From sweaty grinding to sweet gospel, on Wednesday night (Nov. 21), R. Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, brought his 'Single Ladies' tour to The Theater at Madison Square Garden. "The King of R&B" moniker is important to note, as R. Kelly seemed determined to flaunt his numerous number ones. His show felt like a non-stop greatest hits medley that only paused for appropriate dramatics and the much-needed towel wipe down.
Not to say that these dramatics and wipe downs were two different things for when R. Kelly requested a towel, he didn't stop the show, singing: "Can I get a towel? I'm sweatier than a motherf*cker." It was an improvised melody creating perhaps his next single, "Towel Song." And after letting a female audience member wipe down his sweaty head, he sang back to her, "Can I get my towel back?" so sweetly that you'd have no idea the context if not for the lyrics.
Very sweaty, R. Kelly wiped down multiple times, donning a heavy leather jacket with light-up features that flashed "SINGLE" down the arm and "V.I.ME" across the back. The 'Single Ladies' tour came complete with two on-stage stocked bars, each with tuxedoed bartenders and live female customers -- who watched the show while sipping cocktails and occasionally mouthing lyrics. "This show is designed for the single ladies. Couples are also allowed but if you don't keep your game tight you will also soon be single," Kellz laughed, before quickly launching into another song. Why talk when you could just sing? He had just plowed through a megamix of "Bump 'n Grind," "Hotel," "Freaky In The Club," "I'm F*cking You Tonight," "You Remind Me Of My Jeep," "Strip For You," "Gigolo," "Snake," "Fiesta," "I'm A Flirt," "Ignition Remix," and "Go-Getta." That's more than enough songs to fulfill the requirements of a full show, but R. Kelly wasn't even halfway done.
Despite the night's dedication to the single lady, constant call-and-response made the concert feel more like a wedding, with R. Kelly earnestly relishing in watching a packed house scream back the lyrics he birthed. In fact, the sheer number of songs he blazed through perhaps took more preparation than if he had stuck to a simple set-list. Midway through the show, he grabbed a paper set-list and boastingly read through the long list of songs he had already covered. "Jesus, real R. Kelly fans know real R. Kelly music," he said. Later he claimed, while laughing: "I'm gonna do every song I've ever written."
"Do" is debatable. During a segment he called "Kells Karaoke," microphones were set up facing the audience while a medley of his classics played, encouraging everyone to sing along. He sat at one of the 'Single Ladies' bars, sipping a cocktail and puffing on a cigar as the entire audience sang track to track, including "Honey Love," "I Can't Sleep Baby (If I)," "Etcetera," "Just Like That," "I Don't Mean It," and "She's Got That Vibe." "I want to give you your money's worth," he had said, twice, to the audience, but it seemed like we were doing all the work. To his songwriting credit, the crowd knew every word. And maybe that was the point.
Despite being able to hear the vast span of R. Kelly's career in just a short show, the songs he did perform in full made one wish he had done a more traditional set. "I Believe I Can Fly" was extraordinarily convincing emotionally, also further solidifying the power of his vocals. From his Motown-inspired throwback album 2010's "Love Letter," "When A Woman Loves" had Kellz channeling Sam Cooke while on an all-white stage enhancing the musical time travel. A triumphant full version of "Step In The Name Of Love" (remix, natch) had the audience two-stepping down the aisles.
While the 'Single Ladies' tour alludes to R. Kelly's most recent album "Write Me Back," both its singles ("Feelin' Single," "Share My Love") were performed. Also strangely, while the long-awaited new chapters of his serialized and cult-adored hip-hop musical "Trapped in the Closet" appeared on IFC on Friday (Nov. 23), R. Kelly didn't reference the project once. Even after announcing the big news that he's in talks to take the entire "Trapped" production to Broadway.
Whether or not that's true, R. Kelly did prove he's more than well-equipped for the task. Before leaving the stage to change clothes, he announced, "This type of music is why I can stay on stage for 2-3 hours," before proceeding to, for the first and only time, lip sync along to an opera track. During "Heaven I Need Hug," he sang gospel just as authentically as he had recited the chorus from "Sex In The Kitchen" only shortly before. Later, he brought a female fan into a white cage and performed a sexual puppet show -- a white cloth fell on top of the cage and the audience was treated to shadows having mock intercourse inside. Broadway wouldn't be such a far step for the all-around entertainer, but if that doesn't work out, R. Kelly, it turns out, is also a Sex Magician.