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Sex is always selling for R. Kelly

The controversial R&B star insists he was once shy. Of course, judging from his sizzling 'Singles Ladies' show, it's hard to tell.

November 02, 2012|By Gerrick D. Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • R. Kelly, performing in 2011, has a simple goal with his shows: “Hopefully, people will hook up from this.”
R. Kelly, performing in 2011, has a simple goal with his shows: “Hopefully,… (Mark J. Terrill, AP )

OAKLAND — During R. Kelly's "Single Ladies" show Wednesday , every crotch grab, pelvic thrust and naughty exchange with the audience — and there were plenty — was met with screams, whether it came from the nosebleed seats, the orchestra pit or the two bars built into his set (six ladies watched from the stage, with cocktails).

"All of the single ladies are going to come out, and that's going to bring the guys because they are going to go somewhere all the ladies will be," Kelly said with a laugh in his dressing room before the show at Paramount Theatre while sipping a cocktail of his own. "We're going to make this one big giant music matchmaking game."

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Wearing dark sunglasses, Kelly is accompanied by a small entourage. He initially appears reserved but breaks into huge grins when discussing his kids and spontaneous song when talking about his music.

His favorite subject, though, is the one he comes back to most often: "Hopefully," he says of the show, which he brings to Nokia Theatre this weekend, "people will hook up from this."

The art of seduction has become a hallmark of the self-proclaimed King of R&B, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, and his live show is the bread and butter of that image.

Twenty-plus years ago an up-and-coming Kelly was searching for a gimmick to liven his set. The Chicago native crafted the raunchy song, "12 Play," an unapologetically raunchy tale of how he makes love. As the saying goes, sex sells. In Kelly's case it really sold. The album, also titled "12 Play," launched one of R&B's most successful singing careers. Kelly has more than 38.5 million albums sold and 12 No. 1 singles on the R&B charts.

"I never wanted to just have a musical connection with my fans. I wanted to have a spiritual connection with them as well," said Kelly, 45. "To have that, you have to be true to what you're doing."

Eleven albums in — he's touring behind the June release "Write Me Back" — the divorced father of three still finds plenty of ways to connect with female fans. At the top of the show at the Paramount Theatre he had the crowd rise for the "Single Ladies Anthem" — and with the snap of a finger the left sleeve of his white leather jacket illuminated to read "Single." One usher, intoxicated by Kelly's charm, swiveled her hips and could barely focus on directing patrons to seats.

"You've got us hot in here Kells," two women in their 30s shouted approvingly when he ran through another suggestive cut, "Sex in the Kitchen." He then turned subjects such as the zoo, the solar system and his car into oddly genius sexual metaphors. Kelly's appeal ("Write Me Back" debuted at No. 5) is filled with irony given how his stock plummeted after an underage sex scandal that led to criminal proceedings in 2008 (it took more than six years to go to trial, but he was acquitted of all charges).

The singer was blacklisted by a host of urban radio stations during the ordeal. A bitter feud with Jay-Z also provided tabloid fodder after building tensions resulted in canceled tour dates and a member of Jay's entourage pepper-spraying the singer in 2004.

Kelly tackles some of these setbacks in a recent memoir, "Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me," but more often glosses over specifics of the child pornography trial. His author's note states, "Certain episodes could not be included for complicated reasons."

He does, however, write at length about how the trial and blow back affected him personally and professionally. He also tackles his struggles with illiteracy and opens up about being molested as a child. "I thought it was time for people to know where Robert came from," he said with a pause. It's clear it's not his favorite subject. "I was scared as hell. I've always been scared to talk about my personal life … worried about what people will think of me, or what they will say."

The Lothario role that made Kelly famous and infamous takes a back seat on his recent albums, including "Write Me Back." Inspired by the classic soul of Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendergrass and Sam Cooke, the discs emphasize simmering hooks and balladry paired with classically minded arrangements that present Kelly as a chivalrous ladies' man.

The singer has adopted plenty of personas on album and on stage, but all, he says, are far removed from the kid he once was. "I was always a shy guy. When I was a street performer I would put on dark shades," he said. "In the beginning I didn't know how to look a girl in her eye and sing a song to her, so I would put them on."

Fans shouldn't get too comfortable with the genteel, romantic Kelly though. His next album promises a return to his sweat-soaked loverman past. It's titled "Black Panties."

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