R&B singer R. Kelly’s multipart “hip-hopera,” “Trapped in the Closet,” is nothing if not gushingly, hyperbolically praised, both by people involved in the project and by fans of the music video series. But they laud it for all the wrong reasons.
In the behind-the-scenes footage on the 2005 DVD, we see Kelly called “a genius” and learn that the series sophisticatedly combines music video, opera, soap opera, operetta, musical theater and movies — with “Trapped,” R. Kelly is, apparently, “reinventing the musical genre.” Evan Shapiro, an exec at IFC, which is airing the newest 10 installments of Kelly’s so far 22-part series (they also hit DVD shelves Aug. 21), compares the singer to John Waters and recently wrote that “Trapped” “challenges the traditional mores and sexual stereotypes of the current climate as boldly — and hysterically — as many films coming out of Hollywood or the indie movement.”
Kelly himself has said that the series “is just something that came out of nowhere and it’s here, and I believe it’s here to stay. I believe that 20 years from now, there will be a program called ‘Trapped in the Closet,’ there’s gonna be a talk show called ‘Trapped in the Closet.’ … It’s very well alive and it’s gonna be here forever.”
With all the cult acclaim and highbrow analysis, though, no one talks much about the reality: R. Kelly is no genius, at least not in the way we typically think of geniuses. In fact, “Trapped in the Closet” succeeds as a hilarious masterpiece despite Kelly’s intentions not because of them. Unless he's a Warhol-caliber master image-manipulator — and some critics, notably LastPlanetoJakarta.com's John Darnielle and Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times, might argue that he is — it’s pretty clear that Kelly has no real idea why “Trapped in the Closet” is great. (And by the way, John and Kelefa? Crying racism whenever someone doesn’t give Kelly quite as much credit as you do, doesn’t do a whole lot to make the case that every bit of comedy in “Trapped” is intentional and brilliantly orchestrated. Argumentatively, that’s a cop-out.)
R. Kelly surrealist genius or weirdo?
Want proof? Watch the “Commentary Remix” on the first DVD. Unlike traditional movie commentary, it’s not a simple voice-over during the film. We see Kelly sitting in a small screening room with his back to us, puffing on a fat cigar and watching “Trapped” unfold on the screen in front of him. Every so often, he turns around to face the camera and remark on how his character is feeling or why he made a particular lyrical decision.
The thing is, it’s clear that he’s not sitting there narrating what’s going on on-screen at the same time as his on-screen self is doing the exact same thing, only in song, because he wanted to blow our minds with the self-referential postmodernism of it all (though he succeeds at that). He simply thought it would be cool to sit in a theater and suck on a stogie, and he really, really means it when he says, “There’s rhyming all the way through ‘Trapped in the Closet’ and that’s what makes it even more interesting, and I don’t even know how that happened.”
Similarly, the behind-the-scenes making-of video features an off-the-cuff Kelly, who really appears to believe that he’s creating a miraculous piece of art — “It’s gonna be something that’s changed the way people think when it comes to videos and that’s changed the way people think when it comes to writing” — not knowing that his insistence only underscores the ridiculousness of his project.
In the brief intros preceding the new chapters on IFC, in which Kelly discusses what the viewer is about to see with a clearly bemused twenty-something hipster, the singer offers seemingly random comments on the brilliance of his vision, such as “You never expect it to go where it’s goin’, and that’s church.”
Particularly in the more recent installments, Kelly’s trying to go for funny with some scenes. But what he ends up with is not funny where it tries to be, and funny where it doesn’t — the comedy is tedious, and the (melo)drama is hysterical.
Case in point: a heated conversation in chapter 14 between Sylvester, the main character (and R. Kelly alter ego), and a character named Kathy, who breaks down in sobs … sobs that Kelly sings in falsetto on the soundtrack to, yes, the same melody that has run throughout the entire series. Later, Kathy insists that she knew her husband was cheating on her because, well, “a woman, a woman just knows when some s--t is foul.”
In chapter 18, Sylvester’s driving when he gets a call from Gwendolyn, his wife. But lo and behold, the connection’s bad, so we get nearly 20 seconds of Kelly singing, as both Sylvester and Gwen, “Can you hear me now?” “No.” “Can you hear me now?” “Babe.” “Can you hear me now?” “OK, I got you.”
The reason why “Trapped in the Closet” is sure to be here forever is not because it challenges “sexual stereotypes” or reinvents an entire genre, or because Kelly’s a genius or as inventive as John Waters, or because it’s a sophisticated look at contemporary societal mores, but because it’s bad, and phenomenally so.
Does it matter that R. Kelly’s brilliance is accidental rather than intentional? Of course not. Kelly himself seems baffled by the project: “I have no idea of how to explain ‘Trapped in the Closet,’” he said at the New York premiere of the newest episodes. “I can explain all my other songs, but this is an alien to me. The reason I say that is that it’s something that has never happened — can’t nobody explain it, including me.”
You can’t make this stuff up. Unless, of course, you’re R. Kelly.
Patrick Enright is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in MSNBC.com, Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Movies.com and Seattle Weekly.