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Review of R. Kelly’s major work, Trapped in the Closet, pts. 1-33

Bryant Apolonio once spent a Saturday night watching the entire thing because it’s great and his life is cool

Trapped in the Closet (Books 1-3) has no co-writers or backup vocals. It was conceived, written, directed, and recited solely by Robert S. Kelly (R. Kelly). Trapped in the Closet (henceforth abbreviated to TitC) is 33 chapters long and unfinished.

It was written between 2005 and 2012. It’s approximately as long as a long-ish novella or a feature length film.

TitC is an epic poem with an iconic E minor beat, that drips like faulty plumbing but flows. TitC is a landmark of R&B, ‘hip-hopera,’ that so often dismissed genre. It’s really very good.

It’s a tale of love, betrayal, crime, and sex. It borders on Chaucerian fabliau with its focus on bawdy remixes of lower middle-class Americans, their caricatured relationships (the protagonist’s affair with the pastor’s wife etc., the police officer’s wife, shotgun in hand, confessing she’s “in love with a midget” etc.), their trivial conversations, for example:

She says “Are you okay?” “Yes”

“Do you need anything?” “No”

“Well, I baked you a pie” “Mmm”

“Your favorite: Cherry”

(TitC, Ch. 8, Bk. 1)

The protagonist, Sylvester, is based on Kelly himself but it is the narratorial persona (also Kelly) that, I think, pulls the whole thing together.

Distanced and wise, but nevertheless down-to-earth; Kelly-as-narrator is a benevolent, good-vibes, kind of man-of-the-people bro. And though his real life personality leaves much to be desired – sort of fills me with despair – he will always have this.

Kelly-as-narrator never speaks down to the characters – some of whom we can hardly empathise with (Rosie the nosy neighbour, Lucius “the pimp,” Bridget the southern belle. None of them are particularly endearing. Hell, I have even a hard time sympathising with Sylvester’s own plight) – all caught up in their own webs of artifice.

He’s also a funny guy. There’s a particularly tense moment early on when the police officer, Sgt. James, who is having an affair with Sylvester’s wife Gwendolyn, accuses his own wife of infidelity.

He marches around the kitchen, looking for the culprit, as his wife bursts into tears. He finds a midget under his sink named “Big Man” who she met at a strip club and she suspects fathered her child. Sgt. James points his gun at Big Man’s head while his wife takes out a shotgun and aims at her husband.

At this point Sylvester and his brother Twan (who has just been released from prison that day, who has his own complicated sub-plot) burst into the house waving berettas. Ludicrous. 100%, goddamn insane. And absolutely intentional.

Kelly knows this is funny because while he romanticises it, he also happily parodies a life of casual sex and minor crime.

R. Kelly, admittedly, is a beleaguered individual. He’s a man who’s been tried for assault and arrested for (but cleared of) sex with minors. Among other things. And yet (you can make of this what you will) he’s also a man who can divorce his personal problems from his music – how did he write the remix to ‘Ignition’ of all things if that weren’t the case?

Whole essays could be written about TitC, but they haven’t been and probably won’t be except by me. It isn’t and was never meant to be the most subtle or complex work.

It’s farcical, it’s lowbrow. Accessible while being totally alien. R. Kelly is an utter genius who knows what his people want and delivers. Thirty-three times and counting.

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