This past weekend, I watched chapters 23-42 of R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet. These were the first new installments in Kelly’s extended “hip-hopera” since 2007, the piece already well over an hour long and set largely to a single beat with only slight variations. Before the new chapters aired on IFC, a remixed version of the lipsynched drama videoplay for the original were shown, to catch viewers up. I didn’t need to be caught up.
Fact of the matter is, I think Trapped In The Closet is brilliant on any level you could hope to evaluate it. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the original chapters at this point, but whatever Kelly’s indiscretions over the years—a lot of wondrously creative men throughout history have been perverts—I credit Trapped In The Closet with the same kind of demented genius and hubris I believe resulted in the pyramids, the Sistine Chapel and the Eiffel Tower: A crazed lunatic’s calling to make this thing where previously there was no thing.
To be clear, I don’t believe Trapped In The Closet will be heralded through centuries like those other works, but I do think the impulse driving it is the same, and as I watched the continuing stories of Rufus, Sylvester, Twan, Gwendolyn, Pimp Lucius, Rosie, and so on, the scale seemed no less grand. Seriously. Pimp Lucius hearing the voice of god? Was there ever an epic that didn’t somehow traffic with the divine?
But the last five years have brought different conceits to the work. For one, a sort of self-awareness in the project. Kelly’s narrator is more present. Characters now step out of their own plotlines to “speak”—of course it’s Kelly singing the lines of mono/dialogue, as always—in reality show-style confessionals set up to look like a segment from Entertainment Tonight, and Kelly in his writing seems to have stepped away from the song in favor of the drama.
That is, the beat isn’t a constant. This is unfortunate, because it was that singular progression that drew together the piece in its entirety, and served to ground Kelly’s storytelling in structured verses. In these chapters, the beat stops, the music changes, and in the confessional sections, an out of place distorted guitar line is brought in and repeated. At first, I thought it was the Melvins, and was actually hoping for a previously-unannounced collaboration to emerge, but no such luck.
The end result is that parts and transitions feel choppy. Verses go unfinished, cut off before they can be brought to their proper conclusion. Flow in the section is interrupted, but more importantly, continuity with Trapped In The Closet overall is lost. As ever, Kelly is a talented singer and his performance leaves nothing to be desired, but the arrangement and production around that performance has let go of part of what made it work so well in the first place.
While that’s true, the tradeoff comes in the cleverness of the plot and the execution of the story. The fallout from the initial, titular drama is still present, the starting point remaining the foundation on what has expanded in even more directions than the chapter numbers convey, and while Sylvester is still the main character and the one we’re clearly meant to care most about and relate to, the specter of “the package” looms large and the secondary personae involved do much to add a sense of completeness to the world in which the narrative unfolds.
Randolph and Rosie as Pimp Lucius’ family, Sylvester getting crossed up in an organized crime turf war before appearing on some tv show (we don’t yet know why), Cathy and Rufus working it out while Chuck’s whereabouts remain a mystery—there’s so much happening one moment to the next, and yet it’s all brought on methodically. By the time you’ve arrived at chapter 23, you’re already on the edge of your seat, and from there it becomes clear that the story is nowhere near done.
Really, Kelly could take it anywhere from here. The project is madness and I don’t know how he could possibly make money off of it—the scale seems too large to be financed by selling downloads—but this kind of twisted genius is so rare and so beautiful to watch in its process that I can only hope it’s not another half-decade before we get to find out what happens next.