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Review: R. Kelly is no bump, all grind at the Forum

R. Kelly was standing near the lip of the stage at the Forum, performing his song “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” when several women in the audience reached up to caress his leg. Each was touching him softly; none appeared to want to distract the singer from his job.

Even so, three women rubbing one guy’s leg? You’d think the guy would notice. Yet Kelly gave no indication he had.

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Perhaps it was his drop-crotch motorcycle pants, designed as they were to protect from friction. My sense, though, is that Kelly -- the R&B superstar whose proudly lascivious slow jams set the template for the genre throughout the 1990s and 2000s -- has been caressed so many times by so many women that he’s simply grown inured to the feeling, the same way a pilot no longer notices the roar of an airplane.

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“Twenty-nine years in the business and y’all still coming to see me,” he said at one point in Saturday’s show, and though he sounded grateful, there wasn’t much excitement or surprise in his voice.

I could relate: Watching this deeply routine gig, billed as part of Kelly’s tour behind his 2013 album “Black Panties,” I experienced a version of the numbness he seemed to be suffering from.

It’s a curious time for Kelly to hit cruise control, given the threats to his once-unchallenged position at R&B’s center. First there’s the new generation of popular young singers -- Frank Ocean and the Weeknd and FKA twigs -- looking to define the genre in their own image.

Then there’s the refreshed media attention on accusations of sexual abuse, many triggered by “Black Panties,” which found the singer returning to raunch following two comparatively gentle retro-soul excursions.

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In other words, if ever there were a moment for Kelly to make the case for his continued relevance, it’s right now.

Yet most of Saturday’s concert in Inglewood seemed uninspired by that need, or by much of anything at all. Accompanied by a DJ (rather than the nimble live bands he’s toured with in recent years), Kelly strung together snippets of his many hits with little evident care; the sequence of songs felt haphazard, free of the mounting intensity he knows how to create.

And though his singing was powerful, it didn’t add to or complicate what we already know about familiar classics such as “Ignition (Remix)” or “Bump n’ Grind.” (I can’t say what his singing brought to his newer songs -- including those from an album due out next month -- because he played virtually none of them.)

Kelly managed one thrilling sequence early in the show when he began telling the crowd about a run-in with a security guard he said he’d had on his way to the stage. The guard, Kelly said, had advised him to keep his act clean, which prompted the singer to launch into an apparently improvised ditty about how he couldn’t believe what this guy was asking.

“I just wanna be me tonight,” he sang over rolling quiet-storm piano chords. “Can I be me tonight?”

The medium-sized crowd, which made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers, roared its assent. But Kelly wasn’t up to the job he was setting himself.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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