Out of the Closet: A Critical Study of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”

ImageI used to laugh at my friends whenever they mentioned R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” Until last Friday. I wrote a restaurant review for the Bushwick Daily at 3rd Ward’s new restaurant, Fitzcarraldo. They projected R. Kelly’s “modern operatic masterpiece” (the words of their manager, John) on a screen following the movie Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog. Upon viewing both films, I would put them on par with each other as equally ambitious and beautiful. Mind you, I’ve only seen the first twelve episodes of “Trapped in the Closet,” but it’s easy to understand why Francis Ford Coppola has called it incredible.

–Language: Sure it doesn’t always rhyme. But that doesn’t matter. R. Kelly’s colloquial language establishes his characters as everyday people you could expect to meet at a party or walking down the street. All of them, from Chuck to Bridgette to Big Man, are Dickensian in their realness and their idiosyncratic use of words. Sure, sometimes their dialogues are comical, but R. Kelly also uses language to heighten tension. He avoids f-bombs in the beginning of each chapter, but as the drama rises and the tempo of the music increases, his threats are ever more real. And in portraying black vernacular, with phrases such as “…shouldn’t never took my ass to the Par’Jay’s club,” (11) and “…man get out my house,” (6) R. Kelly shows how language continues to evolve.

–Narrative: There is a plot map of all the characters involved in this story on Wikipedia. I haven’t even seen all 33 chapters, but the fact that there are 33 makes me think of Dante’s, The Inferno, whose story concludes in 33. Will R. Kelly, like Dante, keep writing until he’s reached 100? Even if he doesn’t, R. Kelly is the King of R&B. He has worked with other musical geniuses, such as Michael Jackson, and wrote his “You Are Not Alone.” We can view “Trapped in the Closet” as his masterpiece– the pièce de résistance of his career. And with the fact that he is a character in his own story, and yet is also the narrator of it, he welcomes into a bizarre post-postmodern realm. With so many coincidences, it’s easy to laugh, but R. Kelly’s metamodernism shows us how each of us are so often absorbed in our own issues that we fail to see the problems of those around us, which in turn, can come to deeply affect us. In this “alien” work, dramatic– and often violent– confrontation is the only way to bring these conflicts to light.

–Music: The fact that R. Kelly wrote the lyrics and produced the music to his hip hopera, puts him in the realm of another great opera composer: Wagner. A master librettist and musician, R.Kelly does him one better– he’s singing too. The E major pattern each chapter follows is not especially difficult, but that, in a way, makes it that much more melodic and easy to follow for listeners of all ages.

With who knows how many more episodes of “Trapped in the Closet” to come, I can only guess how R. Kelly will be remembered for his epic saga of modern love. Now, all I have to do is watch the next 21 chapters.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.

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