R. Kelly serial an R-rated farce

MUSIC REVIEW

In stereotype-filled `Trapped,' R. Kelly throws in some laughs

Music Review

August 21, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

R. Kelly's penchant for tangled urban tales of lust, violence and deceit spirals out of control on his latest project. Today, he releases the DVD Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 13-22. Outlandish but surprisingly funny in spots, the series cements Kelly's reputation as a provocateur of all things raunchy and ghetto.

Say what you want about him. Call his music juvenile, obscene or downright tired, but he's not going anywhere. As long as there's an appetite for flamboyant tastelessness (and there will always be an appetite for that), the Chicago R&B superstar will find an audience.

Even an indictment five years ago on charges of child pornography (the trial for which starts next month) didn't hurt the popularity of the R-rated, silken-voiced singer. In that time, Kelly released four multiplatinum albums and sent a string of hit singles up the charts.

He also managed to produce an unlikely cult hit with Trapped, a sprawling, unabashedly campy video serial whose sad last chapter is open-ended. So this thing, Lord help us, could go on for infinity. What started as a five-part single eventually became a 12-part DVD, which was released in summer 2005. By that time, YouTube had been launched, and Trapped soon became a hit on the Internet.

Stereotypes of black pop culture - the jackleg preacher, the sex-crazed 'hood rat, the hot-headed thug, the clownish pimp - are all glorified in Trapped. The story line is peppered with elements of hotly debated issues in black America: the prosperity-obsessed doctrine of today's urban churches and the so-called "down-low culture" of closeted homosexuality, to name a few.

The "hip-hopera," as Kelly calls it, is an over-the-top farce with a seemingly ever-expanding cast, including Kelly in multiple roles. Throughout the serial, everyone is lip-syncing to the expletives-laden story-songs sung by the man whose biggest pop hit was 1996's churchy "I Believe I Can Fly."

The IFC channel's Web site for the past month or so has been showing a new episode of Trapped leading up to today's DVD release. The serial has garnered mixed responses on the site's message board, with most viewers trying to make sense of it all. "Whether you love it, hate it, or are just puzzled by it, Trapped is undeniably and unapologetically different from everything else around it," one observer posted.

It's true. Trapped is one of kind, all right: A serial that takes the production values of modern music videos and the melodramatic plot devices of urban pop theater (think Tyler Perry productions sans all the Bible thumping) and twists them into something familiar - but strange.

Trapped is by no means a masterpiece. The characters and story lines interlock so much that a synopsis of it all is next to impossible. Although the serial is mostly tuneful, there are several confusing missteps. Sylvester, the main character played by Kelly, suddenly becomes a bystander during the serial's second half. The narration inexplicably switches from first to third person. Some scenes are altogether useless, neither advancing the plot nor adding any depth.

But, wait. Did we ever look to R. Kelly for depth? At the beginning of his career, despite the shallowness of such early hits as "Sex Me" and "Your Body's Calling," his approach was earnest. Sure, his clumsy metaphors drew more snickers than admiration. But because the production was catchy and right on and because he sang with such conviction, Kelly mushroomed into one of the biggest-selling male artists of the '90s.

But since the child porn charges (and some may argue right before), his music has morphed into something more outlandish and explicit. And he has struggled with his image. I remember a concert in New Jersey about five years ago during which he frequently asked the packed house, "Don't you love this R&B thug?"

Supposedly since then, Kelly has been wrestling with serious personal issues. As a result, the bulk of his music has become lazy. It is still insanely catchy, as evident in his recent hits "I'm a Flirt" and "Same Girl," yet another soap opera ballad of infidelity.

With Trapped, though, the focus isn't on Kelly's musical talent, as it were. At this point, about 15 years into a controversial, Grammy-winning, platinum-studded career, he probably feels he doesn't have anything to prove.

He seems content to play the role of crass R&B lothario, whose take on love and sex is ridiculously warped. In Trapped, he shamelessly exploits annoying stereotypes long associated with black men and women. At times, though, he does it with a wink. By now, he probably knows we're laughing at him.

But Kelly doesn't seem to mind playing the fool.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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