On a fine recent evening spent drinking on the patio with a few of my white friends, I was surprised to find that our boozy conversation wasn't about pressing social issues or how the Man was keeping us all down. No, instead it was about how we're obsessed with "Trapped in the Closet."
For those of you who aren't familiar with "Closet" -- like one of my friends' wives, who was frankly disturbed at our level of involvement with the song -- it's R. Kelly's latest, well, project. You couldn't call it a single since it's broken down into five parts, which have been released more or less weekly over the past couple of months. In Kelly's words, it's an "epic urban soap opera" that has been slowly unfolding on black radio, a continuous narrative that's also going to be on his new album, TP.3 Reloaded, which comes out Tuesday. The chorus-free kitchen-sink cliff-hanger -- it keeps getting described in the press as a "ghetto Desperate Housewives" -- riveted many listeners, and parts four and five have long been the most heavily requested tracks on the Box.
(Spoiler alert: Don't read any further if you're planning to pick up Reloaded next week and acquaint yourself with all five parts at once. Okay? Good, now those of you who have been "Trapped" since March, or those of you who can't be bothered to listen to all five parts, read on )
You'll remember that part one begins the same way many of R. Kelly's songs do: with Kelly assuming the role of a man who's been creeping. He wakes up in a woman's fifth-floor apartment, a woman who isn't his own girl. He puts on his clothes and is about to leave, but the lady freaks -- her husband is coming up the stairs! She tells Kelly to get his ass in the closet, pronto, and since he can't think of anywhere else to go, he obliges.
Okay, he's in the closet (hence the title), and the husband enters. The faithless lady hops all over him, butters him up, coos in his ear. Kelly is astounded by the woman's dramatic acumen, and he sings my favorite line in the whole damn thing: "I'm tellin' you now, this girl's so good that she deserves an Os-curr."
It's looking like Kelly will be able to beat a sneaky retreat, but he's undone by technology: His cell phone rings. He "tried [his] best to quickly put it on vi-bra-aaaate," but it's too late. The cuckolded man says there's a mystery and he's gonna solve it. While the man's looking in the bathroom, and behind, under and around all the furniture in the bedroom, Kelly pulls out his Beretta -- huh? -- just in case some shit goes down. The man finally inches his way toward the closet as the music swells to a crescendo. He opens the door, and as with each installment, the last word echoes ominously -- in this case, it's "closet closet closet " Tune in next week, kids.
Timpani drums open up part two, and Kelly has his pistol cocked and pointed. He tries to explain to the man what happened. They were at the club, and ol' girl picked him up. The man, who turns out to be a pastor, is more disappointed than shocked, and he doesn't want to hear any of it. Besides, he's got a surprise of his own. He pulls out his ringing cell phone and tells the person he's been creeping with to turn back around and come up to the apartment. Kelly is shocked. The girl is shocked. As the man and woman argue and Kelly screams he's gonna shoot somebody, the mystery lady enters. The last line says it all: "He opens the door, I can't believe / It's a man man man!"
Part three: Four entangled lovers -- three of them men -- gape at one another, speechless. Eventually they speak, and we find out that the woman's name is Cathy, even though she told Kelly her name was Mary back at the club. Rufus is the preacher she wronged. The mystery "lady" is named Chuck. Rufus and Cathy start arguing. Kelly keeps threatening to shoot somebody, but they keep screaming at each other. Kelly can't take this shit anymore -- he fires a round into the ceiling to get them all to shut up, and then whips out his cell phone to call his lady back at his house. Whereupon he gets another shock: A man picks up the phone. End of part three.
Part four opens with Kelly leaving the messed-up threesome behind. He's "dashing home, doing 85 / Swerving lane to lane, with fire in [his] eyes," and his run of bad luck continues: He gets pulled over for speeding. He gets a ticket and continues on his angry way. He rushes inside to find his girl, all alone. Kelly demands to know who answered the phone. She tells him it was her brother -- did Kelly forget she told him he was coming? Oh, damn, my bad, he says. He apologizes as they both head up to the bedroom to put this messiness behind them. They immediately get into bed and she starts laying it on him like she's trying to clear some kind of debt. "And then she looked at me, and said, 'Baby, go deeper, please!' " Kelly croons. "That's when I started goin' crazy like I was tryin' to give her a baby!" Their toes curl; the room spins. It's getting so mind-blowingly good, Kelly gets a cramp in his leg. But just as the pair are about to share an earth-shattering mutual climax, he pulls back the covers and discovers -- "Oh, my God! A rub-ber! rub-ber! rub-ber!" End of part four.
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.
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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.