R. Kelly Gets the Joke
Why Trapped in the Closet is a brilliant career move.
How else to interpret songs like "Sex Planet" and "The Zoo" from Kelly's latest album, Double-Up? The former has a poetic conceit that literally spins into outer space: "We'll stick a flag on the moon/ First couple to ever make love on planet Neptune/ And if time allow us/ We'll be gone for hours/ I won't stop until I give you meteor showers." "The Zoo" is even broader: "Girl, I got you so wet/ It's like a rain forest/ Like Jurassic Park/ Except I'm your sex-a-saurus baby/ You and me hopping/ Like two kangaroos/ Rattling and moaning/ Out here in these woods." No one who has seen Trapped in the Closet—or, for that matter, Kelly's live a cappella performance of "The Zoo"—could deny that such songs are meant more to amuse than to titillate.
But above all, R. Kelly's point is to keep things fresh. Boudoir pop was born the day that R&B singers stopped bothering with double-entendres and got explicit. That was a breakthrough, to be sure, but the act quickly became absurd: There's only so much talk of silk sheets and whipped cream even a hyper-sexed groupie can take before rolling her eyes. Kelly has managed to breathe life into sex music by embracing sexual farce. It's a clever move: He gets to keep his favorite subject matter and his louche backing tracks while disarming his critics. And he can let his erotic imagination run utterly rampant. Perversion goes down easy when delivered with a wink.
Trapped in the Closet is a riot, but it is also, in its way, profound. The real triumph of Kelly's meta-love-man routine is how it underscores something essential about sex and desire: the comedy and absurdity that so often accompany the desperate lurchings of our loins. This is where Trapped in the Closet (and "Sex Planet" and the "The Zoo" and dozens of other Kelly songs yet to be recorded) shades into autobiography. Kelly will stand trial this September on child pornography charges, stemming from a videotaped encounter in which Kelly allegedly is shown urinating on an underaged paramour. Who can doubt that the outrageous stew of sex, guilt, and violence in Trapped in the Closet reflects its creator's own outrageous legal troubles? R. Kelly knows as well as anyone that eros can be a farce, and a trap.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.