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Pop Music Review

R. Kelly: Still a 'Bump N' Grind'

The R&B balladeer gets intimate as he tries out the Arrowhead Pond's cozier new theater configuration.

July 30, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In R&B singer, songwriter and producer R. Kelly's world, the struggle between the wants of the body and the needs of the soul isn't really a struggle at all. It's a slam dunk for the body, for Kelly inhabits a world that rarely extends beyond the confines of the four walls that surround his bed.

His two-hour "TP-2.com" concert Saturday in the new Theater at the Arrowhead Pond--a setup allowing the 18,000-seat Anaheim arena to be scaled down comfortably for 5,000-to 7,000-seat performances--aspired to higher ground occasionally, but usually reveled in matters of the flesh.

His boudoir calls in such new songs as "Strip for You" and old ones including "Bump N' Grind" delighted the women who made up the majority of the less-than-capacity crowd. They shrieked at every crotch grab--which meant lots of shrieking--and boastful lyric that make him the anti-Jagger: This is one singer who apparently never has trouble getting, or giving, satisfaction.

Kelly spoke in a short video segment, projected on a large video screen behind the stage midway through the show, of how he wants to combine theater and music in new and provocative ways.

Provocative it was, from the high point of a '30s-inspired gangster number to the low of a mock love-making session that found Kelly inside a steel cage with two of his comely assistants.

New it wasn't. The duel of sacred and profane has been played out before--and better--by everyone from James Brown and Marvin Gaye to Al Green and Prince.

At times, you wonder whether Kelly's act is merely a cunning satire on the ultra-sensual R&B singer stereotype.

But unlike Eminem's Slim Shady persona, Kelly provides little differentiation between alter and ego. He wants it both ways, and had no problem unleashing a stirring gospel rave-up near the show's end during which he dedicated "everything I do to God," having spent the previous 90 minutes happily spinning out his soft-porn balladry laced with hip-hop sensibilities.

Opening acts Sunshine Anderson and Syleena Johnson provided real-world counterpoint to Kelly's sexual fantasy land approach.

Anderson's vocals were frequently buried by her band and backup singers. Still, the North Carolina singer-songwriter was a natural on stage, gamely offering one woman's no-nonsense take on the battle of the sexes as played out on her recent debut album "Your Woman."

Johnson also has a striking major-label debut album in "Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness." She could only hint at its virtues in a 15-minute opening slot during which she had to sing over a recorded backing track.

Pond officials say they spent about $1 million on the new Theater at the Pond setup, part of a national trend among sports arenas to attract smaller-scale shows.

A ceiling-to-floor acoustically treated curtain cuts the arena space essentially in half, the floor--with seating for about 1,000--is carpeted, and five huge chandeliers hang from the rafters.

The goal of creating a tonier environment is effectively met, even though the mile-high ceiling ensures that no one will mistake this place for the Universal Amphitheatre, where Kelly's tour stopped Friday.

One problem is the view from upper-deck seats, where lighting and speaker rigging can obstruct sight lines. Sound, however, was better in the middle and upper level than on the floor, where over-amped bass and drums provided seismic-level rhythmic accents.

Nothing's perfect, but this arrangement at last provides Orange County with a much-needed mid-sized concert hall.

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