Posted by: ham8cheese | November 18, 2009

r. kelly: hot mess, or blessed?

A friend of mine hosted a little get-together at her place in Noe Valley this past weekend to watch R. Kelly’s hip-hopera, “Trapped in the Closet” (the first 22 chapters of which can be watched free of charge at I have to admit that, other than having listened to an unexpectedly hilarious series of podcasts chronicling his child pornography trial in the summer of 2008 (Dispatches from the R. Kelly Trial by Josh Levin at, I did not know very much about the man and had fairly low expectations. I thought we’d be there to watch a spectacle of sorts. And the conceit of Trapped in the Closet doesn’t really inspire a whole lotta confidence: it’s essentially a soap opera in which all of the dialogue is sung by R. Kelly himself, while the actors essentially lip-sync the dialogue. Then there were the atmospherics of the movie-watching party, which encouraged the skepticism that was building in me: we had “Dirty Shirley” Temples (Seven & Seven plus grenadine, of course), in honor of R. Kelly’s alleged (but unproven) penchant for corrupting the young and the innocent, and a suspiciously yellow-hued drink (vodka & lemonade), in honor of his alleged penchant for peeing on the young and the innocent (also unproven). We were there to laugh, not so much to appreciate well-crafted cinema.

Well this here doubting Thomas left that party with a serious appreciation for R. Kelly’s obvious talent, versatility as a performer, and life story. I can’t say I’m going to run out and buy his new album or anything, but Trapped is definitely worth checking out. Before I discuss the hip-hopera, though, some background:

Not only did Kelly literally shed his urban rags for riches, but he recently revealed publicly (in a ballsy move, I say) that he struggles with illiteracy. As alluded to above, he has also been involved in a couple of sex-related scandals, culminating in his Michael Jackson-esque child pornography trial, at which the jury declared him not guilty on all 14 counts of videotaping himself having intercourse with an underaged girl. Notwithstanding all this hot mess, Kelly somehow has managed to record numerous well-received R&B albums and compose (and perform) an entire 22-chaper-and-counting hip-hop-opera, Trapped in the Closet.

I think it was particularly the illiteracy revelation that really softened me up. I just think it’s nearly impossible to watch Trapped in the Closet and not come out (no pun intended) with a new appreciation for and awe of its composer, who — as one of the party attendees kept remarking — was basically walking around with 22-chapters-worth of lyrical dialogue in his head.

The plot-line of Trapped is sort of like Days of Our Lives meets Guy Noir, set to fairly simple (and repetitive) music. I started off watching with with a wrinkled brow, thinking to myself, “Really?” There’s the initial disconcerting-ness of listening to R. Kelly sing all the characters’ parts, both female and male. Then there are the tacky sets, the bad acting, the cliche plot devices to get over. There’s the fun of seeing R. Kelly in several different roles, old, young, male, female (and he was surprisingly believable — assuredly not Philip Seymour Hoffman-quality, but he can hold his own in a variety show). There’s the nosy neighbor, the numerous philandering spouses, the shady pastor, the stuttering but possibly reformed pimp (Mr. Pigtales’ favorite character), and let’s not forget the well-endowed but stinky midget (really!).

But strangely, and fairly quickly, at the end of the day, it works. And it’s very smart, combining humor based on exaggeration, repetition, absurdity, and over-attention to mundane detail (expertly parodied by the incomparable Weird Al Yankovic), with repeated cliffhangers and unlikely rhymes.

(Perhaps the most masterful of rhymes, in my opinion, occurs in Chapter 11. After we learn that the aforementioned midget is named “Big Man,” R. Kelly sings something to the effect of:

“Man, is that ya’ name?” / He says, “Yeah,” we laugh hot mess / Then I say, “Man, why they call you that?” / And he says, “Because I’m blessed.”

You’ll have to guess which area of his body the midget is pointing to at this point. If you are stumped, you might call to mind the subtly-worded R. Kelly hit, “I like the Crotch on You.”)

Apparently many folks are confused upon watching Trapped, wondering if R. Kelly knows that we are laughing at him. As one of the party-goers said, “It’s just so bad it’s good.” The behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD version does not do anything to dispel the mystery, as both Kelly and his co-stars all seem to be working very earnestly and taking everything very seriously. But in my view, R. Kelly was not so much the court jester as he was the master puppeteer.

Sadly, the last-available chapter, #22, is a cliffhan


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