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No More Drama

R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" sputters to a disappointing close

In the finale, Kelly's got the Beretta out again and he's cursing his head off -- fortunately, if eccentrically, he preempts the censors and sings his own "bleeps" and "bloops" -- as he looks for the brotha who left that urban whitefish in his bed. His girl tells him he's gone. He demands to know who he is. The girl's afraid to tell him. She also informs him that she knows that he was in some trick's bed last night because she followed him to the club. She figured if he's gonna get some, she's gonna get some -- what's good for the gander is good for the goose. A flabbergasted Kelly again demands that she give up the man's name. She tells him that a couple of friends know this cat named Chuck, who's "real cool" with a guy named Rufus, who has a wife Kelly's girl went to high school with. His wife introduced her to the guy. But who is it? Why, it's the cop who stopped him in part four. The end.

What the fuck? Not since The Matrix Revolutions have I been so disappointed by a sprawling saga's coda.

For a while there, "Closet" sounded like it would be Kelly's most daring musical experiment. It started off as another one of Kelly's on-the-down-low numbers, then morphed into a provocative radio drama. But then Kelly either ran out of ideas or simply punked out. The story could have been much more controversial and thought-provoking, and Kelly either lacked the ability to make it so or simply wussed out for fear of getting too edgy and losing his audience. If it's the latter (and I think it is), then "Closet" not only reveals a lack of originality, but it also provides further proof of one of Kelly's most salient -- if seldom commented-upon -- flaws: The man is a musical coward.

Kelly may have spent most of his life absorbing the musical influence of his R&B forefathers -- Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers -- but he's always been resistant to their messages. Those singers were not only gifted soul artists but keen social commentators -- they made the world around them both melodious and ripe for discussion.

In parts two and three, it looked like Kelly was going down that road. At last, somebody was gonna finally speak up about how homosexuality is even more verboten in black culture than in white culture, that "down-low," Kelly's old term for heterosexual creeping, had taken on new meaning in the last couple of years. Not only that, it looked like Kelly was going to bring in the gay marriage issue, as near the end of part three Pastor Rufus declared -- to the disgust of Cathy/Mary -- that he and Chuck were planning to get hitched.

But alas, by the time we got to part four, Rufus, Chuck and Mary had been conveniently and completely swept from the scene. Some listeners view "Closet" as a what-goes-around-comes-around cautionary tale, but that's an old story, and this one could've gotten a lot deeper than that. Imagine if instead of the same old broken hearts and bruised egos, the characters had also gotten something terminal, like AIDS. Or if Kelly didn't want to take it to that level of seriousness, at least he could have been a little more creative and funny. Imagine if, instead of another bed-hopping parable, one that inadvertently perpetuates the stereotype that black people are unscrupulous, promiscuous hoes, Kelly could have surprised his listeners with an entertaining, out-of-nowhere twist. As a friend of mine back at the party suggested, it would've been cool if part five had ended with Kelly finding out that his gal's mystery guy was none other than Mr. Biggs, Ronald Isley's cane-wielding alter ego, who has had most of his girls turned out by Kelly in previous songs. Or maybe Kelly could have killed off all his characters via HIV or a hail of gunfire and they could have all gone on to heaven. All, that is, except for Kelly, who could get turned away at the pearly gates by -- Mr. Biggs!

But alas, no one dies, Mr. Biggs is a no-show and R. Kelly doesn't go to the extreme. You'd think that a man who has been accused of the worst and has (so far) walked away with both his freedom and his fan base intact would have had the balls to take more chances with his music. (Apparently, you can be accused of pissing on a kid on tape and people will still love you, but if you address the explicit issues black people are afraid to come to terms with, then you're just one nasty muhfucka!)

And we have long known him to be an accomplished (melo)dramatist, as many of his finer compositions are mini-morality skits. But one would've expected Kelly to be a lot more subversive with "Closet." Since the root of many a good melodrama is to take what's taboo in a culture and use it as dramatic fodder, Kelly could've used many things that are rarely mentioned in black music (and black culture) and made sweet, thought-provoking music out of them.

But he didn't. "Trapped in the Closet" may be R. Kelly's most ambitious composition yet, but it's also his most revealing failure. Sadly, R. Kelly's closet is full of his own clichés and his own fears, and he's still trapped in it.

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