R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet (2005-Present)
By: John Semley
Despite my best efforts to stay on top of all the pertinent developments in pop culture, I have a tendency to fall behind on certain things that everyone else seems so damned interested in. This is mostly the result of needing to have a bit of distance from, say, a super popular TV show in order to be sufficiently clinical about it (I made a point to not watch The Sopranos until the series had wrapped, but yeah, it’s awesome). It also has something to do with the fact that I’m not really interested in celebrities, so most of the time I spend on blogs is channeled towards tracking the production Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and not checking Gawker for cell phone video of that Cat Power woman doing karaoke at some bar in New Hampshire or reading Twitters (Tweets?) about who Chris Brown is slapping around. And sometimes I plain miss the boat. I never saw Vampire’s Kiss until just last night, and I make a pretty fine point of being a Nicolas Cage fan.
So when I first heard about R. Kelly’s so-called “hip-hopera” Trapped in the Closet a few years ago, I never paid much attention, pretty much assuming that it was just some grandiose attempt to trump “Thriller,” “I Would Do Anything For Love,” and whatever other sweepingly operatic music videos you can think of. Having just recently viewed, and become quite enamored with all 22 chapters of Trapped In the Closet, I can say that it is that. Hell, it batters “Black and White” ’til it’s black and blue. But it’s also funny. Like really, really, really funny. I’ll also say this (tongue squarely out of cheek): R. Kelly just might be a genius.
It’s pretty troubling to toss around the word “genius” well, ever, but especially in the case of a project like this, if only because people so often confuse epic scope with real-deal virtuoso acumen. Are the people who make the world’s largest perogi geniuses? Unlikely. Would someone who creates a Borgesian scale map of the entire planet be a genius? Probably not. Is Charlie Kaufman a genius for realizing the boundlessness of his own vision with Synechdoche, New York? No. But Kelly’s genius is a different beast in that it’s as much about the magnitude of his project (and his ability to realize it) as it is its guiding imperative of (Andy) Kaufmanesque pranksterism.
If you haven’t seen Trapped in the Closet, it’s essentially a musical melodrama in 22 chapters, clocking in at just over 80 minutes in total. Set to the same driving backbeat, which may change tempo to add dramatic weight to a given scenario, T’d in the C stars simply enough, with Kelly (playing both the narrator and the character of Sylvester) waking up in a woman’s bed and having to hide in a closet because her husband is returning home. The first couple chapters play out very Black Velvet, with Kelly/Sylvester being embroiled in a fairly standard web of extramarital deceit, but soon devolves into a Jenny Jonesish parade of more secret lovers, closet homosexuality (pun!), well-endowed little people with irregular heartbeats and rhyming “cabinet” with “cabinet” (with “cabinet” with “cabinet”). Also: everybody waving guns everywhere all the time, R. Kelly in enough makeup and fat suits that you’d swear this was the sequel to The Klumps, strained gay relationships that resonate more sincerely than any of the heterosexual ones, manic pacing, repentant pimps, diagonal wipes, cherry pie, and built-in dream sequences.
Trapped In the Closet Chapter 11
It’s all very easy to laugh at, but begs the question: can Kelly possible be serious? Is he trying to be funny, or is the whole thing in earnest? As the whole drama unfolds–midgets, Bridgets, pimps, big plates of spaghetti, Rose the Nosy Neighbor and all–the answer that begins to emerge is that it has to be a little bit of both. Kelly knows what’s he’s doing. He knows how excessive, moronic and artistically-indulgent his whole endeavour is. But he’s also trying to hoodwink the sorts of fans who would take the thing at face value, ultimately getting the last laugh on anyone silly enough the view the thing as either some masterful R&B rhapsody or self-flagellating exercise in artistic pomposity.
Face it. We live in an age that demands that celebrties have an excellent sense of humour about themselves. Whether it be Danny DeVito answering his famously drunken appearance on The View with his own line of Limoncello, Comedy Central Roasts, celebrities of all stripes popping in to poke at their own public persona on a 30 Rock guest spot, or Wayne Brady channeling Denzel in Training Day for that “is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?” sketch on Chappelle’s Show (itself an obvious response to the earlier Chappelle‘s bit that claimed that Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X), self-parody has emerged as a consistent method of reingratiating yourself amongst a public you’ve in one way or another made an ass of yourself in front of. Who could possibly know this better than R. Kelly?
Trapped in the Closet proves that after his own personal embroilment in an adolescent sex scandal, Kelly has learned the lesson that if you’re going to record yourself pissing on a girl, the blogosphere’s going to be all over before the stream hits her fourteen year-old face. (In all fairness, Kelly denied the person in the video was him, and last year was acquitted on all the sundry child pornography counts brought against him.) If we’ve learned anything from O.J., however, it’s that the peerage of court of public opinion matters more than any jury. In the wake of this public humiliation, and another cultural depantsing at the hands of Dave Chappelle, what’s the World’s Greatest supposed to do? Focus on his sultry soul/rap stylings? Slave over a spiritual sequel to “I Believe I Can Fly”? No. He saved all that sober self-serious for Michael Jackson.
Kelly got back on the horse in a different way, reinventing himself with Trapped in the Closet as something like contemporary R&B’s clown prince. It’s passable self-parody because he knows that in spite of all the silliness, he’s giving his audience what it wants: a steady beat punctuated occasionally by rain-drops or hand-claps and his distinctly sultry soul croon all wrapped around a filigreed web of erotic intrigue that eclipses Passions in its goofy convolution. That South Park would even attempt to mock this thing in a 2005 episode just speaks to how competent Matt Stone and Trey Parker have become in their ability to miss the point entirely.
This summer brings even more chapters to Kelly’s comic saga, which he alleges will dwarf the previous 22 in terms of bewildering narrative explosiveness. Whether his intentions are serious, comical, seriously comical, or whether Kelly is merely working through some blue period psycho-comic breakdown, I’m fairly certain of two things. One: because basic pragmatism dictates that the bulk of modern pop music, from Tommy James & The Shondelles through to Springsteen, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Eminem, amounts to a well-consolidated businesslike enterprise, and because R. Kelly is precisely the kind of performer to adeptly exploit such obvious machinations, he has to be having us on. Trapped in the Closet is his (and perhaps American hip-hop’s) magnum opus fleece of funny. If it’s genuinely novelistic, it’s genuinely novelistic in the way that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is. Whether or not you see it like that is just a matter of perspective.
And the second thing? This guy can’t wait for chapters 23-???.