By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Plenty of R&B singers are happy to work a couple into a hot lather, and then let them retreat to more intimate surroundings. R. Kelly would be first in line to stand in the doorway and watch.
For nearly 20 years, Kelly’s sexually outrageous songs have been a staple on urban radio. Although mainstream audiences know him best for the saccharine “I Believe I Can Fly,” Saturday’s Sprint Center crowd had no problem singing along to any of his dozens of Top 40 R&B hits.
Kelly’s most recent album is “Love Letter,” an album that found channels Burt Bacharach more than “Letters to Penthouse,” but he had no trouble mixing the upscale new material with the more explicit older tunes.
“They said I shouldn’t mix the classy songs with the sex songs,” Kelly told the crowd, “but sex is classy.”
The 90-minute concert was divided into three acts. While each act was distinct, they also felt unfinished. Kelly and his tight eight-piece band rapidly flitted from song to song, rarely lingering on one number long enough to see it all the way through.
The first part included slow jams such as “Number One Hit,” “Happy People” and a chopped and screwed version of “Thoia Thoing.” During “Strip for You” Kelly encouraged women to take off their clothes for him. A few stray T-shirts flew his way.
After a short video, Kelly re-emerged with some of his best club tracks, working the crowd into a frenzy with “Fiesta,” “I’m a Flirt” and “Ignition (remix).” Kelly let the crowd handle Kelly Price’s part on their duet “Friend of Mine,” which segued into the soul rant “Real Talk.” He returned to the sultry material with “When a Woman Loves” before inviting about three dozen women from the crowd onstage for “Step in the Name of Love.”
The upper level of the Sprint Center was curtained off, but the lower bowl was mostly full. More empty seats emerged the farther one got from the stage, but both the performer and the audience’s consistently high energy made the room seem packed.
Relentlessly shuffling through Kelly’s catalog in incomplete snippets was like spending time with a sex addict with attention deficit disorder. Instead of persistently tossing pebbles at the bedroom window, the jukebox approach was more like running around the house and ringing the doorbell, testing the patio door, rapping on the windows and pulling on the storm cellar door.
Keyshia Cole and Marsha Ambrosius performed 30-minute sets, but the experiences were night and day. Ambrosius, formerly part of the duo Floetry, has the better voice, but her set was poorly paced. A diversion into old school R&B hits masked her talents and wasted set time. Her performance was nearly salvaged by a reading of Floetry’s “Say Yes” and her own “Far Away.” Cole’s set was nonstop energy. The music paused long enough for Cole to call the ladies to their feet where many remained for the rest of her set, which included anthems like “I Should Have Cheated,” “Let It Go” and “Take Me Away.” Let’s hope Ambrosius was taking notes.