We’re used to seeing all kinds of things from R&B overachiever/successful defendant R. Kelly, but never confusion.
R. Kelly’s Verizon Center appearance Saturday night was an awkward, poorly paced mash-up: There was some of the gleefully prurient R. Kelly we all know and love/recoil in bemusement from, plus a little bit of the new, more chaste persona he’s channeling on his seven-month-old “Love Letter” album, a throwback to ’60s soul. But Kelly isn’t nearly as gifted as, say, Raphael Saadiq or even Cee Lo Green at wringing vital new sounds from vintage influences.
No, we still go to Kelly for the over-the-top, libidinous singing that begat 22 chapters of “Trapped in the Closet” and tens of millions of album sales. Despite a “Love Letter”-themed stage set and video segments, Saturday’s show was light on actual songs from the album and heavy on the old hits, albeit in ring-tone-abridged versions. He kept his finger on his eight-piece band’s “skip” button, waiting a full hour to actually finish a song. (“Ignition.” It was great.)
The show felt as unfinished as most of its performances: It was among the shortest I’ve ever seen from an arena-level headliner, if you factor in that probably 15 of its 85 minutes were prerecorded. These clips included a bizarre, treacly-piano-scored, cursive-font letter to the fans supposedly from Kelly’s deceased mother. (“He put me up to this,” it read in part.)
Then came a slide show of R. Kelly photos — not childhood photos, like you might actually want to see of a famous person, but glossy professional shots of the adult Kelly, just like the ones available for purchase outside. When Kelly returned to belt his finale of “When a Woman Loves” out to the arena’s empty upper ring, it was at once completely bombastic and not nearly enough.