The handwritten script appeared slowly at first, unspooling across the wide-screen video monitors inside the Allstate Arena as if scrawled by some giant, invisible hand.
“Dear Fans, Thank you,” it began, as the 23,000 people inside the suburban Chicago stadium cheered each word. “So many times I started to quit and walk away ...” another line read. False friends were excoriated, loyal fans praised. “For those of you wondering how I’m doing ... I’M ALL RIGHT,” the note added. It was signed: R. Kelly.
As Kelly and Jay-Z kicked off their long-awaited Best of Both Worlds Tour, this was the first and only time the R&B icon acknowledged that, in his world, things could be better.
Kelly is facing felony child pornography charges stemming from allegations that he videotaped sex acts with a girl believed to be as young as 14 years old. He has also been accused of maintaining a pattern of sex with underage girls. His next court date is Nov. 4.
But on Thursday night, much of the Chicago audience seemed unconcerned with the hometown star’s legal troubles. For three-plus hours, they sweated and swayed to the string of hits unleashed by Kelly and Jay-Z, the purportedly “retired” hip-hop capo.
After waiting more than two hours past the scheduled starting time, most fans seemed elated that the show — slated to visit 40 cities over the next few months to promote Kelly and Jay-Z’s second collaboration, “Best of Both Worlds: Unfinished Business” — was finally underway.
Sudden change in direction
However, Kelly’s performance was considerably tamer than what he’d offered the night before. At the previous show, the tour’s first, Kelly appeared to make light of the charges on several occasions. During one segment, the giant video monitors displayed a mock text message from Kelly seeking a female partner who “MUST be down for anything.” Then it added: “She must be 19 or over.” He also performed a skit in which the singer dressed in a prison-style jumpsuit and simulated intercourse with two women inside of a cage.
After critics decried these segments as inappropriate and callous, Kelly quickly removed them from Thursday’s performance, with only the “letter” serving as any overt reminder of his ordeal.
Chicago newspapers have suggested that Kelly’s changes led to the two-hour delay in the second performance and may have angered Jay-Z. Reports also said the resulting tension between the two stars may have led to the cancellation of the show’s third date in Cincinnati.
A statement released by tour organizers blamed the Ohio cancellation on “logistical and production concerns from last night’s show in Chicago.”
Although the two Chicago shows were generally regarded as a success — they were expected to gross a combined $1.6 million — they was not without their flaws. Jay-Z stumbled over a few of his lines; Kelly created a few lulls in his show with excessive posturing.
Nonetheless, both gave long glimpses at the stage presence and talent that has helped them sell a combined 70 million records worldwide. Even more impressive was the sheer breadth and power of their repertoires.
Testament to staying power
Jay-Z and R. Kelly both have been stars for more than a decade now, and the warm reception that greeted each of their performances was less an affirmation of the show itself than a testament to the staying power of their music. With hit after hit, from Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” and “Big Pimpin”’ to Kelly’s “Bump & Grind” and “Ignition,” the artists relentlessly hammered the audience with a lineup that ran a thematic gamut stretching from the lascivious to the luxurious.
The tour was originally planned for 2002, to promote the artists’ collaborative album “Best of Both Worlds.” But just before the album dropped, the notorious videotapes surfaced, showing a man who appears to be R. Kelly engaged in a variety of graphic sex acts with a young woman.
After that, Jay-Z shunned the pop crooner like a disease. He refused to promote the album in any way or even be photographed with Kelly. Sales for “Best of Both Worlds” suffered, and the album was largely forgotten. But that did nothing to slow either of their careers.
Jay-Z scored hits with “The Black Album” and “Blueprint 2: The Gift And the Curse.” R. Kelly kept pace with “Chocolate Factory” and now has this year’s “Happy People/U Saved Me,” a chart-topping double album.
Judging by Thursday’s show, the residual fallout from Kelly’s troubles still has not subsided. The most glaring proof: Except for two sets of about 20 minutes each, Jay-Z and Kelly never appeared onstage together. Instead, they mostly took turns commandeering the set, Jay flanked more often by protege Memphis Bleek than by the man with whom he’s sharing top billing.
And while the sheer heft of their discographies rescued their performances, it seemed painfully obvious that the artists’ solo turns were not about being generous with the spotlight. Their apparent reluctance to jam together made for a handful of awkward moments during the show, such as when Jay-Z wound up performing one of the duo’s most popular hits, “Fiesta,” by himself.
As the much-anticipated tour designed to combine the best of R&B with top-shelf hip-hop winds on, it will be interesting to see just how much these collaborators remain apart.