OAKLAND, Calif. — During R. Kelly’s “Single Ladies” show last Wednesday, every crotch grab, pelvic thrust and naughty exchange with the audience — and there were plenty — was met with screams, whether it came from the nosebleed seats, the orchestra pit or the two bars built into his set (six ladies watched from the stage, with cocktails).
“All of the single ladies are going to come out, and that’s going to bring the guys because they are going to go somewhere all the ladies will be,” Kelly said with a laugh in his dressing room before the show at Paramount Theatre while sipping a cocktail of his own. “We’re going to make this one big giant music matchmaking game.”
Wearing dark sunglasses, Kelly is accompanied by a small entourage. He initially appears reserved but breaks into huge grins when discussing his kids and spontaneous song when talking about his music.
His favorite subject, though, is the one he comes back to most often: “Hopefully,” he says of the show, “people will hook up from this.”
The art of seduction has become a hallmark of the self-proclaimed King of R&B, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, and his live show is the bread and butter of that image.
Twenty-plus years ago an up-and-coming Kelly was searching for a gimmick to liven his set. The Chicago native crafted the raunchy song, “12 Play,” an unapologetically raunchy tale of how he makes love. As the saying goes, sex sells. In Kelly’s case it really sold. The album, also titled “12 Play,” launched one of R&B’s most successful singing careers. Kelly has more than 38.5 million albums sold and 12 No. 1 singles on the R&B charts.
“I never wanted to just have a musical connection with my fans. I wanted to have a spiritual connection with them as well,” said Kelly, 45. “To have that, you have to be true to what you’re doing.”
Eleven albums in — he’s touring behind the June release “Write Me Back” — the divorced father of three still finds plenty of ways to connect with female fans. At the top of the show at the Paramount Theatre he had the crowd rise for the “Single Ladies Anthem” — and with the snap of a finger the left sleeve of his white leather jacket illuminated to read “Single.” One usher, intoxicated by Kelly’s charm, swiveled her hips and couldn’t focus on directing patrons.
“You’ve got us hot in here, Kells,” two women in their 30s shouted approvingly when he ran through another suggestive cut, “Sex in the Kitchen.” He then turned subjects such as the zoo, the solar system and his car into oddly genius sexual metaphors. Kelly’s appeal (“Write Me Back” debuted at No. 5) is filled with irony given how his stock plummeted after an underage sex scandal that led to criminal proceedings in 2008 (it took more than six years to go to trial, but he was acquitted of all charges).
The singer was blacklisted by a host of urban radio stations during the ordeal. A bitter feud with Jay-Z also provided tabloid fodder after building tensions resulted in canceled tour dates and a member of Jay’s entourage pepper-spraying the singer in 2004.
Kelly tackles some of these setbacks in a recent memoir, “Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me,” but more often glosses over specifics of the child pornography trial. His author’s note states, “Certain episodes could not be included for complicated reasons.”
He does, however, write at length about how the trial and blowback affected him personally and professionally. He also tackles his struggles with illiteracy and opens up about being molested as a child. “I thought it was time for people to know where Robert came from,” he said with a pause. It’s clear it’s not his favorite subject. “I was scared as hell. I’ve always been scared to talk about my personal life ... worried about what people will think of me, or what they will say.”
The Lothario role that made Kelly famous and infamous takes a back seat on his recent albums, including “Write Me Back.” Inspired by the classic soul of Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendergrass and Sam Cooke, the discs emphasize simmering hooks and balladry paired with classically minded arrangements that present Kelly as a chivalrous ladies’ man.
The singer has adopted plenty of personas on album and on stage, but all, he says, are far removed from the kid he once was. “I was always a shy guy. When I was a street performer I would put on dark shades,” he said. “In the beginning I didn’t know how to look a girl in her eye and sing a song to her, so I would put them on.”
Fans shouldn’t get too comfortable with the genteel, romantic Kelly though. His next album promises a return to his sweat-soaked loverman past. It’s titled “Black Panties.”
“(I’m) not out to prove anything, but just be R. Kelly,” he said. “I look at my music the way Steven Spielberg as a director looks at movies. He’s not going to do the same movie over. ‘Black Panties’ is going back to the old R. Kelly thing because a lot of fans missed that. And I’ve missed it.”
Regardless what anyone thinks of Kelly’s questionable album titles, personal life or public trials, the man is undeniably talented. Aside from his own catalog, he’s penned hits for Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Jennifer Hudson and the Isley Brothers. “My problem is not writing the songs. My problem is I hear so many songs at once,” he said. “It’s a beautiful disease, I’m glad I have it. But it can be overwhelming. And it can become a curse.”
At his Oakland show, he performed 40-plus numbers — an impressive amount even if some songs were truncated.
Kelly recently completed 20 chapters of his “Trapped in the Closet” series, a hip-hop drama of sorts (he calls it a hip-hopera) that he rolled out in songs and videos between 2005 and 2007.
The next video installment of the series premieres Nov. 23 on IFC. “It’s not just some cliffhanger and then you have to wait. No, there’s cliffhangers mixed with real soap operas,” he said with a grin. “I’m at a point where it’s like running water. It comes pouring out.”
With the snap of a finger his jacket lighted up and he was ready to hit the stage. The ladies were waiting.