The transition from music to acting is a well-trodden path, a tightrope successfully walked by men and women from Ice Cube to Meat Loaf. Unfortunately, many of these cross-genre stars are tarnished by their previous musical accolades, pigeonholed into categories they’d rather break free from. This is something we even see today in other transitions with the plight of Kanye West being the prime example here. Whether it’s Ice Cube transitioning from policophobic rapper to a cop in 21 Jump Street, to Madonna’s dreariness in “Shanghai Surprise,” it’s hard for a musician out here in the acting world. No doubt conscious of these prejudices, R. Kelly must have been scratching his head in the early 2000s while planning a departure into acting. Ever the innovator, he bestowed upon us Trapped In The Closet (hereafter Trapped), a 33-chapter rap opera that celebrates its tenth birthday this October. Combining his talents for deadpan acting and his dulcet tones, R. Kelly scored the storyline with an unchanging melody, one that enabled him to show off both of these gifts. As a result, Trapped is, to date, the strangest, most intriguing, most brilliant crossover work from a musician in the 21st century. I’m going to tell you why.
Set in Chicago, Trapped sees our protagonist Sylvester (played by R. Kelly) unveil an expansive and absurd web of deceit, adultery and mendacity. Flanked by his brother-in-law T’wan, Sylvester makes it his mission to find out who’s been cheating on who, coming close to death on several occasions. Telling the story through Hip-Hop was already innovative enough, but R. Kelly’s use of his own voice for every character (yes, even Bridget) and the repetitive instrumental soundtrack enabled him to focus on Trapped’s conceptualism in lieu of its music.
Beginning with a case of post-coital amnesia, we find Sylvester in the unenviable position of having cheated on his wife, Gwendolyn, with another woman named Cathy. Hiding Sylvester in the closet, her husband Rufus, a pastor, returns home only for Sylvester to be found out once his phone rings. Everything spirals out of control from then on in, a shocking and hysterical whirlwind of venereal disease, Berettas, pimps, and gangsters that stands out from its operatic contemporaries like how Donald Trump stands out from the rest of the Republican candidates (albeit in a much less aggravating way). If you weren’t already intimidated by this mesh of connections, just take a look at this character map.
In addition to this clusterfucked set of character relations, R. Kelly added another layer to this palimpsest of complexity by going super meta in some of its episodes, especially those in season three. Over the course of the show, we see Reverend Mosley selling copies of the book version of Trapped, manifestations of self-awareness such as the use of the “Chekhov’s Gun” trope and references to the 90s R&B group En Vogue. It doesn’t stop there, as the ending of season three propels into super-meta, as Sylvester and T’wan stroll onto the set of Out Of The Closet With Larry, an internal reality show that all the characters will presumably be featured on. Grouped in 22 episodes of just a few minutes each, the original Trapped added to this uniqueness with the use of an unorthodox format, each episode building up to an ominous musical crescendo before its big surprise was revealed. These crescendos creep up on you quickly, maintaining high suspense and intensity in a way that would become impossible if an episode was twenty minutes rather than four.
More importantly, Trapped provides us with something modern R&B is lamentably void of – comedy. Where jokes exist in this genre, they are unintentional, often manifested in self-parody, and this is why Trapped is so, so necessary. More than mere “It’s so bad it’s good,” R. Kelly’s Magnum Opus is simply good, and irony is left at the door. There’s something beautiful in millions of people watching attentively and laughing uproariously at this tale of well-endowed midgets, stuttering pimps and unusually-horny 89 year-old church janitors.
In spite of the five long years in between this first season and its second, which premiered on IFC in 2012, Trapped looks stacked with potential, which is testament to the fact that it was certified triple-platinum by the RIAA, was tipped for a Broadway musical back in 2012, and that R. Kelly himself has over a hundred chapters written and ready to go. There’s even a Cliffnotes-esque analysis of the first five chapters, for God’s sake. And to think, this isn’t even taking into account the movie and book that are presumably in the works. It would appear the duplicity won’t be ending any time soon.
You’ve come this far, so why not watch (or rewatch) the epic in question here on IFC? Unless you’re dealing with “the package” yourself, there’s nothing you could fill the next three hours with that could possibly be more important than this.