Live Review: RNB Fridays Live

11 November 2019 | 1:24 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"Jackson – singing, dancing, flexing – is flawless."

Branded as "Australia's biggest party", RNB Fridays Live has returned to Melbourne with its most extravagant bill, headlined by Janet Jackson in an exclusive appearance. And, reassuringly, the mishaps at Marvel Stadium last year have largely been resolved, New York host Fatman Scoop himself claiming credit. The night's primary issue is technological: there's an occasional delay between what is performed live and what shows on screens, making it look like some acts are lip-syncing even when not, which is unfortunate in the highly scrutinised world of R&B. If anything, at six hours, the touring event is almost exhaustingly good, with too many names, none half-arsed. Hype man and comedian Scoop provides entertainment during changeovers with live skits, in addition to DJs Horizon and YO! MAFIA. (We def want Scoop's T-shirt with the slogan 'Haters Never Win'.) At one point, Scoop hollers his own late '90s throwback, Be Faithful, still a staple in urban clubs and easily the loudest audience sequence of RNB Fridays Live. 

Fatman Scoop @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

J-Kwon kicks off RNB Fridays Live. The St Louis rapper is best remembered for 2004's Tipsy. Weirdly, in 2013, J-Kwon beefed with both Pusha T and Tyler, The Creator's Odd Future because they joked about his one-hit wonder status, although Kanye West then boosted him in a widely read interview. Early slot aside, J-Kwon is buoyant. Notably, his cover of Nelly's Hot In Herre is a crowd-pleaser.

J-Kwon @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

Ironically, RNB Fridays Live is sponsored by a commercial radio network trading on nostalgia for a genre it didn't play at the time – at least until the 2000s. These days, Keri Hilson is known to serious R&B listeners as part of Timbaland's extended family (she also wrote fare for Britney Spears). Alas, after premiering in the late 2000s, her career slowed. In Melbourne, the glamourous, shaded vocalist, supported by a DJ, charms the audience, performing selections from across her catalogue, like the sassy Pretty Girl Rock

Keri Hilson @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

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Sisqo was supposed to journey to Australia with 2018's I Love The 90s Tour, but it was sadly cancelled. Tonight, Dru Hill's flamboyant lead singer, celebrating his birthday, focuses on solo material. Joined by a male dance troupe, he's a nimble and athletic performer. Sisqo's stage set-up is striking, too, with his signature dragon iconography, including a bespoke perspex mic attachment. In the '90s, the Baltimore native was oft-compared to Jodeci's K-Ci Hailey, in turn likened to Bobby Womack. Fittingly, Sisqo brings emotional heft to the ballad Incomplete, his greatest hit over Thong Song.

Sisqo @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

Brandy is beloved in the R&B scene. In fact, Solange, a super-fan, made #BrandyDeepCuts go viral back in 2013. Yet Brandy only first toured here three years ago. In 2019, she's RNB Fridays Live's belatedly announced "mystery act". The former child star, her stagewear high-end boho, now possesses the resonant voice of a quiet storm diva, akin to Anita Baker. Frustratingly, Brandy's vocals are too low in the mix. Nonetheless, she delivers soulful versions of her initial classics, like I Wanna Be Down, through to later songs such as What About Us? and Full Moon (a personal favourite of hers). And Brandy revisits The Boy Is Mine, 1998's epic duet with Monica.

Brandy @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

The mystery in R&B is why Jason Derulo hasn't attracted the same international adulation as the polarising Chris Brown. After all, the Floridian is a triple treat: a singer, dancer and hitmaker (plus, he'll star in the upcoming Cats movie). Derulo's set is a high energy, sweaty and clubby slot with an abridged take of his Imogen Heap-borrowing breakthrough Whatcha Say, accompanied by a rockin' guitarist and conceivably dancers from Ultra Music Festival in sparkling costumes. He sustains the momentum with other standouts: Ridin' Solo, In My Head and (the Ricky Reed-stamped) Talk Dirty. Sporting a black tunic and ripped jeans, Derulo is eventually topless. Dude works it.

Jason Derulo @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

In 2007, 50 Cent battled Kanye over whose album (Curtis and Graduation, retrospectively) would chart higher. Ye won. 50 isn't yet officially a legacy artist. But his set pivots on presence alone. If, like Snoop Dogg, Fif's steez as a gangsta rapper is essentially disguising menace with a laidback demeanour, then, live, he is looser, funkier and… smilier. The blinged-out Queens G is bolstered by a band and posse, including G-Unit's Tony Yayo. He spans his repertoire, with the biggest moments Ayo Technology and, of course, In Da Club.

50 Cent @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows. 

Astonishingly, for some, the night's main draw is a resurgent Black Eyed Peas, who, similarly to Derulo, are old faves in Australia. The Californian group infamously went from being cult old-school revivalists to hip-pop superstars with 2003's Elephunk album. Inevitably, their show leans towards the latter phase, opening with Let's Get It Started. The Peas encourage their new soulstress, Jessica Reynoso (discovered by apl.de.ap on The Voice Of The Philippines) to shine, and she's a worthy successor to the early Kim Hill and much-adored Fergie. The quartet are evidently on the comeback trail, and, auspiciously, among their set's highlights is the fresh Latin party banger RITMO (Bad Boys For Life), which samples Corona's Eurodance The Rhythm Of The Night. Meanwhile, Where Is The Love? is as feelgood as ever. Will.i.am, in red beanie and flannel, is an assured frontman, sharing stories of the Peas' relationship to Australia. He recollects their 2002 trek to Falls Festival in Lorne when a fan first addressed them as "legends". The Peas close with the EDM I Gotta Feeling. The collective prove so vital and popular that punters leave afterwards. Yep, before Janet. Possibly, even R&B Junkies are intergenerational.

Black Eyed Peas @ RNB Fridays Live. Photo by Jaz Meadows.

Janet Jackson's return to Australia is happening at the perfect time. The Queen Of R&B Queens has enjoyed a triumphant year, gracing Glastonbury and marking the 30th anniversary of Rhythm Nation 1814, its bold industrialism impacting Tinashe, Kelela and FKA twigs. Jackson arrives on stage in a utilitarian black outfit, and fronting a Las Vegas-level retinue of musicians and dancers. Her show-within-a-show is a mega-mix of hits, launching with the female empowerment anthem Control. Jackson allows a few songs to breathe. Together Again, off 1997's The Velvet Rope (and omitted from Glasto!), is joyful disco. Another peak is the hip hop soul Got Til It's Gone, which, comically, Australian radio didn't program on release because it was deemed 'too urban' with Q-Tip's rap. Jackson sensuously recreates That's The Way Love Goes. But most surprising is a grooving rendition of a low-key 2000s single, All For You. Near the end, Jackson powers through Scream, her symbolic duet with brother Michael. The finale is Rhythm Nation's title track. Jackson – singing, dancing, flexing – is flawless. Still, ultimately, RNB Fridays Live isn't about any one act, but rather a celebration of a movement. And, as a retro-neuvo package for R&B heads, it represents top-value.