By Matthew Ismael Ruiz
When Robert Sylvester Kelly took the stage Sunday night in Union Park, he was home. Home in the city that raised him up from the projects, but mostly at home on stage, singing the songs that have touched R. Kelly’s millions of fans across the world.
Wearing a sparkling T-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, and snapback Chicago Bulls hat, he stormed the stage for the headlining set of the final day of the 2013 Pitchfork Music festival after a brief intro from a white-robed choir. He sprinted up and down the stage, working the crowd into a frenzy as he crooned, hand firmly gripping his crotch. Kelly was in his element, and it was impossible to look away.
Rather than play any song in its entirety, Kelly ran through a hodgepodge medley of his greatest hits, as if to give the fans a taste of every song they came to hear. Squeezing more than 20 tracks into a 75-minute set, even he was impressed with himself. “I didn’t realize I had so many songs,” he admitted to the crowd, breathing heavily. “Every show I do so many songs.” He wanted everyone in the park that night to know just how hard he was working for them—even the people all the way in the back, that couldn’t see the sweat dripping down his face.
Even if they couldn’t see his expressive visage, the shine from his bedazzled clothes and microphone reached the farthest corners of the park. Kelly is a star of the highest luminance; he writes songs that people of all walks of life can relate to and be inspired by. And on Sunday night, he paused briefly to reflect on his 27 years in the music business. But it was obvious that he’d spent decades performing; despite a slight rasp to his voice, he held the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment M.I.A. closed out her set across the lawn. The crowd was diverse in age and color—old white men danced alongside gay Puerto Ricans and packs of teenagers passing around handmade cigarettes, and it was beautiful. But its likely no one was as physically animated as the swaths of middle-aged black women that pressed close to stage left, screaming along with every word at the start of his set.
By the show’s climax, the energy in the park had reached a fever pitch. Before breaking into the anthemic “I Believe I Can Fly,” he paused somberly, tipping his figurative cap to a city in crisis: “I want to dedicate this song to the city of Chicago,” he said. “This is gonna resonate throughout the world.” As the crowd fervently sung the uplifting chorus, strobe-lit beach balls and inflatable doves filled the sky. Kelly turned the mic stand towards the crowd, standing back and watching on in appreciative awe.