Mr. Showbiz requests the pleasure of wrestlin’ with that big ass

R. Kelly has the hardest working fans in show business. On the night of his Mother’s Day concert, the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium was a pageant of women in ostentatious nightclub frocks accessorized by impossibly tall metallic heels and even taller men in suits, smart hats or bright dress shirts.

The concerts of my formative years were of the metal and grunge variety, where it’s common to be spilled on, saturated with marijuana smoke and involuntarily smeared across the sweaty bodies of strangers. Thus, I dress for arena shows the same way I would for yard work: T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.

Though I gave thanks for my tennis shoes after the show when I passed several women bemoaning their aching feet, I felt horribly dowdy watching them line up at the R. Kelly photo station. Twenty-five dollars bought an 8-by-10 inch glossy pose in front of an air-brushed portrait of an expressionless Kelly in a leather jacket with a patch reading “Chocolate Factory.” Couples mugged for the camera like it was prom night and groups of ladies cocked their hips and thrust their bosoms towards the photographer.

I searched the crowd for others like me—people who weren’t necessarily fans of Kelly’s music but wanted to figure out what the heck was up with the guy. Is the Trapped in the Closet hip-hopera, with its repetitive music and ridiculous lyrics about midget strippers and gay love affairs, intended as serious drama or is Kelly a comic genius deliberately jumping the shark to amuse? Could a man facing multiple charges of child pornography for videos of himself urinating on a 14-year-old girl really pack auditoriums nationwide with his sex appeal? I expected a sizeable minority of would-be pop-culture sociologists and sarcastic Trapped in the Closet fans, but there were none. Apparently, $55 a head is too steep for ironic indulgence.

If Kelly isn’t as hardworking as his fans, it’s because he doesn’t have to be. The shrill, constant screaming began at the moment he stepped on stage, and didn’t let up. His every movement—kicking off shoes, hitching up sagging pants—increased the crowd’s fervor. Kelly rarely sang an entire song, and often held the mic out so fans could sing for him. Not a problem; they knew every word and were louder than his band anyway.

Kelly’s theme is sex, and no matter how blunt, silly or downright bizarre his requests, the ladies never stopped screaming. He sang about wanting to hit it, tap it, bounce it, “text you so I can sex you,” and do it until you’re leaking and asking yourself, “Am I tweaking?” He took his musical foreplay to the jungle (“I got you so wet, it’s like a rainforest”) and the kitchen (“Read between the lines here: crunch, crunch, munch, munch, slurp!”). He rubbed his crotch and said he had “a feeling in his bones.” He pulled a woman onstage and freaked her forcefully, and yelled to another in the balcony that he wanted to wrestle with her big ass. Finally, a lengthy solo routine of pelvic thrusting and faux ass-slapping climaxed in a theatrical collapse and two attendants dragging him offstage.

The evening’s antics made Barry White seem quaint and Prince seem subtle, but didn’t help solve the R. Kelly riddle. Neither did watching him lip-synch the first three chapters of Trapped in the Closet (from inside an actual closet), but it sure was entertaining. So were the krumpers that followed.

More perplexing was the balloon-drop finale in which Kelly brought three of his young children on stage and announced his next record would be called Making Babies. After hours of crude pillow talk, the sudden appearance of children smacked of a smarmy “family values” publicity stunt. When the house lights came up, Kelly was nowhere to be seen, but his daughter was still busy throwing balloons to the crowd. Fans gripped them tightly, no doubt feeling rewarded for all their effort.