I got an e-mail last week from my friend Lane. "Let's go to the R. Kelly show at Madison Square Garden," it read. Of course, I was on board. I've been a fan of Kelly's for years and have written extensively about him (frustratingly, my essay on the greatness of Double Up is somehow not available online), but have never gotten the chance to see the man in person. What I got was incredible. The concert was full of Kelly-isms, surreal moments and (naturally) hit songs. But the greatest thing I saw all night was this:
If it's unclear (as most iPhone photos are), that's a station set up featuring two giant airbrushed murals of R. Kelly that you could stand in front of to get your picture taken. The price? $20. And the line to get these pictures was huge. When Lane attempted to get a closer look, he was chased away by the proprietor of this particular vending station. It was pretty remarkable, especially considering that the airbrushing wasn't even that good. I could understand paying a few dollars to stand next to a wax statue or a realistic stand-up of Kels, but a cheap airbrushed mural? I was taken aback.
Still, in typical R. Kelly fashion, he saved the real insanity for the stage. At one point during the set, a woman in the audience threw her panties at Kelly's feet. The singer picked them up and said something about "reciprocation." After a stagehand brought a dressing screen onto the stage, Kelly disappeared behind it and emerged a few minutes later holding his own underwear, which he then threw into the crowd (presumably at the female who donated her panties). "Let her keep those," he told security. Like all things involving R. Kelly, it was both bizarre and wonderful.
The rest of the show was just as amazing. Kels ran through just about any hit you could want to hear (many of them in medley form, however), save for any of the "Trapped in the Closet" fiasco. He also addressed his court case ("They told me nobody wants to hear that bullsh--, but I'm still here!") and sang a lot of his stage banter (he joked that the song he made up about tripping over a carpet on his set would be a radio hit soon). Throughout all the rumors, trials and strangeness that accompanies R. Kelly, it's easy to forget that the man has a truly incredible singing voice (which was best on display during his rendition of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me"). Kelly is that rare star who manages to be both an exceptionally talented artist and a ripe target for tabloid fodder — a combination that makes for an incredible live show. Thanks, Lane.