The mythology surrounding R&B icon R. Kelly often eclipses his musical legacy. And the horror stories that surround the 49-year-old singer overshadow that powerful and expressive voice and those catchy songs that have roped in listeners for 29 years.
Kelly's Buffet Tour, which came to the American Airlines Arena on Saturday night, showed the dichotomy fans have come to expect from Kelly: raunchy depravity oddly mixed in with innocence. In one corner, we have "You Remind Me of Something," and in the other, there's "I Believe I Can Fly." Each R. Kelly show feels largely like a Broadway production interspersed with personal conversations presented in a singsong manner, wholesome moments for the grandmothers in the crowd, and not-so-subtle, but genuinely charming humor (the kind where you can't tell if you're totally laughing with him or also a little at him).
The show started out with the dark side of Kelly. Two moons glowed on big screens on each side of the stage. A Vincent Price-esque voice began to tell the story of a talented young boy — presumably Kelly. The music would have charmed Dracula from his grave. Then, a bearded and bald Kelly emerged dressed in a black cape with huge, feathered wings while a blimp drone floated through the arena decorated like a shiny bat. Someone walked onstage and opened a bedazzled box from which Kelly removed a cigar and lit it up. As he started singing, confetti blasted through the room and smoke geysers burst up to the ceiling. The singer actually threw money out at the crowd. He didn't have a band out on this tour, but a DJ helped hype the arena, mostly women from the ages of 25 to 80, with a few snuggling couples.
"Y'all motherfuckers ready?!" he yelled in welcome. "I came 24-hours on a motherfucking bus, y'all motherfuckers gotta get louder than that." Kelly has spoken before about his fear of flying, which stems from the fatal plane crash of his former cohort and allegedly underage ex-wife, Aaliyah.
Kelly informed the crowd that Saturday's show was "big girl night." He started singing, "I'm fucking you tonight... " pointing to the girls in the crowd and asking, "You? You? You?"
"Not you! The big girl behind you!" he had to explain to one skinny girl. The crowd laughed and loosened up a bit.
During "The Zoo," Kelly rose from the stage on a white throne and even showed off his own Tarzan yell. Three stand-ins danced around wearing plush heads and hands, meant to look like cartoon versions of himself.
Of course, there was no shortage of the goofy ad-libs Kelly has become famous for. "This is the part I'm gonna make up some shit. I don't give a fuck... So hot up in here, can I get a towel to wipe myself down," he belted out in singsong. Someone handed him a towel, he wiped himself down and let someone in the audience wipe his face "sexy smooth" as he bit the fabric. He let that transition into "Feelin' on Yo Booty (Remix)." Though he touched on his usual sensual material, the overt sexual activity and actual crotch-grabbing by random ladies was more toned down than on his Single Ladies Tour.
Eventually the blimp drone, the one that was all fixed up like a bat, reappeared bright white with the words "R. Bot" written on its side. It flew out to music fit for Disney and talked to R. in a sweet robot voice. He directed it out to the back to film the crowd there, showing it on the big screen. Then to the right and left of the room. It was surreal, bizarre, innocent, but also a little cute — as Kelly sometimes tends to be. So naturally, he followed that segment with "Slow Dance," which he informed us he got "three kids out of."
He sang, "I'm looking for someone to come home with me. All you gotta do is be 21 and over" as folks ran across the stage with a huge sign saying "21 + Over." This part, given past allegations of child pornography and statutory rape, was particularly bizarre.
More than once, he stepped out into the crowd. His fans grabbed his hands while he was onstage, sang into his mic. Suddenly he popped up on the other side of the arena, dressed all in white, singing clean a cappella.
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If it wasn't clear before, Kelly can sing. The crowd was reciting the lyrics all along, writhing in sonic ecstasy, but at the end, they were just in it to win it. They wanted to show him they knew every word of "I Wish." Kelly mentioned, as he had before, that the room was full of "real R. Kelly fans."
The high moment took place when Kelly launched into Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and walked through the crowd from the back to the front of the room. He said that the song was the reason he writes music. It was there that he disappeared and reemerged from the depths of the stage with a doo-wop vibe and hit the trifecta of "When a Woman's Fed Up," "Happy Birthday," and "Step in the Name of Love," as the audience groped at their collars. Kelly's intended storyline of the night appeared to be that the devil became an angel.
The show closed with the singer walking out with the audience, and the castle that was on the screen earlier was transformed and shone in full sunlight. It's clear Kelly will never outrun his own demons. They are too thick to sidestep. But he'll take what he can get, rejoicing for now in being purged clean of his sins in his own mind and in the minds of his loyal followers.