We're all Trapped in the Closet

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R. Kelly in Trapped in the Closet
Friday night I swung by the Rocking Horse in Logan Square for a birthday party, but instead of catching up with friends I spent a portion of the evening stationed beneath a TV screen, craning my neck to watch the latest installment of R. Kelly's never-ending opus, Trapped in the Closet. I stood next to a couple strangers, all of us transfixed by the images of Kelly's strange world despite the fact that the TV was on mute.

None of us knew what was happening most of the time; then again, sometimes it feels like no one other than R. Kelly has a clear idea of what's going on in Trapped in the Closet. Some moments it feels like even Kelly is lost in his own world, unsure of what will happen next—which I think is part of the appeal of his grand hip-hopera.

For the past couple weeks I've taken a crash course on the ever-evolving R&B song cycle to prepare for the debut of the new chapters on IFC, which included attending a sold-out screening of the first 22 installments at the Music Box. It's the kind of outsize pop-music project that has the ability to eclipse its creator's profile, and many have cast Trapped in the Closet as a PR triumph for Kelly, given his infamous legal troubles.

The series has taken on a life of its own, becoming the kind of reference point that's instantly recognizable to a variety of music fans and culture junkies. Thanks to the endless spoofs, memes, and other riffs on Trapped in the Closet that have popped up since its inception, you don't need to see a single second of the hip-hopera to be able to recall some of the its unique details, such as the rising inflection in Kells's voice that marks the moment his character pulls out a Beretta in the first chapter. It's helped mythologize Trapped in the Closet in a way that not only overshadows Kelly but sometimes even the story itself.

I get the impression that the way people have responded to Trapped in the Closet has given Kelly a little more license to follow whatever unusual ideas come to mind, no matter where they lead and even if they veer from the loose narrative. The story's initial plot point and its namesake—a man named Sylvester (played by Kelly) finds himself hiding in a closet the morning after having an extramarital affair—remain integral to tying everything together, but Kelly abandoned the physical, um, trappings of the title long before the new chapters. The expanding universe includes more and more "zany" characters (some of them played by Kells) who continue to reveal odd personality quirks and deeper interpersonal ties. In the first 22 chapters Kelly acted as a stuttering hustler named Pimp Luscious, a peripheral character that felt forced into the mix as a cheap grab for laughs, but Kelly filled him out in the latest installments, turning him into the cast-out son of Sylvester's religious and gossipy neighbors who suddenly begins receiving messages from God. (Pimp Luscious also employs a blind hooker, so he's got that going for him.)

Kelly has always toyed around with the story's minimalist musical suite—a light, rising piano melody played in a cycle, punctuated with finger snapping and a sample of Kelly's aching croon—but in the new chapters he does it in bolder ways, adding 70s funk guitar flourishes to the mix and sometimes abandoning the original template entirely. But Kelly's narration is the real attraction, and what makes the project so enjoyable to watch; he finds ways to create rhymes out of routine moments, injects period dialogue with a musicality akin to free-form poetry, and at times wanders off on strange tangents. It's absurd how Kelly decides to zero in on certain specifics—like the not-so-elaborate path Sylvester and his brother-in-law Twan take while walking through a building to meet a gang boss—while airbrushing details that are integral to the plot, if not outright ignoring them. And yet that's part of what gives Kelly the flexibility to toy with his world and also makes Trapped in the Closet so endearing.

Somehow Kelly has the flexibility to turn a humorous story flashpoint like a dude stuck in a closet into a narrative that shatters the fourth wall and perceptions of self-awareness; in the new chapters the characters sometimes act as if the real-world legend of Trapped in the Closet exists in theirs, carrying on their usual routines even as they all partake in confessionals for a reality TV show named after Trapped in the Closet and a preacher shills a book with the same title. Suddenly "trapped in the closet" has become a well-known saying in the very alternative reality that spawned the cultural phenomenon in ours. In Trapped in the Closet the lines separating its fiction and our fact have begun to blur; even Pimp Luscious's religious father, who is also played by Kelly, references "Bump n' Grind." If anyone else attempted to play fast and loose with a narrative like this chances are it would be a failure, but that's not the case for Kelly. Even when the plot mechanics don't quite work he finds a way to make that failure enjoyable to watch.

If you missed IFC's airing of the ten new Trapped in the Closet installments there are a couple ways you can catch them online. Some crafty folks have been uploading the whole segment to the Internet, but if watching illegally uploaded YouTube clips isn't your bag, IFC is posting it online in chapter-long installments. Check out chapters 23-25 below:

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