R Kelly (@rkelly) is a mad genius. I’m not talking about the R Kelly of yore who was sure he could fly or gave us some toot toot and beep beep. No, I’m talking about late period R Kelly. I’m talking about Trapped in the Closet. The soap opera of overlapping stories and absolute insanity is far more than a fun thing to watch drunk with friends — it’s a Mel Brooks like beacon of genre parody and satire.
My first introduction to the epically long, epically complicated and epically amazing series came several years after the first 10 or so chapters were originally released. A friend had me watch a DVD of the first few chapters — chapters that included a midget named “Big Man” and the classic line, “He looks at the pie on the counter, one slice is missing now the story’s getting scary / he comes to realize that Bridget is allergic to cherries” — and there was no going back. I was hooked. It has everything: sex, violence, AIDS, midgets, pimps, blind prostitutes, reverends, R Kelly singing in the voice of a fat southern lady…everything. I would try and explain the story, but that would take ages (if you’re interested in the details, the Wikipedia page does just fine — there’s even a diagram of relationships!). Yes, it’s entertaining, but it’s also kind of genius.
The first thing we need to get out of the way is that there’s no musical integrity to this piece. The chapters use the same repeating progression of notes and melody throughout their entirety. Apart from R Kelly’s admittedly lovely singing voice, there’s really no reason why a serious fan of music should spend time listening to Trapped in a Closet, which is why we watch it on DVD. What this story does have is an effective lampoon of almost every single one of the tropes of R&B as a genre.
Humor is in many genres. Hip-hop, as close to a sister genre as contemporary R&B has, is often absolutely ripe with humor. R&B however, is about as straight-laced and sincere as music comes. Even when there are elements of humor, it’s by no means self-aware. Just look at R Kelly’s previous efforts — he was serious about believing he could fly. This epic story, from the beginning, was funny. Yes, it still has the crooning and smooth groove of Kelly’s best pop singles, but the music is used to a enhance the strangeness.
The true comic genius comes in the ridiculous subversion of common themes found in the R&B and hip-hop culture. Sex and desire is one of the most common, hell it’s a genre that was basically created for making sweet loving, but the sex in Trapped in the Closet is patently un-sexy and more than a little crazy. The whole plot is started by the fact that literally every character is cheating on their husbands/wives with another character. The Pastor? He’s sleeping with a man named Chuck. The Pastor’s wife? She’s sleeping with R Kelly’s character Sylvester. Sylvesters wife? She’s sleeping with the policeman James (played by Michael K Williams, aka Omar of The Wire). James’ wife? She’s sleeping with a little person named Big Man, and so on and so forth. Also, take for example one of the greatest sex scenes of all time in Chapter 4: what starts out as a fairly normal description of the sexual prowess of the main character Sylvester, who is pleasuring his woman, turns into her going crazy and him getting a cramp in his leg.
Music has a tendency to take itself way too seriously, and for R&B that’s especially true. What R Kelly has done with Trapped in the Closet is take the world of R&B to such absurdist and strange heights that it’s become a comment on the genre itself. After seeing Pimp Lucius stutter to his whores, or hearing the glorious tenor of Kelly become the drawl of a Southern woman talking about how the midget is her baby’s daddy, it makes listening to Usher or Trey Songz all the more hilarious. Just like any good lampoonist, Kelly has shown the inherent ridiculousness of what he does. Here’s to hopping he doesn’t stop this crazy ride anytime soon.
And now, just as a treat — my favorite chapter of the whole bunch. Sit back and enjoy. You can watch the whole thing over at IFC.com, you’re welcome.