NEW YORK — The magic is back. R. Kelly still has it. Friday night at Wamu Theater at Madison Square Garden, the once legal-trouble-ridden singer showed why he’s one of music’s all-time greats, keeping the audience on its feet for almost all 90 minutes of his performance.
The Ladies Make Some Noise Tour gives R. a chance to dig through one of the deepest catalogs of classics of any current viable act. Surprisingly, almost halfway through the show, he spoke about his legal battle and victory.
“This is the first tour since my court case,” said Kells, who was found not guilty on 14 counts of child pornography last year. “I’m still here. I’m still here!” he said with palpable sincerity, garnering applause. Then he started singing, “Thank you, Jesus.”
“When I was walking outta court, I was singing to myself, ‘Heaven, I need a hug/ Is there anybody out there ready to embrace a thug?’ ” he added.
Friday night’s R. Kelly concert once again showed that the singer has mastered every area of live performance. Some women were literally climbing over barricades to dance in the aisle as Kelly closed with two of his signature records, “Step in the Name of Love” and “Happy People.”
But Kelly could have closed with any of the many timeless hits that he’s put out during the past 15 years. Much like Jay-Z or Mary J. Blige, Kells performs to audiences that obviously have their own personal relationships with the records and the music forever stamped in their hearts.
The concert started off with a red carpet being rolled out and female audience members standing onstage behind a velvet rope, making the scene look like the entrance to a hot club or a major industry party.
Kelly came out in sunglasses, jeans, a black T-shirt and a sport coat. He went from his “Flashing Lights” freestyle to a frenzy-causing medley of celebrated tunes: “That’s That Sh–” went into “Wonderful,” which went into “We Thuggin’,” which went into “Thoia Thoing,” which went into “I’mma Flirt.”
It seemed like he could toss out records forever. Then he stopped and spoke — or rather sang a melody to a stagehand.
“Can you move that carpet, please?/ ‘Cause I almost tripped three goddamn times.” He repeated this impromptu, sing-songy request a few times before talking to the crowd: “Y’all know I make a song outta everything. Y’all laughing, but that sh– be on the radio.”
Kelly then paraded out even more classics, including “It Seems Like You’re Ready” and “Bump N’ Grind,” before adding some new lyrics to the show. He made up a song about women with no junk in the trunk.
“Little-bootie girls, would you stand and turn around/ Slap it and ask the big-bootie girls, ‘How you like me now?’ ”
This transitioned into “Feelin’ on Yo Booty.”
Kelly’s covers added another dimension to the show. He impersonated Ron Isley when singing the song he wrote and produced for the legend, “Contagious.” The crowd took over the duty of singing Kelly’s part on Mr. Biggs’ record.
During a break, Kelly saluted Michael Jackson. He played a videotaped message of himself in his studio surrounded by plaques he received from working with the King of Pop. He then showed footage of MJ dancing in a car to “Ignition (Remix)” while director Brett Ratner drove.
Kelly’s last tribute of the night was one he said his mother would definitely enjoy if she were still living. That was to Sam Cooke. Dressed in a tuxedo and red bow tie, the R. returned to the stage for rousing renditions of “Bring It on Home to Me” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”