★★★★ (out of 5)
That’s a simple way to describe R. Kelly’s performance on Sunday night at Birmingham's BJCC Concert Hall.
Kelly’s 8:50 p.m. show was filled with song vignettes, macho charisma and sexual innuendo, dangled tantalizingly in front of the crowd for nearly two hours.
But it stopped just short of total satisfaction, partly because this talented singer, songwriter and frontman seems to want it that way. Everything he does is foreplay -- or “12 Play,” as Kelly so famously phrased it on his solo debut in 1993.
Fans here were kept in a state of thrall, waiting to see how far the R&B dynamo would go, with his tunes and his staging and his audience interactions.
Would Kelly sing a full version of “Your Body’s Callin',” “In the Kitchen,” “I’m a Flirt” or “Fiesta”? Would he actually pick out a woman that night, and bring her back to his hotel room? How much was happening in that cage draped with a translucent cloth, rocking back and forth on stage?
Kelly, 45, knew exactly how to excite his ticketholders, the majority of whom were swooning females.
Kelly -- self-satisfied, oozing attitude and in fine voice -- offered suggestive snippets of hits and signature songs, rarely giving up the entire goods.
He allowed fans down front to brush his body parts, dancing away from further contact.
He judged a bump-and-grind contest while seated on a gold-and-white throne, evaluating a handful of women as they worked their mojos from a remote stage.
Although Kelly opted for a neo-soul vibe on his last two records, paying homage to romantic traditions and classic crooners of the past, this show was pulled from a more provocative bag of tricks. In fact, it harked back to his 2001 performance at nearby Boutwell Auditorium, complete with shaking cage, crotch grabs and bedroom intensity.
If Kelly was prepping the audience for his next album, reportedly called “Black Panties,” well, that one should be a doozy.
Sunday’s concert, part of Kelly’s “Single Ladies” tour, was decked in an all-white theme, with its stage set, costumes and props. Relatively simple for the theatrical Kelly, it included a tall central staircase and two mini cocktail bars, complete with glasses and bartenders.
Oddly enough, Kelly took a break at one of those bars about three-quarters into the show, sipping on a drink and puffing on a cigar as music tracks played in the background. (He dubbed this segment “Kells Karaoke.”)
A boring interlude? Perhaps for some of us. Plenty of audience members seemed content to gaze at Kelly adoringly, biding their time with snapshots.
Kelly’s eight-member band was placed in limbo, as well, but the instrumentalists and backup singers must be accustomed to their boss’s eccentricities. Kelly’s always been a self-indulgent artist, and this quality certainly was in evidence, from his comments to the audience (laced with raunch, ego and F-bombs) to his “playa in da club” posturing.
Frankly, that’s another reason Kelly failed to reach the peak of performance on Sunday. The guy’s got skills -- no question of that -- but his lack of humility can be off-putting.
Also, he's been known to walk a precarious and confusing line, attempting to fuse sex demon with choirboy. Could we truly believe Kelly was sincere when he sang "Heaven, I Need a Hug" and "I Believe I Can Fly"?
Probably best not to dwell on that aspect. Suffice it to say that Kelly was a titillating force -- and any prudes in the house had to be blushing -- on his latest visit to Birmingham.