Much of the chatter in the run up to R. Kelly’s appearance Sunday night at Pitchfork centered around a single question: What outrageous thing is Kells gonna do?
Wafting through the crowd like hits of pot smoke, clouds of speculation ranged from plausible (that the show would begin very late) to unlikely (that Justin Timberlake and Jay Z—or maybe Lady Gaga—would guest) to patently absurd and cliché (that the singer would pee on someone). As the Chocolate Factory rumor mill churned, it became clear that perhaps the most out-there stunt R. Kelly could pull in Union Park was putting on a fantastic show—which is exactly what he did.
The hometown hero (and villain to some) once again proved himself worthy of his self-proclaimed status as the Pied Piper of R&B during an electric set that included, by my count, bits and pieces of more than 30 songs, from ’90s baby-makers to more recent radio jams. The evening culminated with a mass sing-along to “I Believe I Can Fly” as dozens of white, dove-shaped balloons were sent aloft. One has to wonder if West Side (or West Suburban) residents awoke this morning to deflated pieces of latex tangled in their trees.
Concerns that Kells would be running late to the gig were alleviated when a robot voice interrupted McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” to address the audience. “The show will start in R-minus nine minutes,” said the bodiless droid, which sounded like Stephen Hawking guesting on a Daft Punk track. The robot counted down from 29 seconds, and the crowd joined in at ten as if it were a New Year’s Eve ball-drop. Steam drifted across the stage. A gospel choir in robes lined up in Sunday mass formation, the band members took their places behind their instruments. Then, magician-like, Kelly suddenly appeared in white clothes and black sunglasses in the midst of the choir. He was clutching a silver microphone that matched the reflective bling adorning the front of his shirt.
An opening bit of vocal foreplay led into “Ignition (Remix),” known by any DJ worth his salt as Kelly’s surefire get-white-people-to-dance cut. Which is good because there were a lot of white people at Pitchfork. And everyone danced. The placement appeared to be strategic: Give ‘em what they’re going to be screaming for all show, then move on.
What followed was a barrage of bumping club fare: “Hotel” (a Cassidy single that featured Kelly), “Thoia Thong,” his remix of Kanye’s “Flashing Lights,” “Number One,” “Freaky in the Club” and an onslaught of several other songs. For good measure, Kelly threw in his '95 hit “You Remind Me of Something,” a ode to a woman whose form brings to mind an SUV. This was R. Kelly in medley mode, with the singer offering up 30-second tasting portions—just enough to keep people interested and keep the party going. Not once did Kelly’s voice waver, and his well-oiled band didn’t miss a cue. A light rain began to fall. The thousands in Union Park—many of whom had probably never seen a performer so sincere, so free of ironic distance from his material—responded to every “Throw your hands up!” directive.
Famous for his stage banter, Kells didn’t disappoint. “They told me not to curse here. Told me not to get sexual. They told me, ‘Don’t take nothin’ off in here,’” he sing-talked, doing his shtick about prudish promoters attempting to rein in his raunch. “Then I said to them, ‘How the fuck do you expect me to do my motherfuckin’ show then? I thought this was a grown man’s sexy show.’”
And indeed it was a grown man’s sexy show, as the R&B auteur proceeded to dip into his bag of between-the-sheets bangers. He joyfully air-humped his way through “Bump N’ Grind,” “In the Kitchen,” “Strip For You,” “Half on a Baby,” “Down Low,” “Feelin’ On Yo Booty” and whiffs of other fuck jams. Never one to pass up an opportunity to display his vocal prowess, Kelly sang a cappella, ran scales, and held last notes for operatic lengths. He sing-bragged about being in “muthafuckin’ shape,” overestimating by an hour the time he had been on stage without a break. These self-indulgences, which would seem outlandishly pretentious for almost any other recording artist, merely came across as natural extensions of R. Kelly: Supreme Entertainer.
In truth, Pitchfork was a fairly stripped-down affair for Kells. When he performed at the Allstate Arena two years ago, there were costume changes, dancers and a bar onstage staffed by an old man serving drinks. Most of the budget for last night’s show apparently went to balloons. Clusters of white and yellow ones were released during “Step in the Name of Love.” Later, as the choir joined in on “I Believe I Can Fly” and those doves took flight on wings of helium, an instantly classic Chicago music moment had been made.
RECOMMENDED: Complete coverage of Pitchfork Music Festival