We all have topics of conversation that repeatedly come up after a few drinks. Mine include Motown (“Oh God, music will never get better than this!”), the work of Shane Meadows (“He just seems really down to earth, top bloke, having a pint with him would be rad!”) and, predominately, trying to persuade people that R. Kelly is a genius rather than a slightly grubby R’n’B star.
Earlier in the decade Kelly was accused to recording himself having sex with an underage girl. Not just regular sex though, oh no. The video allegedly showed him urinating on her. This is possibly why my argument rarely wins people over. Even though he was found guilty on all 14 charges it is hard to erase the case from the memory. And of course we must remember that back in 1994 he married the sadly deceased singer Aaliyah. When she was fifteen. And R had known her since she was twelve. However, I feel that as hard as it can be to do so, we have to separate the personal life from the material the artist produces. People still love Annie Hall and Chinatown regardless of the directors predilections, right?
Whatever you think about his music, it’s impossible to deny the fact that Robert Sylvester Kelly is one of the most fascinating characters in music today. He has managed to ride the waves of controversy that have dogged his career and still remains one of the biggest selling artists in America today. One of the most interesting things about him professionally is his willingness to reveal so much about himself. I remember reading an interview with him in Q magazine a few years back when he discussed the trouble he has in living with the R. Kelly persona that he has created. He said that sometimes he didn’t want to be this sex-loving, club-hopping star bur wanted to ‘just be Robert, the God loving family man (Kelly has three children from his marriage which dissolved at the start of the year). His songs mainly come in two flavours: the upfront sex fueled club banger and the introspective, almost embarrassingly open quiet ones. It’s the former category that appeals to me; if we take it that 95% of all pop music is, and always has been, about sex, then R. is the undisputed king of pop (as we live in the post-Jackson age someone has to take the title). No one writes about sex like he does. This is a man who has songs called ‘Sex Planet’, ‘Good Sex’ and ‘Bangin’ the Headboard;’, a man who sings lines like ‘Girl, I got you so wet it’s like a rainforest/Like Jurassic Park except I’m your sex-a-saurus baby’. You sense that this is a man who does not find sex shameful in any way; rather he is someone who embraces and celebrates everything about his own sexuality. I can’t think of another singer who would holler the line ‘We’re like two gorillas in the jungle baby makin’ love’ in such a matter of fact, un-ironic way.
When I raise the Kelly topic I’m often accused of having an ‘ironic’ liking of him. This is a concept that I don’t fully understand as I don’t subscribe to the notion of guilty pleasures. Irony, in this sense, is something that we use to create a sense of distance between something that we like but feel like we shouldn’t. We feel above the subject, as if our liking of it validates it somehow. There is nothing ‘ironic’ about my love of what is Kelly’s undoubted masterpiece, Ignition (Remix). The song, like so many others in his vast back catalogue, is about going out, having fun and, eventually, having sex. It is, and I have to admit at this point that I’m prone to hyperbole, one of the most joyful three minutes of music ever made. Ignition sounds like every good memory you have of nights out with friends condensed into one blissful sequence that doesn’t end with a hangover. From the moment Kelly intones that he ‘doesn’t usually do this…’ to the moment the vocal drops out and an almost celestial synth line waltzes in and out of the mix, it is a paean to joy. It’s also the last great song to hit the number one spot in the charts (though, in fairness, Yeah! By Usher comes close). Ignition (Remix) cemented Kelly’s position as master of the intro. His other great intro comes from the 1994 smash Bump n’ Grind, when he tells the girl he’s wooing that whilst his ‘mind is telling him no’ his body, his body ‘is telling me yes!’. The conviction in his delivery is almost frightening.
If I haven’t converted the person listening to me by droning on and on about Ignition (Remix) then I play the trump card: Trapped in the Closet, his 22 part hip-hopera. Trapped can easily be viewed as an absurd, pointless, repetitive mess that cannot sustain its narrative for long enough to make it watchable. This is, frankly, a load of rubbish. Trapped in the Closet is one of the defining pop-culture artifacts of the decade. It is in fact a lovingly crafted piece of drama that manages to be incredibly amusing whilst being knowingly silly. It is to Kelly’s credit that this knowingness does not become irritating at any point.
The plot is far too labyrinthine to be turned into a pithy synopsis, but essentially it deals with issues of fidelity, homosexuality, identity and masculinity. Set it in Spain, swap Kelly for Javier Bardem and you’ve got a Pedro Almdovar film. Incidentally, Trapped… shares Almodovar’s fetishization of the telephone. The characters sing-talk their way through a series of hilariously convulted and bizarre situations that involve gay couples, wife swapping and midget strippers. It’s the sheer oddness of the piece that makes it such compulsive vieiwing. Admittedly, some moments when seen in isolation, such as the infamous moment where it’s revealed that there is a man in the cupboard and that man is a midget, which seem laughably bad, but when viewed in order these moments of utter strangeness become oddly plausible.
At several points R. Kelly, who plays the central character Sylvester and several others (including an old drunk and ‘Pimp Lucious’ whose name tells you all you need to know about the character) interjects and comments on the events. This breaking of the fourth wall is obviously a reference to dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s alienation techniques as well as Austrian director Michael Haneke’s classic 1997 film Funny Games. These interjections exemplify the blurring of fiction and reality within the piece that make it so great. The characters are constantly trying to ascertain what exactly has happened to the other characters and work out possible outcomes. There’s even an utterly abstract commentary section wherein R Kelly is sat in a chair pretending to watch the episodes whilst he talks about them as if they were real. He goes on to claim that people often ask him if it’s based on his own experiences and he says that whilst it isn’t it ‘takes a few chapters from real life,’ a statement that makes me realize how mundane my own life is.
Homosexuality is a theme not often explored in the world of ‘urban’ music and it is admirable that Kelly makes two gay characters, Rufus (a pastor) and Chuck (a deacon) two of his main characters. They are not presented as camp but as two ‘normal’ men who fell in love with each other but have to keep this love secret because society would not, they feel, accept it. The fact that both men work for the church adds an interesting frisson to the relationship.
Ok, enough theorizing. The main reason why I love Trapped in the Closet so much is because it’s laugh out loud funny. There are too many good moments to mention but personal highlights include: Sylvester stopping his wife from having sex with because he’s got a cramp in his leg, the rhyming of ‘Rufus and Chuck’ with ‘what the fuck’ (I should mention that the swearing in the piece is absolutely exquisite; every ‘fuck’ and ‘motherfucker’ is a work of art) and the midget literally crapping himself in terror.
Trapped in the Closet is the work of a man who, seemingly, does not care what people think of him. It is an irresistible hour and a half that confirms R. Kelly’s place as one of the most important pop-culture figures working today. Just try not to think about I Believe I Can Fly.