R. Kelly 

Alltel Arena, Nov. 29

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There was a moment, after an early, particularly feverish medley of hits, when the music stopped, the crowd quieted and R. Kelly stepped to the front of the stage and peered out. He wore sunglasses, but on the jumbotrons mounted on top of the stage, in the zoom of the cameras, we caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were crazy, open impossibly wide (as big as softballs on the screen) and darting quickly across the crowd, like he'd just been plopped down onstage and couldn't figure out how he got there.

There is more than a good chance the 40-year-old Chicago native is a little touched. He is, after all, the composer of “Trapped in the Closet,” a 22-part “hip-hopera” with storylines about midgets and diddling preachers and no chorus. He is the R&B hero, who after being charged with more than 20 counts of child pornography, responded with “Heaven, I Need a Hug.”

Over the course of more than two hours on Thursday night, Kelly didn't pull out any excerpts of “Trapped” or petition for a “Hug,” but he did offer a bizarre purple-clad tribute to Prince, direct an overblown light show to the music of Beethoven's Ninth and play out a 5-minute jungle-king sequence with his dancers.

But for all the head-scratchers, Kelly's missteps were few and far between. He was almost always crazy, but usually thrilling, too. In the midst of “Bump 'n' Grind,” one of his most famous, older slow jams, he paused after singing “seems like you're ready to go all the way” to bait the crowd, telling them that the powers that be didn't want him to take things to the next level. After the audience got good and stirred up, Kelly started in with that conversational croon that he's made his own, giving the audience words to sing back to him: “We paid. To see. You go. All the. Way!” Then he got specific: “Hair done! Nails done! New outfit! Car washed!” He paused, then roared: “Six! Hun! Dred! Dollar! Weave!” Post-climax, he laughed a bit, then gently sang, “What happens in the building …” “… Stays in the building,” the crowd volleyed back.

Because this is a PG-13 newspaper, a lot that happened in the building — everything involving tongues and striptease and canes — will stay in the building, but it should be said that the audience, some 4,500 strong (about a third fewer than the singer drew at last year's show) were as captivated as any I've come across in Little Rock, particularly the woman directly behind me, who kept screaming, “I want to have your babies!” R. Kelly gave them no reason not to be.

He was audacious: He asked all the “big booty women” to turn around before he debuted his new song of the same name a capella. He was innovative: He made a phone conversation into a song, “Real Talk,” while singing into a cell phone. More than anything, he had stamina: Aside from “Sex in the Kitchen” and the aforementioned tracks, he must've done at least a snippet of every hit and single and B-side he's released over the last 17 years. He lip-synched on some of the big hip-hop driven numbers, when it didn't really matter much, and sang when he needed to.

Lindsey Millar



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