The Heat of R. Kelly's Imagination
Trapped in the Closet Tests the Limits of Narration
R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet is R&B's first real attempt to achieve the condition of a soap opera. It is Days of Our Lives with a beat. And the beat goes on and on. Eleven more episodes have recently been added to the 22 that were completed in 2007. As long as people keep watching the episodes, R. Kelly will generate more and more chapters of this surreal concoction he calls a "hip hopera."
The true greatness of Trapped in the Closet is revealed when it's contrasted with the video he made with the R&B singer Sparkle for the tune "Be Careful." The former was made between 2005 and 2012; the latter was made in 1998. Whereas the former is propelled by the fumes of an inexhaustible imagination, the latter draws directly from the hard stuff of experience. "Be Careful" is, to use the words of KRS-One, all about reality. The story goes like this: After a hard and long day at work, Sparkle arrives at her apartment door with her young son, enters, and finds R. Kelly in the living room with his feet up and the TV's bright light luridly glowing on his relaxed body. R. Kelly is unemployed (he got laid off) and spends his days secretly calling local ladies, eating all of the food, and flipping channels. Sparkle, who has reached her limit, sends the boy to bed and confronts R. Kelly about his oppressive uselessness. She is tired of supporting him, tired of watching him do nothing around the house, and tired of his secret calls to other women in the hood. R. Kelly wants to answer, but Sparkle says, "Wait a minute, let me finish." She has a long list of grievances. She has to let them all out, one by one.
When it's finally R. Kelly's turn to speak, he mentions how, when things were going well for him, when he had an income and all that, he paid the bills, put gas in the tank and bacon on the table, and supported her son (the child of another man). Furthermore, he kept quiet when she was hanging out with her snobby girlfriends from college. (R. Kelly is blue-collar to the bone.) In short, she owes him big time. Sparkle will not budge from her position; R. Kelly will not budge from his. Shit doesn't get realer than "Be Careful."
Compare all of this to Trapped in the Closet, a "hip hopera" that makes no effort to reconcile its hard-to-track plot with reality. It begins with a man, Sylvester (R. Kelly), waking up in the bed of a woman, Cathy, after a one-night stand, and learning, just as he is preparing to leave her apartment, that her husband, Rufus, is coming up the stairs. Cathy tells Sylvester to hide in the closet. He wants to jump out of the window. She tells him that the apartment is five stories above the ground. He changes his mind and agrees to hide in the closet. Rufus walks into the bedroom and begins to make love to his wife. But Sylvester's cell phone rings, and Rufus rises from the bed, suspecting another man is in the house. Rufus first looks in the bathroom, then under the bed, then in a chest of drawers—yes, he looks for a whole man in a drawer.
Eventually, we learn that Rufus, a pastor, is also unfaithful—he is seeing a guy called Chuck on the down-low. We then learn that Sylvester's wife, Gwendolyn, is also unfaithful—she is messing around with a police officer. We later learn that the police officer's wife (a white woman with a Southern accent) is also unfaithful—her lover is a midget who easily faints. We later learn that Sylvester's brother-in-law's girlfriend is a lesbian. And this wonderful nonsense goes on and on for 33 episodes. One episode even has a pastor (played by R. Kelly) trying to convince a pimp (played by R. Kelly) to change his ways. This pimp has a severe stutter. Most amazing of all, R. Kelly is not trying to be funny. He just wants to surprise the listener with crazier upon crazier plot twists.
What "Be Careful" reveals about Trapped in the Closet is that R. Kelly has the ability to make a domestic drama that's not over the top, that has an ordinary narrative structure. He can, if he so desires, cool his imagination down to the temperatures of the mundane. But with Trapped in the Closet, he deliberately heated his imagination like the burners of a hot air balloon. And we, the viewers, sit in the basket of a story that goes up and up and up.