- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

Jay-Z and R. Kelly have finally got it together. After two years of false starts, retirement talks and infamous court cases, the two superstars’ “Best of Both Worlds” collaborative project is getting off the ground. With “Big Chips” getting big spins on urban radio and mixtape favorite “The Return” buzzing in the streets, the anticipation is peaking for their second full-length effort, “The Best of Both Worlds: Unfinished Business” (due in record stores Oct. 26).

In support of the disc, the duo’s promotional tour rolled into the MCI Center Thursday — literally, as a set of prop tour buses crashed through a fake wall.

Aside from that elaborate stunt, though, plus a few pyrotechnics, it was a surprisingly no-frills affair. No opening act, no extended lulls between sets, no hangers-on crowding the stage. Just two hours, two men and two mics.

Just one problem: The two don’t seem terribly interested in performing together.

How could this be?

On 2002’s “The Best of Both Worlds,” the duo’s initial attempt to solidify themselves as the premier acts in their respective genres, was marred by mixed reviews, and the notorious graphic sexual videotape of a man who appears to be Mr. Kelly with a 14-year-old girl (A trial is set for next month). The smoke cleared from that wreckage, and the pair sensed the time was right to show fans and critics what might have been.

Unfortunately, their musical alliance hasn’t exactly generated sparks. The project comes across as one last score, a joint business venture between two corporations seizing an opportunity too lucrative for either to pass up.

And judging by Thursday’s show, that’s the overall sentiment of this tour.

Jay-Z may actually be as burned out as he claimed to be when he announced his umpteenth retirement last year. He turned in a stock performance peppered with a couple of flubbed lines, a few missed cues and familiar “surprises” — like bringing out artists from his Roc-A-Fella record label for indistinguishable presentations of their own minor hits.

While occasionally digging deep in his crates, Jay-Z mostly stuck to mainstream staples such as “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me),” and “Song Cry.”

He deftly used old showbiz tricks to mask the rust. Forget a line or two of “Big Pimpin’?” Pull a kid from the audience onstage to dance with you. Come in late on “Fiesta”? Let the crowd finish the verse.

Still, Jay-Z remains one of the few artists who can captivate a crowd without screaming or being overly animated. His never-let-‘em-see-you-sweat persona, crowd manipulation expertise and lyrical dexterity will probably be enough for him to bluff his way past the average fan for the rest of the tour.

As for Mr. Kelly, like him or not, you can’t deny that he has guts. Dubbing himself the “Pied Piper of R&B;” after charges of involvement with underage females is audacious enough, but he also defiantly refuses to tone down his steamy act in the wake of his legal woes.

His set list, ranging from racy to syrupy to spiritual, was predictably filled with his more suggestive material. Like Jay-Z, Mr. Kelly didn’t stray far from his string of radio hits He managed to get in some popular older cuts from his risque “12 Play” album like “Your Body’s Callin’” and “Bump n’ Grind.”

Some of his bluer moments included ditties like “Jungle Love,” on which he sang about the action getting “wild like a zoo.” Subtle, no, but it got the ladies on their feet.

Puzzling, too, was the limited amount of face time the two shared onstage. They began as a united front, but after two brief songs and some shoulder-to-shoulder posturing, the show quickly dissolved into the two trading off for separate 20-minute shifts.

Yet even with the slick, soulless performances, it’s unfair to say they short-changed anyone. They just haven’t fully maximized their partnership’s potential.

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