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Nov 30, 2005

Nature Versus Nurture

Finding The Artistic Context Of R. Kelly’s Enigmatic R&B Opera Trapped in the Closet

There is at least one crucial literary reference that needs to be made in addressing Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1–12, Robert Kelly’s DVD release of the first 12 chapters of his sequential R&B soap opera masterpiece. (Chapters one through five dribbled out on the radio earlier this year, each ending with a dramatic cliffhanger and all populated by a cast of characters with a propensity for sleeping around and being sloppy about it.) Consider the concept of sprezzatura, or artful artlessness, a high Renaissance commitment to at least the illusion of nonchalance.

You could translate this into contemporary terms as maintaining one’s cool, but it’s not quite the same thing, as sprezzatura involves both spontaneity and naturalness as key components. You could say R. Kelly’s just winging it, making up each chapter as he goes along, and his DVD commentary (a video one, in which you get to watch Kells watch the movie, cigar in hand, as the camera on him changes angles at unexpected moments and he turns to face the camera and explain what he’s watching) tends to reinforce that impression, especially when he talks about the fact that the entire thing rhymes as though it weren’t even intentional.

Or you could give the man some credit, at least to the point of admitting you have no idea how much is sprezzatura and how much is the R. displaying idiot savantism.

Stendhal’s two attempts at autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard and Memoirs of an Egotist, pull off a similar trick, which the author addresses directly, claiming to write 20 pages per sitting, like a letter, in order to maintain authenticity. Obviously, Kelly’s not writing his life - though there are a few parts, like the thing with the characters Bridget and James and the peaches and honey, that have the ring of “write what you know” - but there’s something to be said for the philosophy of unfiltered, or less filtered, artistic creation.

The New Yorker’s recent profile of John Ashbery establishes the renowned poet as firmly in this school, thinking of writing as “lowering a bucket down into what feels like a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind … Whatever the bucket brings up will be his poem.” Both Ashbery and Stendhal can be as infuriating as Kelly, too. Often, you don’t know where they’re going. The structure is hard to see, or possibly nonexistent. But it’s not really about plot, even as Trapped in the Closet seems to be completely fueled by what happens next. The heart of the matter in all three cases is style, and that’s what gives them staying power.

The seven new chapters of Trapped in the Closet continue over pretty much the same build-build-build-peak music, and they go places you did not know they would go, even with clues sprinkled liberally (in characters’ names, for instance). The first viewing may require you to pick your jaw off the floor at certain turns, but it’s not the specifics of the plot that allow for multiple listens and viewings. The plot is just the way to keep things going. The style is what should drive you to spend $15. Even if you’re just buying it to mock the man, which I wouldn’t encourage, it should provide you with a solid 100 minutes of entertainment and a mental expansion of what is now possible in the world of music.

There are major vocal stunts throughout, with Kelly continuing to paint each character vividly through his or her phrasing, accent and verbal tics; both his rapid switching between Bridget and James and the a cappella fight that erupts in “Chapter 12” are particularly impressive. And then, there is the experience of an artistic mind utterly different from one’s own, which, for my money (and Harold Bloom’s), is the thing that makes great art great, an abiding strangeness, choices that make one uncomfortable, a forceful originality.

Why film Sylvester’s race home with incredibly obvious rear projection? Why literally fade the narrator in and out? Why sing things that don’t need to be sung (telephones ringing, police sirens, bleeps in only some obscenities)? What should I take seriously? How do I begin to approach this from a reasonable perspective? Why would anyone create such a work?

Exactly.

Trapped in the Closet is unlike any other current music creation. Just because it contains much ridiculousness doesn’t mean it’s not art. It’s quite possible it means exactly the opposite.

Hillary Brown

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