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The Serious Unserious Pleasures of R. Kelly’s Continuing Musical Saga ‘Trapped in the Closet’

The Serious Unserious Pleasures of R. Kelly's Continuing Musical Saga 'Trapped in the Closet'

After a five-year break, tonight sees the return of “Trapped in the Closet,” singer-songwriter R. Kelly’s self-described “hip hopera” following the dramas of a group of urbanites connected by sex, lies and phone calls. The next installment, better known as Chapters 23 through 33, premieres Friday, November 23  at 9pm on IFC and will be followed by a release online at IFC.com, a chapter each day. What started as an all-sung object of bemusement when introduced on Kelly’s “TP.3 Reloaded” album has grown into a formidable (if still totally strange) creation — at this point, i’s not a question of whether “Trapped in the Closet” is a self-aware parody of serialized storytelling, but that it’s one of the most entertaining modern soap operas in the last seven years.

The episodic opera started with the morning after a one-night stand between Sylvester (Kelly, who plays several roles) and Cathy (LeShay Tomlinson), one interrupted when the latter hears her husband coming home, forcing her lover to hide in the closet. If you’re familiar with the story, you know what happens next. If not, why aren’t you catching up now? As the world of “Trapped in the Closet” continues to expand, R. Kelly has managed to create the “Lost” equivalent of an R&B telenovela, accompanied by the kind of hooks that dig into your brain and make you hum the repetitive “da-da-da-DA-da-da” wherever you go. Which is why, when it first premiered in 2005, “Closet” was so ripe for cultural parody.

For the six months following its premiere in 2005, everyone from Jimmy Kimmel (“The Pizza”) to “MADtv” (“Trapped in the Cupboard,” featuring Jordan Peele demanding cereal while announcing “I’m R. Kelly!”) took a run at “Trapped in the Closet.” A panel was held in the fall of 2005 at Upright Citizens Brigade, hosted by Eric Appel, that would travel between the coasts discussing the increasingly bizarre chapters. Perhaps the best skewering came solely through implication when South Park ran “Trapped in the Closet,” which skewered Scientology and quietly referenced the “down-low” relationship storyline between Rufus (Rolando A. Boyce) and Chuck (Artel Great, in later chapters Kevin Douglass).

After Chapter 5, “Trapped” would broaden in scope to introduce more characters, including another fan-favorite, Twan (Eric Lane), along with Rosie the Nosy Neighbor (La Donna Tittle) and Sgt. James (Michael K. Williams). But like the decades of back-story found in long-running soap operas like “General Hospital,” if you don’t feel like learning about Bridget, Big Man or how everyone seems to steal someone’s else gun then don’t worry. Chapter 23 sums up everything you need know in under three minutes, glossing over the amazing minutia but keeping the story in tact.

While Kelly’s lyrics (“She says you’re the perfect lover / I said I cant go no futher / Then I flip back the cover / Oh my God, a rubber…”) are definitely a major point to the appeal of “Trapped in the Closet” — New York Comic Con recently had a convention hall solely devoted to karaokeing chapters one through 22 — Kelly’s visuals are just as interesting. The latest chapters, the ones being unveiled tonight, are remarkably different from the preceding ones because of their foreshadowing. They’re proof that Kelly is embracing, to steal a line from Chicago’s own Ian Svenonius, the serious unserious, from a random green-screened street to the ominous bumpers hinting at a show-within-a-show.

As Kelly remarked during the chapters’ premiere earlier this week in New York, a lot of what he’s doing is adding silly drama to an otherwise boring situation. Case in point: In Chapter 31, as Sylvester is with Twan, being lead to a meeting with a new gangster, Beeno (also played by Kelly, but with filed-down teeth), he sings, “We took a left, then another left, then a right, then down a flight of stairs…” which goes on for almost two minutes.

And as if a reward for putting up with that, the final chapter of this arc features a surreal throwback to Issac Hayes and blaxspolitation films, down to the refrain (“Runnin’ from bullets! Bullets! Bullets!”). As the chapters have evolved, so has Kelly’s plotting. The newest series actually deals a surprising amount of question-and-answer due to fan theories, such as directly addressing what “The Package” (assumed by many to be HIV/AIDS) is and pointing out which characters aren’t showing up, even addressing why it’s important in mid-song.

The kitsch appeal of “Trapped” feels exactly like what would happen if Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim were told to make a musical drama — as evidenced late in Chapter 25, when we find out that Pimp Lucius (also played by Kelly) hears the Voice of God, are informed why by the narrator and then cut back to a wide-eyed Sylvester and Twan asking what just happened. And yet, there are moments of genuine emotional drama, such as when one of the new characters (a relationship councilor played, of course, by Kelly) tries to help Cathy/Mary and Pastor Rufus reconcile their marriage following both of their affairs.

If you’re still on the fence about this series/cultural phenom, consider the fact that Kelly is able to crank these installments out with the swiftness of someone just messing around in the studio — which is essentially what he does. “Trapped” moves at the speed of Kelly’s lyrics, which can appear simple and seemingly easy until they reveal themselves to be shockingly dense.

Fair warning: once you start watching “Trapped in the Closet,” whether out of curiosity or because you think it’s a joke, you will find yourself sucked down a hole into something more obsession-friendly than “Arrested Development” when it comes to jokes, plot twists and fan-service. Still not convinced “Trapped” is worth it? The next arc promises a talk show titled “Out of the Closet,” one teased via guest confessionals that show Kelly is completely in control of his madcap design, even down to the introduction of a character named Francine, a “blind ho.”

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