Review: R. Kelly gets freaky for Christmas at the Fox

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

R. Kelly kicked off his holiday-themed – make that extremely loosely holiday-themed – 12 Nights of Christmas tour at Detroit’s Fox Theatre Friday night, mixing a bit of yuletide cheer into his usual brand of freak-mode bedroom balladeering.

Everything was ready for a visit from Santa Claus – or Santa Kells, as the evening’s merch branded the Chicago singer – with a Christmas tree and a fireplace with stockings as the show’s festive set. But this was a Kells Christmas, so of course there was also a functioning bar on stage, with several female patrons on stools to help set the mood.

They weren’t the only ones imbibing during the 90-minute show. “I’m drunk, so I’m gonna keep it real,” Kelly announced about a third of the way into his performance. “If you expected to just hear some Christmas songs tonight, you might as well leave right now.”

He had already made it clear the show would be a light on Christmas and heavy on Kells, running through renditions of sex jams “The Zoo” and “Strip for You,” and he was in the process of freestyling a song about how hot it was on stage in his blue fur coat. “I got this big ass fur on,” he sang, making up the words as he went along. “You know I’ll make a song about anything. Can I get a towel to wipe my face?”

He then approached a woman in the front row and requested she towel him down, but he did it in song form. “Baby take a towel, and wipe my fa-a-a-ce,” he sang, leaning toward the woman. He then instructed her to wipe his forehead, cheeks, lips and tongue, and he stood up and extended his pelvis toward her. “Now grab it!” he said, and without hesitation the woman reached up and grabbed Kelly’s, urm, area. She took the singer by surprise and he stepped back with a look of shock on his face. “I like that (expletive)!” he announced.

We were far away from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

It was unclear how much Christmas was originally intended to be in Kelly’s Christmas show, which followed the October release of Kelly’s “12 Nights of Christmas” album. The night followed a rather loose script and some songs seemed to be improvised on the fly, with other interludes and skits feeling incongruous to the flow of the show.

The night opened with two actors on stage following along the text to a giant holiday book set to a recording of Kelly’s “Once Upon a Time.” They seemed to be setting up a narrative for the evening but afterward they were never seen again. An R. Kelly mascot in a plush head then introduced Kells, who took the stage to “Step in the Name of Love” while smoking a cigar. “Snowman” came several songs in, but most of the 30-odd songs in the set were hits from Kells’ golden era, with occasional lip-service paid to the holidays.

It never got as randy as it did with the towel-wiping incident again, but Kells announced his inebriation several more times, and he both spent time at the on-stage bar and had its keepers bring him drinks while he performed.

It was sloppy and disorganized but fans didn’t seem to care all that much; for them, Kells himself was enough of a holiday treat. The singer, one month shy of his 50th birthday, played up all sides of his persona, mixing libidinous slow songs with party anthems, hip-hop joints and old school soul, switching styles and genres enough to induce whiplash.

His level of engagement wavered, but he showed how easily he could turn it on when he wanted. “When a Woman Loves,” with its classic, throwback R&B style, was an out-and-out stunner, with Kelly effortlessly running vocal scales like he was warming up his voice. And late in the show, Kelly sat down at a red velvet-trimmed piano and offered up a warm, faithful rendition of “The Christmas Song” as faux-snow rained down from above. It was a moment of simplicity and beauty, and it truly lived up to the evening’s billing.

How that Kelly is the same artist as the one who just minutes before had been repeating the cringe-inducing “toss your salad” line from “In the Kitchen” multiple times is anyone’s guess. But it goes to show Kelly remains a study in dichotomies, not only in his career, but even during the course of a single concert.


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