R. Kelly Gets the Joke

Why Trapped in the Closet is a brilliant career move.

For readers who have not yet caught up with Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s 23 “chapter” R&B opus, here’s a brief synopsis. Sylvester (R. Kelly) wakes up in the bed of a strange woman (Cathy) whom he picked up the previous evening in a nightclub. He’s forced to hide in the bedroom closet when Cathy hears her husband, Rufus, coming up the stairs. Rufus enters and begins making love to Cathy, but Sylvester’s cell phone rings before he can put it on vibrate, and he is discovered. Sylvester takes out his gun. A heated argument ensues. Rufus reveals that he has been having an affair with a man, Chuck. Incidentally, Rufus is a pastor. Chuck arrives at the house. More bickering, more threats of violence. Sylvester fires his gun in the air and then phones his wife, Gwendolyn. A man picks up the phone. Is Gwendolyn having an affair? Sylvester rushes out of Cathy and Rufus’ place and is pulled over for speeding while en route to his house. Sylvester finally makes it home and—after a torrid roll in the hay with Gwendolyn—discovers a used condom on his bed. Lo and behold, James, the police officer who issued Sylvester’s speeding ticket, has been sleeping with Gwendolyn. And Gwendolyn knew about Rufus’ infidelity because she went to high school with Cathy. (Also, Gwendolyn’s friend Roxanne is pally with Chuck, Rufus’ man-lover. Chuck is a deacon at Rufus’ church, by the way). James (the cop) arrives at Sylvester and Gwendolyn’s place, there is a struggle over a gun, and someone is shot in the shoulder. (The victim turns out to be Twan, Gwendolyn’s ex-con brother.) Sylvester is then menaced by a spatula-wielding neighbor, Rosie. James goes home and discovers that he too has been cuckolded: His wife, Bridget, has been messing around with a male stripper named Big Man, whom James discovers cowering in a kitchen cabinet. (Big Man can fit in the cabinet because he is a midget.) Did I mention that Bridget is allergic to cherries? Important plot point. Anyway, Big Man—so named because of his spectacular endowment—“shits himself,” takes a long draw on his inhaler, and faints. Whereupon it’s revealed that Big Man fathered Bridget’s child. I’m only up to Chapter 11.

The second batch of Trapped in the Closet episodes (Chapters 13-22) are currently screening on the IFC channel’s Web site, and it hardly seems necessary to say that they defy description, let alone summation. The tale has gotten more Byzantine, and Kelly has donned a wig of curly gray hair and a fake beard to play the roles of the Rev. Mosley James Evans and of a crotchety old guy named Randolph. The only constants are the languid, eerie beat; Kelly’s casually spectacular vocal pyrotechnics (in Chapter 21, he croons goombah-style, in the voice of an Italian Mafia boss); and the singer’s desire to pile on more ludicrous plot twists. (Car chases! Lesbianism! Pimps with speech impediments! Gospel choirs!) The sprawl of the story has sapped some of its oomph: Chapters 1-12, released in 2005, were tighter, with more flashes of pathos and paranoia lurking amid the silliness. But in turning Trapped into a shaggier epic, Kelly has made it into a bigger event—a milestone. Surely this is the most widely viewed psychedelic chitlin-circuit soap opera in history.

Comedy as winning as Trapped need not do anything more than entertain. But it’s hard not to discern an agenda, of sorts, in Kelly’s embrace of yuks. Humor is a vastly underestimated component of popular music, central to country and hip-hop, whose rhymes often take the form of punchlines. But contemporary R&B rarely cracks a smile. Where jokes exist, they are generally unintentional: the self-parody of grimly strutting divas and oily love men promising ecstasy amid billows of cocoa-butter-scented Spanish Fly.

This is where Kelly comes in. He began his career in the early 1990s by playing to type—crooning come-ons and pleas without a trace of irony, accompanied by the usual pelvic thrusts. But as the years have progressed, Kelly has learned, as Kelefa Sanneh wrote this week in the New York Times, “that a subtle joke, or an unsubtle one, can make a slow jam feel more intimate and therefore more effective.” Today, while Kelly still regularly churns out slow jams—tempo-wise, Trapped in the Closet qualifies as one—he seems profoundly uninterested in making utilitarian sex music, happy to cede the title of Booty Call King to the tyros. Instead of singing about sex, Kelly is singing about singing about sex. He’s gone meta-love man.

How else to interpret songs like “Sex Planet” and “The Zoo” from Kelly’s latest album, Double-Up? The former has a poetic conceit that literally spins into outer space: “We’ll stick a flag on the moon/ First couple to ever make love on planet Neptune/ And if time allow us/ We’ll be gone for hours/ I won’t stop until I give you meteor showers.” “The Zoo” is even broader: “Girl, I got you so wet/ It’s like a rain forest/ Like Jurassic Park/ Except I’m your sex-a-saurus baby/ You and me hopping/ Like two kangaroos/ Rattling and moaning/ Out here in these woods.” No one who has seen Trapped in the Closet—or, for that matter, Kelly’s live a cappella performance of “The Zoo”—could deny that such songs are meant more to amuse than to titillate.

But above all, R. Kelly’s point is to keep things fresh. Boudoir pop was born the day that R&B singers stopped bothering with double-entendres and got explicit. That was a breakthrough, to be sure, but the act quickly became absurd: There’s only so much talk of silk sheets and whipped cream even a hyper-sexed groupie can take before rolling her eyes. Kelly has managed to breathe life into sex music by embracing sexual farce. It’s a clever move: He gets to keep his favorite subject matter and his louche backing tracks while disarming his critics. And he can let his erotic imagination run utterly rampant. Perversion goes down easy when delivered with a wink.

Trapped in the Closet is a riot, but it is also, in its way, profound. The real triumph of Kelly’s meta-love-man routine is how it underscores something essential about sex and desire: the comedy and absurdity that so often accompany the desperate lurchings of our loins. This is where Trapped in the Closet (and “Sex Planet” and the “The Zoo” and dozens of other Kelly songs yet to be recorded) shades into autobiography. Kelly will stand trial this September on child pornography charges, stemming from a videotaped encounter in which Kelly allegedly is shown urinating on an underaged paramour. Who can doubt that the outrageous stew of sex, guilt, and violence in Trapped in the Closet reflects its creator’s own outrageous legal troubles? R. Kelly knows as well as anyone that eros can be a farce, and a trap.