Review

R. Kelly preaches to the choir at the Saban Theatre

R. Kelly hit the Saban Theatre on Saturday behind his album 'Black Panties,' the R&B star's return to raunch

No one can say R. Kelly doesn’t follow through on a concept.

Welcoming his audience to the second of two concerts Saturday night at the Saban Theatre, the famously salacious R&B singer asked how many women were wearing black panties -- his favorite undergarment, he said, as well as the title of his latest studio album.

The ensuing shrieks suggested the answer was quite a few. But that wasn’t enough for Kelly, who summoned an associate bearing two pink-and-red shopping bags from Victoria’s Secret.

You can guess what was inside.

A collection of proudly explicit sex jams, “Black Panties” restores Kelly’s bawdy streak – the flair that made him the most influential R&B star of the last two decades -- following a pair of relatively chaste retro-soul excursions modeled on the work of Sam Cooke and the O’Jays. At the time of their release, shortly after Kelly’s acquittal in a widely publicized child-pornography case, those records felt like the singer’s attempt to repair his image.

And the gambit paid off: Last year, Kelly was as visible in the pop mainstream as he’s ever been, recording high-profile duets with Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber and performing at the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals.

Yet he might’ve misjudged the timing for his return to raunch, just before a series of disturbing news stories about alleged sexual abuse -- involving Bill Cosby and a fraternity at the University of Virginia --  made the violent imagery in songs like “Tear It Up” seem less a reflection of imaginative bedroom play than a manifestation of what’s been called a culture of rape.

As a result, perhaps, Kelly has spent much of 2014 comparatively out of sight, shoring up his core audience instead of extending his recent outreach.

His visit Saturday to the Saban -- a smaller venue than his usual Los Angeles haunt, the Nokia Theatre -- certainly appeared keyed to his most devoted fans, such as the woman sitting in my row who told me we must always find forgiveness in our hearts (especially, she added, for an artist capable of making music as brilliant as Kelly’s).

The 90-minute show almost entirely skipped over “Love Letter” and “Write Me Back,” the gentle albums that preceded “Black Panties,” and included only snippets of some of Kelly’s biggest crossover hits, including “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix).”

It was also less elaborate in its stagecraft than some of Kelly’s recent gigs, with only a DJ for accompaniment instead of the slick eight-piece band he brought to the Nokia in 2011 and 2012. (The setup did feature an onstage bar surrounded by women, one of whom tried on -- and happily showed off -- a pair of the underwear the singer had handed out.)

Wearing a long black cardigan over black leather trousers, Kelly performed some of the more aggressive material from “Black Panties,” such as the rags-to-riches “My Story” and “Spend That,” a growling hip-hop cut with the rapper Jeezy.

Yet he also reached back for the risqué come-ons with which he established himself: “Strip for You,” “You Remind Me of Something,” an unprintably titled (and bluntly straightforward) duet with the Notorious B.I.G.

Each roused a female-heavy crowd happy to sing along, particularly during one sequence Kelly delivered from the theater’s floor. Here all he had to do was mimic the opening keyboard riff from “Feelin’ on Yo Booty” to get his fans to take over for him.

But though there were occasional flashes of his trademark charisma -- as when he roared the beginning of his classic “Bump n’ Grind” -- the singer overall seemed more muted than he has lately, as though he’d been deflated by having to preach to the choir.

And even the choir turned against him once, booing loudly when a bit in which he invited women to take selfies with him went on for too long.

As befits his reputation, though, Kelly had a strong finish up his sleeve: the one-two punch of “Happy People” and “Step in the Name of Love,” two of his most elegant, exuberant songs, both about overcoming hardship with positivity.

He knew what message he wanted to leave his audience with.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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