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In 2005, R. Kelly's millennial opus Trapped in the Closet had a relatively discreet premiere; five narratively linked songs at the end of his seventh studio album, TP.3 Reloaded, But soon after this first-act teaser came the flood; 22 chapters of super-nimble storytelling whose dumbfounding scope and melodrama caused a sizeable pop-culture aftershock.
Seven years, one Weird Al song, one South Park episode, and countless comic riffs and annotations (by everyone from Dave Chappelle to Jimmy Kimmel, author Chuck Klosterman, and countless YouTube parodists) later, Kelly's original work still intrigues. Chronicling the escalating domino effect of an illicit one-night stand, the troubled R&B star ended up minting the ideal form for his own haywire tragi-comic allure. This November, he adds 32 new chapters to the new story as The Next Installment premieres on IFC with those unremitting, spooky synth drops, R. Kelly's furrowed brow, and Rosie the Nosy Neighbor all set to return.
Conceived by Kelly in what he has described as a fever dream that "crept up on [him] like an alien from another planet," and co-directed by Jim Swaffield, Trapped is R. Kelly's off-the-wall Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It's crisscrossing saga of characters like Rufus, Cathy, Roxanne, Tina, Twan, and narrated by Sylvester (played by R. Kelly), whose secrets and infidelities fasten them together. A love triangle turned twisted octagon, viewers get the sense that Kelly is never short of ideas; that a surplus orbits his head.
With the production values of late-90's UPN and a star whose acting is, shall we say, light on emotional nuance, Trapped's theatrics are so excessively emphatic that they eventually transfix. And soon the fat suits, the noir postures, the pimp, the preacher, and other black-theater tropes collide with R. Kelly's church-roots and pleading falsetto, reassembling themselves into a new alternate reality, where tragedy and hilarity oscillate.
It has one obvious TV precedent. "No doubt I was inspired by the 'stories' - the soap operas that my mother and grandmother obsessed over every day when I was growing up," Kelly writes in his memoir, SoulaCoaster. Apparently, these stories - and his own soap-opera life - provided him with a new set of dramatic rules. The clearly wrong (a little-person stripper named Big Man) is somehow utterly right. An intrigue the length of a song and a joke so offensive it's senseless - both perfect. A slo-jam score that abruptly accelerates to signal a surprise twist - genius. In perhaps no other place but Lonely Island do hyper-sexed R&B beats mix with filthy slapstick so well. But the stranger things get, the less clear it is whether R. Kelly is kidding at all.
Viewed in one sitting, the entire spectacle of Trapped takes on eerie significance. Even the actors - endlessly worked up in every scene - are softly backlit and nearly haloed. Many speculate that "hip-hopera" -cum-comedie humaine is in fact a cautionary tale about AIDS - that the figurative "package" that various characters are concerned about "having" or "not having" is code for HIV. Others dismiss the whole thing as an overfunded lark. On this and much else, R. Kelly has kept mum.
Perhaps like identifying the potential for a remix (that "toot, toot" that "beep, beep"), R. Kelly has a gift for spotting the value of an ostensibly ill-conceived idea. Or a deluge of ill-conceived ideas, as promised by the arrival of The Next Installment. We can only quote the cuckhold husband from Scene One - "There's a mystery going on, and I'm going to solve it" - and hope that the next 32 chapters yield some answers.