“Twenty-five years in the business, y’all still calling on me. I recognize a blessing when I see one, y’all.” R. Kelly
Two versions of rhythm-and-blues star R. Kelly appeared Thursday night at the River Center. The pre-Valentine’s Day audience in the nearly sold-out arena, including many of his lady fans, embraced both sides, one of them nice, one of them nasty.
“Happy Valentine’s Day ladies,” Kelly said as he started his hour-long show just after 10 p.m. “If you had me for Valentine’s Day,” he teased, “what would you have me do?”
The Kelly heard most often Thursday reflected his latest album, “Black Panties.” That album’s cover depicts the seated singer holding a nearly naked young woman, playing her with a bow like the stringed bows used to play a violin or cello.
Following some recent, comparatively soft, romantic albums, “Black Panties” marks Kelly’s return to sexual explicitness. For instance, he brags about his sexual process (“Leg’s Shakin’ ”) and sings an ode to strippers (“Throw This Money on You”).
Kelly performed the most explicit “Black Panties” song Thursday, an unapologetically lustful twist on marriage. It’s his favorite song, he said. And there was no need to guess what he was singing about in “All the Way,” another of his new album’s tracks.
The singer slipped far back into his repertoire early in the show with the smooth title song from 1993’s “Bump n’ Grind.” As he sang about getting freaky in the club, a dozen young women walked onto stage to take their seats on four couches stationed behind Kelly. No musicians were visible.
Saying he was hot and sweaty, Kelly pleaded for a towel. Handed a towel, he passed it on to a woman in the throng of ladies at front of the stage. He asked her to wipe him with the towel but then, playing the bad boy again, yanked it away from her. She wasn’t wiping the right spot, he complained.
Kelly apparently sang to pre-recorded tracks. He sang a cappella, too, giving some of his strongest performances of the night.
The singer saved sensitive, more romantic than sexual songs for late in the show.
“Twenty-five years in the business, y’all still calling on me,” he told his audience. “I recognize a blessing when I see one, y’all.”
The expression of gratitude was a cue for one of Kelly’s signature hits, “I Believe I Can Fly.” The inspirational ballad from 1996 won three Grammy awards. Kelly didn’t spare the emotion during his performance, a show highlight enhanced by a substantial light show that made “I Believe I Can Fly” the biggest production of the night.
Another of Kelly’s inspirational songs, “Step in the Name of Love,” from 2003’s “Chocolate Factory” album, ended the night before Valentine’s Day on a nice, happy note shortly after 11 p.m.
A series of opening acts including singers, comics and a record-spinning DJ filled the two-and-a-half hours between Kelly’s entrance and the concert’s scheduled starting time.
The bawdy, genuinely big Big Sexxxy showed up in a red bathrobe for one brief standup set and then returned in a gray suit.
J.J. Williamson, a comic from Jackson, Miss., who’s toured with Cedric the Entertainer and appeared on “Showtime at the Apollo” and BET’s “Comic View,” earned his laughs and said he was grateful for the gig. “I ain’t go’ lie,” Williamson admitted. “I need the little change!”