Sharing the stage - but just barely

Fans loves even shortened numbers by Jay-Z, R. Kelly

MusicReview

October 11, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

They can't be friends. This "reunion" of sorts must be all about the money, because Jay-Z and R. Kelly barely interacted or even acknowledged each other Friday night during their 2 1/2 -hour show at 1st Mariner Arena. The titans of urban music are playing 40 national dates to support their second collaborative album, The Best of Both Worlds: Unfinished Business, due out Oct. 26.

It's a new and expanded version of 2002's The Best of Both Worlds, which tanked after Kelly was indicted in June of that year on multiple felony counts of making and possessing child pornography. After the disturbing news broke, Jay-Z pulled out, refusing to promote the album or appear in photos with the celebrated (and overrated) singer-songwriter-producer.

But, surprisingly, the indictment didn't hurt Kelly's career as critics fawned over his sixth solo album, Chocolate Factory, which came out last year. Fans stuck by the self-proclaimed "R&B thug," buying more than 2 million copies of the record. And Happy People/U Saved Me, Kelly's newest album and a two-disc set, released in August, has pushed another 2 million copies. Ever the smart business man, Jay-Z surely must have taken note of Kelly's success despite the controversy. So why not get a piece of the action and remind folks of that ho-hum collaboration from two years ago? Better yet, why don't the two huge stars simply resuscitate the same album, stick the same title on it (with some bonus tracks, of course) and put an elaborate tour behind it?

So far, the tour has been a smash: Kicking it off in Chicago late last month with two shows, the superstars grossed $1.6 million. The money's good but that doesn't mean the two have to be pals - or even fake some kind of chemistry.

Friday's show, which started nearly 90 minutes late, began with a faux, late-breaking newscast on overhead screens in which reporters chased two runaway tour buses. Then as the screens fade to black, the two shiny black buses crash through a fake stone wall on stage. Kelly and Jay-Z, resplendent in white, slowly step out. The stage set remains throughout the show with neither a backing band nor a D.J. (The taped music was delivered through a clear, booming system.)

The focus was the two stars, who put on an overlong and sometimes awkward show. Jay-Z, a study in street cool and nonchalance, manned one side of the stage as Kelly, looking as if he'd rather be performing alone, hugged the other. After the opener, "Jigga" and the "Pied Piper of R&B" traded mini-sets that went through all their greatest hits, albeit in a truncated style.

Kelly stuck to the crass and lusty slow jams of his career: "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)," Bump N' Grind," "Your Body's Callin'." He stayed away from his quasi-gospel numbers, like "I Believe I Can Fly" or anything from the U Saved Me disc. Instead, he focused on pornographic banter (much of it too explicit to repeat in this paper), suggestive pumps of his pelvis and, well, the lascivious lyrics. Even his accessories were nasty: a big, gold belt buckle made into an open mouth with a long tongue of diamonds.

Kelly was a tease all night, crooning between tunes that he wanted to bring a "lady" on stage. Although he never pulled anyone from the audience, Kelly was surrounded by seven female dancers who shook, rattled and rolled to the deep-bass music.

Where the singer was overheated, the rapper was chilled. Jay-Z always gives off the impression that he could be someplace else doing something more exciting. He simply stands there, chewing gum and spitting his rhymes - occasionally strolling the stage and pulling up his sagging pants. To paraphrase poet Nikki Giovanni, Jay-Z is supposed to be "so hip that even his errors are correct."

When he flubbed a line or two of "99 Problems," he seemed unfazed. He revisited the hits that have cemented his place among the most charismatic rhyme spitters of his generation: "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," "Jigga What, Jigga Who," and "Can I Get A ..." The tunes were truncated, but Jay-Z gave a full version of "Song Cry," one of his best cuts about a man who drives a girlfriend away. In one set, he paid tribute to hip-hop soldiers Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay. He also paid homage to Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez of TLC and singer Aaliyah, whom Kelly secretly married when she was 15. (The union was later annulled.)

The chiller-than-chilled rapper and hot-in-the-pants singer closed the exhausting show together with "Fiesta (Remix)." The dancers romped around in fatigues. The crowd was on its feet, screaming and dancing.

Kelly and Jay-Z didn't even look at each other.

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