“The show will begin in R-minus 60 seconds.” A robotic voice teased R. Kelly's arrival to the thousands of people who'd gathered in Chicago’s Union Park to watch one of the city’s most famous residents close out Pitchfork Music Festival, many of them still drying their sweat from M.I.A’s frenzied set across the field.
As the crowd joined in on the final countdown and Kelly’s red-robed choir filed onto the stage, I remembered this t-shirt I’d seen someone wearing earlier: Kelly’s face in black and white with PISS written in the style of the KISS logo, a Paul Stanley-style star Photoshopped over his eye.
Most of the “I can’t wait to see R. Kelly” conversations I’d heard over 3 days at the festival were accompanied by irony-infused laughter and references to “Trapped in the Closet.” This was the same too-cool-for-school Pitchfork audience now gazing up at the stage. Was anyone here a sincere fan of his music? What’s the difference between a fan and a spectator? Could this crowd fully give themselves over to an R&B set? Would there indeed be booties felt on when he sang “Feelin’ On Yo Booty”?
These thoughts became irrelevant the moment R. Kelly emerged from the center of his choir and immediately launched into “Ignition Remix,” prompting everyone around me to throw their hands in the air and sing along. The audience’s enthusiasm ebbed and flowed as Kellz tore through (condensed) versions of “Hotel,” “Thoia Thoing” and “Fiesta.” In the first of several crooned observations between songs, Kelly sang “I thought this was a grown and sexy show”— it was arguably neither, since the crowd’s median age was 25 and “sexy” was also debatable given the shapeless plastic ponchos many had put on when it started drizzling. Fortunately, what the crowd lacked in glitz Kelly more than made up for, with his glittering striped sweatshirt and crystal-encrusted microphone.
After leading the crowd in a tepidly received sing-a-long of “Sex in the Kitchen,” white balloons flooded the sky as “Happy People” and “Step in the Name of Love” marked the stepping portion of the show. As is so often the case at festivals, the real party was on the outskirts of the crowd. Kelly sang “step, step, side-to-side” and the people who had room to dance paired off to do just that (and if you’re unfamiliar with Chicago-style stepping, prepare to get lost in a YouTube rabbit hole).
R. Kelly is an entertainer first and foremost, and he likely does not burden himself with philosophical questions when it comes to the intentions of his fan base. As he accurately sang-spoke toward the end of the show, “I’ve been at this 27 years. 27 f-ckin’ years and y’all still feelin’ me, yeaaah-heaa.” A lot of people came to see Kelly last night, and he gave them exactly what they wanted—mostly the hits, playfully delivered.
He closed with “I Believe I Can Fly,” dedicating the song to the city of Chicago, and a sky full of dove-shaped white balloons added a brilliant dash of self-satire and schmaltz. A girl behind me kept screeching “this feels like my eighth grade graduation,” but nearly everyone else was swaying and singing along, fully enthralled by the Pied Piper of R&B.