"This has got to be a joke." That’s how casual fans and naysayers alike greeted the Pied Piper of R&B, R. Kelly, in 2005, when he unveiled a dialogue-heavy, narrative music video with the evocative title, "Trapped in the Closet: Chapter 1." It was clearly the beginning of something, but nobody, not even the artist himself, knew what exactly, or how broad a tapestry Kelly had begun to weave. Viewers couldn’t tell if it was a parody or not; they just knew it was different, and that they couldn’t not watch it.
"Chapter 1" turned out to be the opening salvo in a 5-part song cycle on Kelly’s album, Tp3 Reloaded. The songs were best taken in visually, though, where they comprised a mutant, street-level soap opera spread across five music videos. It was an incredibly ambitious thing to do, even for perhaps the most successful R&B artist of the past 25 years. YouTube had only shown a glimmer of its eventual promise at the time, and videos were not yet shareable in the way they are today. Kelly’s twisted tale of infidelity proved popular on MTV, however, and soon the eccentric songsmith returned from his mad-genius laboratory with seven more installments on a DVD set, making a full dozen altogether. The story had seemingly begun to take on a life of its own.
Seven years later, Kelly is still telling it.
After a long pause, during which he continued to record and tour steadily, and even wrote a memoir, Kelly’s ongoing saga resurfaced recently with 10 new chapters, bringing the current total up to 32. Premiering on IFC November 23, the broadcast pulled in over 1.5 million viewers. Due to its holiday placement, game grandmas and uncles watched alongside younger folk, whose tweets you may have noticed that night. The rabid interest in the new chapters underscores the unlikely durability of this story. After selling over 54 million albums of baby-making music around the world, Robert Sylvester Kelly has found a niche as a comedic/dramatic storyteller, parceling out an epic tale in serial increments. And on top of a recent announcement of talks to stage a Broadway musical Trapped in the Closet, Kelly also revealed to Co.Create that he is adapting his signature series into a book. Below are some insights from the artist on the creation and development of this long-term project and where it goes from here.
I never sat down and said I wanted to do a hip-hopera. It was just me in the studio, being creative, and that melody lead me to a line I sang, and that line lead me to another line. Before I knew it, I had a chapter instead of a song. It just came out of nowhere. But when it landed in my lap, I raised it, and then it grew up.
I was trying to get my record company to see the first chapter, and it was hard for them to see it, because it was a song without a hook. And they were used to me, all of these years, giving them songs with a hook. And I was too. I understood, but I still wanted it to happen. So we eventually did six more chapters to show them that there was more that I could do. Once they heard four or five chapters, they could pretty much see the story in their head, and they were forced to take a chance on this and we got the videos made.
At that point in time, I still had no idea what I had, I just knew I had something exciting, something different, unique. And I just wanted it to keep going—like everybody else who heard it. They kept asking me what’s next, what happens next, and the only way for me to answer those questions was to get my butt in the studio, pull that track up, and continue to just write what came off the top of my head. These characters would just come up out of me, and that’s the way it’s going today.
The process of writing a chapter for me is no different from writing any other song; except if I get caught up in a rhyme, with "Trapped in the Closet," I usually have to go find some clothes to bring that character out of me. Say, for instance, if I get stuck on what Pimp Lucious is gonna say, what his actions are gonna be, I would usually go and get a tight suit and some tacky clothes and put a wig on and get some glasses and a cane, and walk around the studio until I feel like I am Pimp Lucious. Once I put the clothes on and get all up into character, the thing that he’s supposed to say usually comes to me, and I can proceed along with the process.
When I’m writing, I can see the vision. These characters, their bios come to me. Once I write the character Randolph or Rosie, I know the depth of their story, what they’ve been through, who their brothers are. For instance, I already knew that Pimp Lucious was the son of Rosie and Randolph, and I also know who has a sister named Tina. These characters come to me with depth, and who they are, and what they’re about and the whole 9, so the vision is right there at my door. I can’t wait for people to find out that this is Tina’s sister and what’s gonna happen with that.
I don’t perform the song at my shows. That’s just R. Kelly doing R. Kelly. But I have on a couple occasions done some chapters, just to tease the crowd. The last time was, I think, four years ago.
The last chapters left everybody with a big, huge cliffhanger, and it just would have been sad to never bring it back. If you look, "Trapped in the Closet" is still all over the Internet. I‘ve been asked for the last four or five years, "What’s the package? When are you going to come back with more?" I eventually decided that after I finish some obligations, I have to get back in there and do more "Trapped in the Closet." I have to reveal what the package is. I already had it written for a long time, but we had to get the money and the means together and actually shoot it. Also, we had to do it right, so people enjoy it like they did the first chapter.
In the new chapters, the narrator is in an office, reading the book of "Trapped in the Closet," and this big book represents that there are so many chapters to come. I wanted the book to be nice and thick so people would say, “Wow, this is a pretty big book. He’s got a lot of stories to tell." I’m inspired by the fans and what it is they want, and now I know they love "Trapped in the Closet" like they do—it’s forever. I’m gonna continue. I have 85 more chapters that’s already written, already in the studio, and already ready to be shot. I got in the studio and pretty much snapped. I got the "Trapped in the Closet" bug for real.
The “Trapped in the Closet” book you see as an infomercial in the new chapters is a book that’s on its way, that I’m writing. I know where Chuck was before he met Rufus. I know what was happening before they actually met. I know what happened with Bridget and the midget and everybody else’s situation. So I feel like the fans have supported “Trapped in the Closet," so I feel like it’s time to introduce them to these people before what they saw. It’s the prequel meeting the sequel. You’ll get to find out a lot of things you don’t know, or that you can’t know, unless you read the book or unless I tell you—so I decided to do a book on it.
"Trapped in the Closet" originally felt like a play. Now that it’s coming full circle, I feel like it could be a play on Broadway or something like that. It’s definitely being talked about, and it’s definitely in the creative chambers. I’m working on it in the studio here and there, when I get a chance. It feels like what you see on TV, but at the same time, it will also feel more like a Broadway play.
I’ll absolutely be doing more songs like "Trapped in the Closet" and "Real Talk" in the future. I believe that people love stories and I love to tell them. Any chance I get to tell a story—I hit up on a melody that deserves a story, rather than just a couple lines and a hook—I’m gonna do it, because it feels good to tell a story.