R Kelly / Sunshine Anderson / Syleena Johnson : New York Madison Square Garden

The full contradictions of Kelly are teased out in this barnstorming performance...

Sponsored or threatened. That’s the only way to explain why Syleena Johnson and Sunshine Anderson race through their support slots, reducing the impact of their anti-pain material. Then three screens appear suggesting you ‘Brace Yourself’ for the sexual overtones of the man who, for the last decade, has been the third person in innumerable teenage sexual relationships. Not romantic Al Green sex; R Kelly sex. Biting the pillow, screaming at each thrust, sex. In many respects, R Kelly is the urban Dr Ruth – he tells it like it is – and for many embarking on their sexual awakening, he’s a point of reference.

You can believe that this is going to be Kelly‘s last international tour cos he’s pulled out the stops. During several costume changes the screens come alive with mini-interviews, a ‘Shaft’ spoof (featuring Ronald Isley) and Kelly cajoling his audience to scream louder. It’s theatrical and entertaining. Everyone should do it.

By r&b standards, the stage set is impressive. A huge block launches three identical men high into the air. A voice booms “will the real R Kelly please stand up?” and he steps forth, pulling the mic from his [I]crotch[/I]. Ticker tape rains down. P Diddy stands. Women scream and the Latin-by-way-of-the-Bronx groove of ‘Fiesta’ thunders. Kelly, a soul-boy, is a diverse talent, (having written hits for Michael Jackson, Aaliyah, Celine Dion, Jay-Z and Nas) but tonight he uses rap as his back-up (two emcees prowl the stage reciting his lines as six female dancers flit around).

Kelly thrusts his pelvis so many times he’s in danger of groin strain; he warns that a shag with him will leave you bow-legged; he dry-humps two dancers; he impersonates Stevie Wonder; he lies on the ground, suggesting someone to ‘sit on his face’. Then, in stark contrast he stops to talk about how the streets killed Tupac, Biggie (huge cheer), Marvin Gaye and his beloved mother. Her picture stares down from every screen during ‘I Wish’ and suddenly ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ makes more sense. The shift bears no relevance to the carnality that preceded it, but goes some way to explaining the contradiction between the song-man and the sex-smith.

Jacqueline Springer