We are, it seems, trapped in that closet, and executives at Jive Records must be ecstatic. Weeks after "Trapped in the Closet" first leaked out on the radio and online, conversations still revolve around the five-chapter song/soap operetta/saga by R. Kelly, who is everything you could want in a hype machine: singer, criminal defendant, phenomenon.
Hits magazine estimates that Kelly's "TP.3 Reloaded," which includes the "Closet" opera, will sell 500,000 copies in its first week, one of the best debuts of the year. BET aired all five chapters of the video for "Trapped in the Closet" in a special last Tuesday night, the night the album was released, and BET spokesman Michael Lewellen says the half-hour program drew 2.8 million viewers, making it the ninth most-watched telecast in BET's 25-year history. There's a seductress who rips off her wig, a protagonist who waves a gun in your face, and "down-low" Christians. All that in Chapter 1!
If you have no idea what we're talking about, let's bring you along. "Trapped in the Closet" -- both video and song suite -- finds R. Kelly, aka the Pied Piper, hiding in his lover's closet when her spouse comes home unexpectedly.
Spouse walks into tainted bedroom and proceeds to ravish cheating wife.
Then: Pied Piper gets cell phone call. Fumbles to silence ring tone (which plays Cassidy's "I'm a hustla, I'm a-I'm a hustla!"). Cuckold husband's ears perk up. He leaps off the bed while wifey's biting her nails. "Nails!" our corn-rowed hero sings. "Right now I'm sweating like hell." (So are we, Kellz. So. Are. We.) Husband "checks under the bed, then under the dresser. He looks at the closet -- I pull out my Beretta. . ."
He walks up to the closet.
He goes up to the closet.
Now he's at the claw-SIT.
Now he's opening the claw-SIT.
(The closet door starts to creak, and leaves us hanging at the end of Chapter 1.)
"It had everyone listening in the D.C. metro area on the edge of their seats," says Jeannie Jones, a DJ at WKYS-FM. "That is one of the hottest topics in the clubs, in the streets. Who's sleeping with who? Are you straight or bisexual? If you marry me, are you going to cheat? Everything in 'Trapped in the Closet' is part of the day-to-day saga in D.C."
But not everyone appreciates Kelly's love under fire. For starters, the singer is facing 14 counts of child pornography-related charges in Chicago after a sex tape surfaced in 2002, allegedly showing him having sex with a minor. He has pleaded not guilty. The next pretrial hearing is set for July 20.
"What's amazing about R. Kelly is that it really doesn't matter what he's going through personally," says Jones. "His talent, somehow, oozes its way to the hearts of women."
After all, this is the man who once sang: "My mind's telling me no. But my body; my bod-eee is telling me ye-heh-ess." With R&B hits such as "Bump N' Grind," "Your Body's Callin' " and "You Remind Me of Something" -- his Jeep -- this man's repertoire is guaranteed to lower the defenses of some women.
Not Serena Kim, features editor for Vibe magazine. "I feel like he's a pervert," she says. "And you know, it's weird that he has so much power" -- despite his laundry list of publicized sex transgressions, including his marriage, later annulled, to a 15-year-old Aaliyah. (Kelly produced her debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number.")
Maybe it is a lack of "self-love" among women or a desire to protect him from a Nancy Grace-style evisceration. Or, says Kim: "Sometimes it's refreshing to have this truly eccentric pop star who brings this unique persona to the table. . . . He's like a brilliant puzzle. Should I be concerned with what this artist does in his private time? If he does his job well, then what does that have to do with me?"
At BET's online chat board for "Trapped in the Closet," the love-loathe confusion reveals itself in a debate over morality. Rather than discuss the merits of the cheating protagonist finding a condom wrapper (not his!) in his own marital bed, the chat quickly turns into a fight over Kelly's alleged guilt in the child-porn case, and whether people have the right to judge. Someone identified as "plynatwrk" clearly thinks so: "i hope they break you off something proper in jail punk."
But a fan named "shauntae" rushes to Kelly's defense: "although the stuff came up about u, i still didn't care . . . u r my guiding light through everything. if my mind is gone, all i do is put on 1 of ur cds and everything will be alright 4 me. that's just how good u r. keep doing what u do and keep me having something 2 slow grind to."
Beginning in June, motorists have choked WPGC-FM's morning request lines with pleas for Chapters 3 and 4. "I mean, who doesn't like a little drama?" asks host Donnie Simpson. "Even if you don't admit it. This is Jerry Springer on steroids."
Then he tempers his exuberance: On a normal day he tells his wife, Pam, not to waste his time with gossipy, daytime-talk-show nonsense. But drop a record with all that drama, and have Kelly voice six different characters, and Simpson, who was a BET "Video Soul" host back when Billy Ocean was topping the charts, will indulge: "Lyrically, the phrasing, the way he makes the words work" -- like the woo-ooh-woo-ooh-woo-ooh-woo of a police siren -- is "absolutely incredible." Just the other day, Simpson name-drops, he was in the studio with Janet Jackson and Jimmy Jam, and "we all sat there and had a great laugh about it. Who thinks of something like this?"
In this case, the Pied Piper. Roberta Magrini, Kelly's publicist at Jive Records, says the singer kept company executives in the dark about his "unusual" vision. "Trapped in the Closet" has no hook, chorus or precedent in modern R&B. "The music business is pretty cookie-cutter, but he went off, completely, on another level," says Magrini. "Just straight-up storytelling from A to Z."
After Chapter 5 faded to black in BET's half-hour special, Kelly was shown loafing on a barstool, puffing a cigar in his white do-rag, triumphant. He has produced hits for Michael and Janet Jackson, sang a duet with Celine Dion and was allegedly pepper-sprayed off last year's tour with Jay-Z.
Now "somebody deserves an Oscar," Kelly tells the camera, before getting on his feet and swaggering to the exit. He walks past pool tables and clapping bar patrons, and we hear a sample from Chapters 6-10, which have yet to be released. The saga apparently continues, for the lovers and the haters.