sing with operatic force and drama, as on the warm and yearning I Wish or his gospelly rendition on Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. He emerged in an old-school silver suit and glasses for his night-ending powerhouse performance of When a Woman Loves and snappy Soul Train disco of Happy People and Steppin’.
In those numbers, the man’s soul – yes, he’s got one – comes out to shine, and you can feel your spirits rising. It’s a glimpse of what could be if R. Kelly scaled back just a bit, and instead of delivering a circus for all senses, he simply let us focus on his voice.
Of course, if he did that, he’d be depriving us all of the R. Kellyest moment of the night. It came between Number One Sex and Feelin’ On Yo Booty (the perfect spot, really), when Kelly, glistening in sweat from his fur-lined coat, started to croon the words, "Can I get a towel to wipe myself down? Can I get a towel to wipe myself down?"
"That sounds like a mother---ing song to me!" he chuckled. In the moment, it was unclear if the bit was pre-planned, or if we were genuinely witnessing R. Kelly write a new song about towels – which, let’s be honest, is 100 percent something he would do.
"Is there anybody that can take this towel," he sang, and "wipe my forehead, wipe my chin, wipe my cheeks, and wipe my mouth!"
He leaned into the audience to let a woman dab him down.
"Keep wipin’ me babe," he moaned into the golden microphone.
The crowd was dying with laughter. It was funny, it was freaky, it was perplexing and self-indulgent and unsettling and actually kind of brilliant. It was R. Kelly at the peak of his very specific R. Kellyan genius. For better and worse, nobody does it quite like him.
-- Jay Cridlin