"I came a long way not to be myself tonight," R. Kelly said early in his concert at the Forum on Saturday, making his only overt reference to the troubles that are dogging him. "I got to do my show."
The R&B singer was wearing a Shaquille O'Neal jersey when he hit the stage, but you have to figure that the Laker most on his mind these days is Kobe Bryant.
Like the Los Angeles basketball star, Kelly finds a dream career threatened by sex-related criminal charges. The Chicagoan is due in court next month to face 21 counts of child pornography stemming from a videotape allegedly showing him with a minor. The penalty could be 15 years in prison.
But unlike Bryant, who had a wholesome image shattered by his recent arrest in Colorado on sexual assault charges, Kelly's incident culminates a history that includes settlements of two lawsuits by Chicago women who claimed that they had sex with him as minors. In 1994, he reportedly was married for a short time to the late R&B singer Aaliyah when she was 15.
Remember when a sex scandal was the kiss of death for a performer? When Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in the late '50s, the rock 'n' roll world dropped him like a junked jalopy. Things have changed. Kelly's latest album, "Chocolate Factory," has sold more than 2 million copies since its release in February, eight months after his arrest. His new single, "Thoia Thoing," is making its presence felt on radio, and a greatest-hits album is due next month.
And at the Forum on Saturday -- the second date of a five-city tour undertaken after an Illinois judge granted the singer permission to leave the state -- he received a hero's greeting from the crowd, which appeared to fill at least three-fourths of the Inglewood arena. (Singer Ashanti, the opening act, certainly helped the draw.) The only signs of discontent in the area came from a small group of protesters on the street corner under the Forum marquee. "R. Kelly Get Help," read the sign held by one of them.
For Kelly, an hour-plus on stage must seem like a welcome respite from a sobering reality.
One problem: A lot of Kelly's music doesn't exactly take him very far from the issues that got him in trouble. He has built his stardom on an unusually blunt approach to romance, creating one graphic seduction scenario after another.
How would that play on stage, given the circumstances?
In fact, despite his proclamation about doing "my show," Kelly's concert was notably tamer than past extravaganzas, which have included erotic doings in cages and beds. His set list avoided most of his raunchiest material, and he kept his shirt on. When he brought fans up on stage, it was for a dance party, not a striptease.
That actually benefited him artistically, letting other aspects of his considerable talents get their due. He's a supple singer who evokes such classic voices as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and when he gives himself more than just his admiration for a woman's body to express, he can summon some stirring moments.
For Leon Russell's "A Song for You," which he dedicated to his late mother, he sat at a piano and sang with a gripping, elastic phrasing that reflected his gospel leanings.
Unfortunately, that was the evening's only instance of live, organic music. This was a cut-rate presentation, with all the backing provided by recorded tracks. That's fine for hip-hop -- Kelly has his strengths in that genre too, and much of the set was given over to bouncy rap sequences.
But if he's serious about taking a place among the great figures of R&B and even contemporaries such as D'Angelo and Musiq, he needs to lay it on the line with a band of live musicians and take a song from start to finish -- many of the selections Saturday were delivered in abridged versions.
The show also was clumsily paced, lurching to a halt midway through while a silhouette of Kelly was displayed on the video screen as he played bits of his hits on piano and invited the audience to sing along.
An odd show at an odd point in the star's life and in the public's attitude toward its heroes. The crowd's response must have been spirit-lifting for Kelly, whose expression was often at once wounded, playful and defiant -- the face of a martyr waiting for his judgment day.