by carl wilson

Kells's Closet Case Cracked

RKellyManq.jpg
This R. Kelly mannequin has been all over blogville, but till I went hunting myself I'd never seen this bizarre full-figure shot, which kinda foreshadows the conclusion of today's column.

In today's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, I go down the pee-yellow-brick road with the Pied Piper (eww) of R&B;, into the formica-countered Emerald Ghetto of the most stupendously cuckoo pop phenomenon of the century, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet series, the force ('cuz it ain't the feeble single Players Only) that propelled his new album to the top of the charts this week. For once, a celeb accused of dirty deeds actually tries to save his ass not with legalese and smear campaigns but with — can it be? — his art. [... Read it here. ...]

The greatest summer single of ever

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 16, 2005

In 2005, pop music is about anything but pop music. It's about tsunami aid and African debt, celebrity trials and sexual misconduct. Most of all it's about technology, the iPod as ubiquitous cultural feeding tube, the mobile-phone ring tone as 11-second chart wonder.

Or rather, it was, until R&B; singer R. Kelly — in his second decade of multimillion-selling fame, and short weeks before his own imminent sex trial — made pop all about the songs again, thanks to the most off-the-hook summer-single ploy ever.

Coincidence? Not. But if a star has been accused of having issues with drugs, guns, Scientology or — for the most-unfortunately nicknamed "Pied Piper of R&B;" — degrading videotaped sex with very underage girls, I don't want him making talk-show testaments, sham marriages or hurried dashes with umbrella-toting bodyguards to unmarked limos.

No, I want him to court public sympathy by dreaming up entertainment so baroquely fantastic that people will demand clemency just so he can make more, aware it's wrong but unable to help themselves.

In case of emergency, break creative glass ceiling.

So: What about a five-part musical saga involving two married couples, several adulteries, a cop, a gay pastor named Rufus and his secret lover Chuck, a handgun, multiple cellphones, a closet and a condom, set to a water-torture suspenseful score, with each chapter ending abruptly in a cliffhanger with a reverberating string-and-kettle-drum crescendo?

That is the marvel that is R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1 to 5. The epic appears in its full perverse glory on his new, instant-No.-1 album, TP.3 Reloaded. But first segments were released one by one to radio from April to now, to succour the medium in its grimmest, iPod-menaced hour. Kelly aimed to revive the golden-age radio serial. R&B; stations happily played along, making it a hit and, for many of us, an obsession.

(Don't read further if you don't want to know what happens.) (I've never ever felt the need to issue a spoiler warning about a song before now.)

There's also a video, whose TV premiere last week was the top-rated show in BET history. Shot with the cheap back-lighting and dun sets of a daytime soap, Kelly and a group of actors enact exactly the scenarios in the song — like the moment in Chapter 1 when Kelly, hiding from a jealous husband in a bedroom closet the day after a tryst, fumbles with his phone "to quickly put it on vi-i-i-bra-a-a-te!"

The actors mouth the lines as if speaking, but Kelly croons the actual dialogue, and more. It's like a reverse tone-deafness in which all human speech and thought are replaced by the buttery vocalese of R. Kelly.

In Chapter 2, the jealous husband, who is also gay pastor Rufus, uses his own cell to get Chuck to come announce "the shocking truth," their own plan to marry. When he hangs up, Kelly off-handedly sings, "Click!"

And, reader, that's what the whole piece is like! Later, Kelly sings the siren of a police car pulling him over! Don't even ask about the part where Kelly sings to his wife to hurry up and orgasm because he has a leg cramp! And she still tells him what a great lover he is! Let's just say it ends badly! And circuitously!

In the manner of an Andy Warhol movie, it's too knowing to be inadvertent, too earnest to be satire and too bat-guano nuts to make sense. But Kelly, who happens to have the voice of a 21st-century Sam Cooke, bulldozes any and all attempts to maintain an ironic distance with his overcharged delivery. It's not so bad it's good; it's so unabashedly itself that it's beyond bad and good — it's so R., it's Kelly.

One (or five) of a kind though it is, Closet has precedents. The cheater-cheated theme is a staple of Kelly's back catalogue, and the storytelling is like a cannabis-fried version of country-blues ballad Frankie & Johnny or the Persuaders' Thin Line Between Love and Hate, flipping back and forth to Jerry Springer and Desperate Housewives.

It's also an amoral take on the revival-tent-style morality plays that draw throngs of black Americans on today's urban-gospel theatre circuit, the source of last year's minor hit movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman. And this being R. Kelly, there's also a whiff of Boogie Nights-era pornography, all pile carpet and faux-wood panelling.

But the key is radio and TV daytime soap operas — which, like Closet, are domestic, talk-heavy and full of flawed but sympathetic characters, and unfold in revelations and cliffhangers that never resolve the story. Closet has no chorus because it's a soap — a chorus would be a climax, which in a soap opera must be deferred indefinitely. Call it tantric plotting.

In fact, Kelly has already announced that there will be at least five more chapters to Closet, probably more. (Which explains why Chapter 5 makes such a lousy ending — it isn't one.) Embarking on a potentially infinite project is one way to assert your belief you won't go to jail.

Feminist scholars also suggest soap opera's open, interconnected narrative structures mirror feminine social identity. And that's just what Kelly needs. Not only to curry favour with female fans, who love the goofy, homely realism of his erotic imagination (that leg cramp, or the chopped tomatoes in Sex in the Kitchen) and the humility with which he'll sometimes interrupt his horndogging to pay obeisance to family and God; but to dismantle his other face, the hysterically hypermasculine sex predator, and make amends.

Unlike Cooke or Marvin Gaye, Kelly still seems locked deep in his own closet. Closet grazes against cultural taboos — tolerating homosexuality, acknowledging the playa-ho double standard — but as always, Kelly drops it and lets himself off scot free.

So, while the first five (well, four) parts remain the greatest summer single of ever, if Kelly wants his artistic clemency, the next five instalments of Trapped in the Closet better look something like this: Ch. 6. Kelly and traffic cop fall in love; Ch. 7. Now-ex-wife and ex-girlfriend beat down Kelly with own video camera; Ch. 8. Kelly and cop take spa day with Jay-Z, followed by volunteering at women's shelter; Ch. 9. Kelly begins taking hormone therapy; Ch. 10. Kelly adjusts to life as male-to-female transsexual: And I look in the closet! That's my bra in the closet! My bra in the claaaaw-sit! (. . . sit, sit, sit, sit . . .)

Then maybe we'll talk.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 16 at 3:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

COMMENTS

trust me jones,
i'd like to think that r. kelly thinks it's funny, but there's never really been a hint of him slyly winking to the audience. in the bet special carl mentions, he's strutting around patting himself on the back without a hint of irony.

Posted by Del on July 18, 2005 8:41 PM

 

 

I think he does know the Closet cycle is funny, jones, though i also think he might take himself a tad more seriously than the listener does, as is pretty common among celebrities.

Posted by zoilus on July 18, 2005 10:37 AM

 

 

why is it so difficult to imagine that kelly might KNOW when he's being funny??

Posted by jones on July 17, 2005 1:47 PM

 

 

Carl,
while i have already expressed how ridiculous i think this record is, in some ways you have to hand it to Kells.

Few artists would be able to recover, let alone stay on the pop culture radar being caught on camera in that infamous tape. Clearly his approach is to go on putting out music on the hunch that we might have forgotten.

I am convinced with head-shaking resignation that he's certain of his own teflon-like invincibility singing about sex in such an overblown saga despite the charges hanging over his head.

The fact that he has consistently done this with some of the most cringe-worthy and unintentionally comedic lyrics ever, ("you remind me of something" anyone?) should also be taken into consideration in his acheivement.

Given that thought, your pretty funny summation of chapters 6 through 10 maybe a lot closer to reality than you think.

btw. i can't stop busting out laughing every time i hear him sing
"vi-i-i-bra-a-a-te!"

Posted by Del on July 16, 2005 4:34 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson