Ladies, is it OK if Kells gets a little freaky?
No, seriously, he's asking. For the first time, perhaps. Ironically, he's making a case.
"Can I start some of the old sex songs for ya?" asked infamous R&B superstar R. Kelly during his Thursday night concert at the Allstate Arena. Then he declared: "I know this is the 'Love Letter' tour, but we're gonna start with some sex!"
Start? This was 15 songs into the set -- I counted 40 titles in the 90-minute show ("I've got a lot of songs to sing," he threatened), though nearly all were abbreviated into a nearly non-stop medley -- and he'd already run through plenty of sleaze.
But Kelly was all suited up, looking crisp and proper, singing "Freaky in the Club" with a surprisingly businesslike manner, hardly freaky at all. He quickly dropped in a few songs from his latest album, "Love Letter," which ditches most of his iconic lewdness in favor of soul music classicism and homage. He purred through the title track and the soft, safe, utterly bland ballad "Number One Hit." Were we to believe that his lecherous infamy was really in the past tense?
The bridge from "Number One Hit" to the song "Number One Sex," however, is short, and Kelly roared across it in no time. He couldn't help himself.
Thursday's show was three years and three days since Kelly was acquitted in Chicago of 14 counts of child pornography. The lengthy scandal tainted his music for some and increased his renegade status for others. "Love Letter" and its resulting tour, front-loaded with seemingly respectable old-world charms, seem designed to pad the narrative of this 44-year-old South Sider. He's not the wild young minx he used to be, but now he trots out his past as a virtual playground. It's all just good, dirty fun, don't cha know.
Thus the pretense of asking our permission as he vamped his way through "Strip for You," steering the show back to the old Kelly -- the one with little focus, no attention span, filthy intentions and that silly opera voice he thinks is so hilarious. The songs flew by, sometimes in just two lines, as if someone were spinning the radio dial of his career. Often, the band started a riff, the crowd sang the song and all Kelly did was soak up the adoration.
He ended "Number One Sex" by sprinting into the middle of the crowd, panting and then screaming "I'm coming!" repeatedly before stopping the song dead, standing firm and soaking in about two minutes of rapturous applause. "I'm-a do the rest of the show from right here," he said, and proceeded to improvise and quote several songs a cappella amid the throng. "F---in' You Tonight," "Sex in the Kitchen," "Bump N' Grind," "Feelin' on Yo' Booty," a fiery and brimstoned spew through "Real Talk" -- Kelly may have asked permission to sing the old sleaze, but he knew what this crowd wanted to hear.
He bookended the show with more attempts to place himself within a respectable pop culture canon. The show began with a black-and-white, "Casablanca"-like film in which a tuxedoed but wooden Kelly orders drinks at a bar while a busty dame begs him to take her back. Near the end of the concert, a congratulatory letter from Kelly's long-deceased mother scrolled on the video screen between montages of Kelly in his "R&B thug" days and a series of family photos set to a Gladys Knight song. One of his final performances was the recently Grammy-nominated "When a Woman Loves," in which he eventually falls to his knees in an Otis Redding fit of huffing and histrionics.
But Kelly's show was less a concert than a rollicking revue, and he should set it up in Vegas where he belongs. They've been catering to his kind of freakiness for ages, and what happens out there fortunately stays out there.