There's really been nothing like Trapped in the Closet ever before.
R&B star R. Kelly has been making (and remaking) a series of short music videos that tell a flamboyant narrative in less-than-five-minute installments. The first batch of several dozen appeared online in 2005. Now, there's a total of 40 "chapters" that aired last Friday on IFC, with the latest ones being released online one at a time for the next week.
"He's really an experimentalist and a kind of innovator," says Jason King, a professor of recorded music at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. King describes Kelly, who's been nominated for 23 Grammys and sold almost 40 million albums, as one of the most important figures in R&B over the past quarter century. With Trapped in the Closet, he says, Kelly has synthesized a variety of genres, starting with soap operas.
"Also with ... traditional operas, which are extraordinarily melodramatic themselves, with the cliffhangers, with the telenovelas, with chitlin' circuit black theater. He takes all these aesthetics and puts them together in this series."
It's impossible to coherently explain the plot of Trapped in the Closet. Suffice it to say, a one-night stand opens up a risque world heaving with camp excess and almost 30 characters, ranging from a little person who's a stripper to a supposedly heterosexual pastor involved secretly with a man.
"R. Kelly's always been fascinated by the down low," King observes, pointing to an early Kelly song.
But an R. Kelly narrative driven by sexual secrets is a turnoff to Paul Resnikoff. The publisher of Digital Music News remembers the highly public allegations that led to multiple counts of child pornography being filed against Kelly about 10 years ago. The singer was accused of making a demeaning sex tape with an underage girl.
"I really don't understand how certain personalities and superstars tend to move beyond the most lurid and horrific aspects of their past," Resnikoff says.
Kelly was acquitted of all charges.
King says the singer is using Trapped in the Closet to create a counternarrative that brings aberrant sexuality into the open.
"So R. Kelly is seen as a sort of veiled, duplicitous figure by some," King says, "and by others, this really cunning strategist who manages to synthesize all of these issues in pop culture and put them into his videos."
R. Kelly's fans would love to see Trapped in the Closet as a redemption narrative. Sawyer Carter Jacobs, 26, is a law student who's followed the series since he was a freshman in college. He sees Kelly consistently delivering powerful moral messages amid the rococo romping of cops, drug runners, pastors and pimps.
"Keeping religion in your family," Jacobs offers as one example. "And keeping a strong bond between you and your wife, the relationship you can have with your [ex-convict] brother-in-law."
Part of what hooked Jacobs about Trapped in the Closet is not what it is, but what it isn't. It's not a TV show or a movie or a record.
"It just ... is," he says, adding that in some ways, the series is perfect for a generation that lacks allegiance to any single way of consuming music or TV. "This exists across all planes and really can be seen or told anywhere."
Perhaps soon on Broadway: R. Kelly has expressed interest in turning the spectacle into a live musical. And he plans to produce at least 85 more episodes.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. There's nothing quite like "Trapped In The Closet." R&B star R. Kelly calls it his hip-hopera, which is a lot catchier than saying it's a string of over-the-top music videos that tell a complicated steamy story. Fans have been waiting five years for new installments that are finally rolling out now online. Last week, the Independent Film Channel, IFC, showed the entire series of 40 videos.
NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on this huge project from one of the world's most successful musicians.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Most of these videos are barely five minutes, but the storyline they follow is more complicated than 10 seasons of "General Hospital." A one-night stand opens up a risque world of broken marriages, baroque betrayals and a mysterious epidemic. "Trapped In The Closet" burst from the brain of 23-time Grammy nominee R. Kelly. Since the 1990s, he's sold almost 40 million albums of up-tempo urban club jams and burnished power pop ballads.
(SOUNDBITE OF "I BELIEVE I CAN FLY")
R. KELLY: (Singing) I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.
ULABY: Jason King is a music professor at New York University, effusive about R. Kelly's gifts.
JASON KING: His musical brilliance, his talent, his genius.
ULABY: King describes Kelly as one of the most important figures in R&B over the past 25 years. So why would Kelly dedicate so much time, money and creative energy into dozens of salacious little videos?
KING: He's really an experimentalist and a kind of innovator.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: (Singing) Now, the midget begins to wake up 'cause he's fainted from all the madness. See three guns pointed around the room, he stands and says, I have nothing to do with this.
ULABY: "Trapped In The Closet" features almost 30 characters who lip-synch as R. Kelly sings. Some are played by actors, a few by R. Kelly and they range from a little person who works as a male stripper to a pimp pretending to find God.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: (Singing) And he stopped dead in his tracks and looked at young Bishop Craig and said, shh, shh, shh, shh. Now, just shh.
ULABY: Jason King says just as R. Kelly fused R&B and hip-hop in the 1990s, he's synthesizing visual aesthetics and genres.
KING: With soap opera, also with traditional operas which are extraordinarily melodramatic, with the cliffhangers, with the telenovelas, with chitlin' circuit black theater.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: (Singing) 7:00 in the morning and rays from the sun wakes me...
ULABY: The series found a fan following that crosses genres, says Paul Resnikoff. He publishes Digital Music News. But he's turned off by R. Kelly. About 10 years ago, the singer faced multiple counts of child pornography. He was accused of making a demeaning sex tape with an underage girl.
PAUL RESNIKOFF: I really don't understand how certain personalities and superstars tend to move beyond the most lurid and horrific aspects of their past.
ULABY: Kelly was acquitted of all legal charges. Music professor Jason King points out that "Trapped In The Closet's" narrative is driven by sexual secrets.
KING: R. Kelly's always been fascinated with issues of the down low and the DL.
ULABY: Like with Chuck, one of the main characters. He's a pastor married to a woman, but secretly involved with a male deacon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: (Singing) He was on the phone talking to a man. What's wrong with being on the phone talking to a man?
KING: So R. Kelly is seen as a sort of veiled, duplicitous figure by some and by others, this really cunning strategist who manages to synthesize all these issues in pop culture and put them into his videos.
ULABY: R. Kelly's fans would love to see "Trapped In The Closet" as a redemption narrative for a black man accused of sexual immorality.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: (Singing) Well, if this hasn't taught you nothing else, it's taught you that everybody's got a closet and their own problems that need solving.
ULABY: Twenty-six year old Sawyer Carter Jacobs has followed the series since 2005 when the first episodes appeared online. He sees powerful moral messages amidst the camp excess.
SAWYER CARTER JACOBS: Keeping religion in your family and, you know, keeping a strong bond between you and your wife and the relationship you can have with your brother-in-law.
ULABY: Who just got out of prison. Part of what hooked Jacobs to "Trapped In The Closet" is, well, what it isn't.
JACOBS: This isn't a movie. It's not a TV show. It's not a record. These aren't songs. There's no singles. There's no hooks. There's no chorus. You know, it just is.
ULABY: Which may make "Trapped In The Closet" perfect for a generation that does not necessarily feel allegiance to any one way of consuming music or TV.
JACOBS: This exists across all planes and really can be seen or told anywhere.
ULABY: Possibly Broadway. R. Kelly's talking about turning the spectacle into a musical and he plans, he says, to produce at least 85 more episodes. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.