Over the summer, as his song “Blurred Lines” was entering its second month atop the Hot 100,
" 'Lost Without U' played on the Wave," the singer told me with a touch of regret, referring to the feather-light ballad of his that in 2007 became a staple on L.A.'s KTWV-FM (94.7). Also known as the Wave, the easy-rolling radio station broadcasts what it calls "smooth R&B," but for Thicke that appellation signified a problem. "Here I am thinking I'm some kind of edgy artist," he said, "and now I'm playing on elevators."
No one onstage Friday night at the
But both Kenny G and Kem, the Detroit soul singer who headlined the show (albeit rather briefly), are working in a space that’s been reshaped this year by Thicke and a handful of other smartly dressed slicksters, including
Armed with songs such as "Blurred Lines," "Treasure" and "Get Lucky," these young hitmakers have taken ideas and textures from the Wave's deeply unhip sphere into the au courant realm of Top 40 pop. There are even a couple of Wave-appropriate numbers on the self-titled album Beyoncé surprise-released late last week.
Which leaves the original smooth operators with two options: capitalize on the sudden stylishness of a glossy sax solo or resist the temptation to go pop. At the Nokia Theatre, before a mostly middle-aged audience, Kenny G and Kem seemed still to be making up their minds about which route to follow.
Introduced by the host of the Wave's drive-time "No-Stress Express," Kenny G didn't disrupt any notions about him with his material; he stuck to the soupy instrumental themes for which he's known, along with seasonal tunes such as "White Christmas" and a medley of "Deck the Halls" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Yet the saxophonist, always a theatrical figure, was especially showy Friday. He began his set by walking down an aisle from the rear of the venue, high-fiving crowd members along the way as he played, and once he got onstage the spectacle continued with one of his trademark held notes; here it probably lasted for a full minute.
In these bits, Kenny G was using his soft-edged technique to ingratiate himself with his listeners -- the objective, more or less, of the entire smooth jazz and R&B project. Elsewhere, though, his playing took on a surprisingly aggressive quality, as though he were determined in some of his solos to spray as much sound in as many directions as possible.
Heard out of context, the music would've felt almost confrontational; as part of Soulful Christmas, it suggested the search for a way out.
Kem had no use for any such roughness. His set, for which he was backed by an expert 10-piece band, moved frictionlessly from elegant adult-contemporary soul songs such as "Love Calls" and "You're on My Mind" -- the latter a clear precursor to Timberlake's "Take Back the Night" -- to cuts from Kem's handsome 2012 holiday album, "What Christmas Means."
That title is instructive: In his lyrics, Kem is more searching, and more precise, than many of his R&B peers; he's the type of songwriter to utilize the phrase "simply stated," as he did Friday in "Be Mine for Christmas," which he accurately described as " 'Me and Mrs. Jones' meets 'Baby, It's Cold Outside.' "
Along with that sharp eye for detail, though, came a barbed stage presence. Before his song "Golden Days," a kind of philosophical pep talk about self-determination, Kem delivered a brief religious spiel, then admitted that his God talk could turn off non-church audiences.
But he'd been paid before he picked up the microphone, he added with a laugh, so he'd say whatever he wanted.
For a little while, anyway. After only 40 minutes, just as his band was digging into its groove, Kem bid the crowd good night and dashed offstage. People were reluctant to leave their seats, unsure whether the singer was to return; some shouted for him to do just that. It wasn't a smooth exit, and perhaps that was the point.