Out to make some extra cash on Thanksgiving weekend, bootleggers selling R. Kelly photographs and T-shirts weaved through the long line of traffic (Bentleys, Escalades, Lexus coups) waiting to enter the Nassau Coliseum parking lot Friday night on Long Island. Loyal fans piled into the arena in fur coats and freshly done hair weaves to witness the controversial superstar do what he does best. Never mind the fourteen counts of child pornography charges that Robert Kelly is still facing after five years in Chicago. Never mind that opening act Keyshia Cole has been complaining about Kells hogging the dressing rooms. Or that Ne-Yo was abruptly kicked off the thirty-six-city tour after only two shows. “Let them tell it, I was removed from the R. Kelly tour because of contractual agreements not being met, but that’s absolutely false,” Ne-Yo told BET. “People were talking more about my set than his and I don’t think he liked that too much.”
After seventeen years and more hits than he can pack into a two-hour show, it’s difficult to imagine anyone upstaging R. Kelly. “Ladies and gentleman, the Champ is here!” echoed through the arena alongside explosions and fireworks. The lights turned down, the screams turned up and the Champ made his way through the crowd in a bedazzled prizefighter cape, black shades and a white doo-rag, while dancers in lamé bikinis waited onstage in a boxing ring. Kells breezed through a medley of hits, including “That’s That,” “Hotel,” “Snake” and “Thoia Thoing.” “Y’all muthafuckas tired? I’m ready to go!” he announced. “I brought all my hits with me!” The crowd may have been expecting a concert, but they were in store for an opera, R. Kelly style. It was a musical. A comedy. A cabaret. An over-the-top drama.
Kells is forty years old, and freakier than ever. His legal woes have pushed his material further past the limits — from sexy to straight up raunchy — like an unapologetic middle finger waving at his naysayers. He gyrated front and center before launching into “TP-2” and “Strip for You,” on which he took off his belt and used it as a prop. He mimed as if he was spreading an imaginary woman’s legs and licking her, and the crowd lapped it up. He positioned a glittering cane at his crotch and slowly erected it, crooning, “Temperature’s riiising,” delving into his classic “It Seems Like Your Ready.” “If he don’t go down on you, then I will go down on yooou,” he sang to a fan in the front row, who was beside herself.
Kelly knew what his fans came for, and he gave it to them. “Excuse my language , but some of y’all muthafuckas went out and got your toes done!” he sang. “Nails done! Car washed! $600 weave!” He ensured that they’d get their money’s worth. “Tell us about Ne-Yo!” a male fan screamed out, before he and his friends started chanting, “Ne-Yo! Ne-Yo!” But Kells was busy singing favorites “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” “When a Woman’s Fed Up” and “Your Body’s Callin’ Me.” With only the keys backing him, Kelly crooned thankfully, “After seventeen years, somebody’s still callin’. After all I’ve been though, somebody’s still callin.'” He soon moved onto another song of thanks, dedicated to “the big booty girls,” instructing them to “turn around for me.” They complied as he segued into “Feelin’ on Yo Booty,” “Ignition (Remix)” and “Fiesta.”
“Let’s have a moment of silence for Kanye West’s mom!” Kells called out before his anthem about lost loved ones, “I Wish,” which concluded with his hype man handing him a cell phone. “I got a real important phone call,” Kelly told the crowd. “Maybe it’s Ne-Yo!” a female fan shouts. R then performed his instant classic “Real Talk,” an a cappella argument, and the entire arena sang and cursed along, line for line.
There were umbrellas, a bartender, a lap dance and more fireworks onstage during a segment of recent remixes — “Make It Rain,” “I’m A Flirt,” “I’m In Love With A Stripper.” “I wanna stick it, wanna lick it, if I could, I’d put my whole damn head in it!” Kells kept the urgency and adrenalin running on high speed. “They’re giving me problems backstage. They’re saying my show’s too sexual, it’s too long!” he announced. “It ain’t my fault I wrote all these hits!”
Suddenly, R’s began playing an electric guitar in a cloud of smoke, singing “Make It Rain” to the tune of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Soon, the stage turned into a jungle. Tribal drums played while dancers have Kells bound with his hands behind his back. A warrior woman in a headdress ordered that he be thrown into a hole, but, a booming voice announces, “The battle is far from over. The King rises again.” Kelly emerged victorious in a leopard-print warm-up jacket, singing the tropical island jam “Slow Wind.”
Kelly strutted out in a dapper long-tailed white suit for the show’s final segment, dramatically gesturing a baton like an R&B wizard conducting an orchestra, throwing music pages off the stand in a flurry while two doves fly across the stage into the rafters. About fifty fans climbed onstage to dance behind him during “Step in the Name of Love” and “Happy People,” which he extends into a medley of random tunes including “Merry Christmas” Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly’s “Joy and Pain” and John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back.” The crowd was filing out of the arena, but Kelly was still onstage, taking a long, slow bow with his hat in his hand before tossing it into the crowd. Confetti fell everywhere and the crowd was drained, but R. Kelly seemed like he could go all night. He certainly has plenty more on the way. “I’ve got a new album coming out, it’s called 12 Play 4th Quarter!” he shouted before finally exiting the stage. “Go get it!”