Superior talent and scores of hits are great. But brilliant marketing and a loyal fan base will make a talented hitmaker unstoppable — even an accused child pornographer. Just ask the folks who packed Philips Arena Saturday night for R. Kelly’s Love Letter tour. The still beleaguered soul veteran crooned, sweated and wailed out a significant portion of material spanning his near 20-year career.
Kelly's set began with a 1940s, Casablanca-themed video, alongside a blond-wigged actress who reminisced on their “past” by name checking his chart-topping songs and albums.
The suit and scarf clad Kells strutted onto the brightly colored big-band designed stage set with four voluptuous dancers, moving from the family reunion-friendly “Happy People” to the party anthem “Fiesta” to the subtly racist “Thoia Thoing” which seems to mock Asian accents.
Lawrence Welk he is not.
While his 90-minute set was high on entertainment value, it was more like a series of horny text messages than romantic love letters. He glided down a ramp to a narrow platform encircling the first few rows of fans for “Strip For Me,” during which he shouted, “Somebody better strip up in this muthafucka. I was in the ATL for 10 years; I know there’s some strippers in here.” The audience was spared, but only by the most blatant come-ons: “Sex Me” and “Feelin’ on Yo’ Booty.” He even sung three different versions of his first major hit, “Bump N’ Grind,” sprinkled throughout the night.
Noticeably absent were the kinder, gentler sounds of “I Believe I Can Fly” and “I Wish.” His best attempt at sentimentality came with “When A Woman Loves” and a video montage of some uplifting career highlights, followed by his late mother’s words in a “letter from heaven” urging fans to continue to support him.
Marsha Ambrosius and Keyshia Cole were also there to show their support as opening acts. Ambrosius, who opened the show with cuts from her solo debut, Late Nights & Early Mornings, is no stranger to being aligned with a controversial male figure. She penned Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” while still a member of the duo Floetry. Her performance showed that she has fully made the transition from the neo-soul coffeehouse set to mainstream R&B star.
A vocally powerful Keyshia Cole was equally delightful, rapping her own tribute to Biggie Smalls at the end of her performance of “Let It Go.”
The show ended with a recording of Kelly singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as confetti and streamers were shot from the stage to the floor level.
The evening made me wonder if Kelly’s diehard fans are able to ignore the most delusive aspects of his lyrical content. Unlike the “Sexual Healing” offered by his key influence, Marvin Gaye, who invited a consensual lover to share in mutual satisfaction, Kelly convinces the objects of his lust to give up the goods then shames them into keeping it on the "Down Low."
No amount of sparkle or gloss was enough to keep him from looking, at times, like an aging lounge singer with extra-dirty music headed the Vegas revue route. Not sure Ol’ Blue Eyes would have liked the (mis)appropriation of his song, but for the R, doing it his way has served him well.
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