The Sunshine Cinema on Houston is usually filled with posters for the newest art house sensations, but not tonight. Instead, all frames have been replaced with posters for the new installments of Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s magnum hip-hopera opus, which I’ve fortunately been invited to witness on a brisk Monday night in advance of its official premiere later this week. There’s wine, and a smattering of media folks I think I recognize, and a few cast members of the series walking around, but the real get is the presence of Kellz himself. Dressed in black from head to toe and sporting a pair of cherry brown leather gloves, he comes out before the screening and thanks everyone for being there. “Trapped in the Closet is an alien,” he says, “and I’m glad to be one of the astronauts to take this trip to places unknown.”
Spoiling the new chapters would be a crime; they premiere this Friday on IFC, and should prove immensely entertaining even for the budding Kellz connoisseur. For all their intentionally hilarious goofiness, though, the chapters continue to reveal Kelly’s mastery of R&B’s deep sincerity. Apart from the fact that he’s the only singer capably of stretching a sentence like “No, bitch” into a mellifluous seven seconds, there’s a sequence where two characters are being led through a building as the singing breathlessly dictates their footsteps. Literally, the lyrics are something like “They make a right / and a left / and another left / down the stairs / elevator / up the stairs” as the camera shows them doing exactly that, and when Kelly is asked about it during the post-screening Q&A, he says he just wanted to show them getting “way up in this building” without simply saying they were getting way up in this building, because duh. Later: “I don’t have a job, so I sit in the studio and think of stupid stuff to do.” Also later: “The hardest thing to do is sing and stutter, so give it up.” (Everyone applauds.) Even later: “I’ve wanted to be an actor ever since seeing Star Wars, my favorite movie when I was 9.” He professes a genuine appreciation for how warmly Trapped in the Closet has been received, and states that he’d be happy to have it as his defining career achievement, having come from nothing. He also reveals there there are 85 more chapters to be released, and that a Broadway version may be on its way. Stay tuned.
But the unquestioned personal highlight is when, defying all odds, the selection my friend and I have written beforehand is selected by the moderator as one of the few audience queries, and I sort of feel like jumping on top of my chair and screaming YOLO while whipping bottles at the wall when our name is called, and R. Kelly, the Pied Piper of R&B, the dude who sang “I’m a Flirt” and “Feelin’ On Yo Booty” and “Bump and Grind” and all of that, looks at us in the fifth row as we whoop and wave and answers our question about how being from Chicago influenced Trapped in the Closet. (A bit obvious but us Midwesterners have to stick together, and besides, it got through.) His answer, though I didn’t write it completely down because my ears were buzzing and my heart was filled with fire, was something about how all of the characters in the series are loosely based off people he grew up knowing, and that he was “going off what I was around.” Never forget where you came from, right?
This, along with the screening itself, is enough to make my night. There’s one last thing to seal the deal: As the Q&A closes, R. Kelly stands up and implores the audience to sing along with him as he launches into an a capella rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly,” a song that needs no introduction. Immediately, everyone raises rapturously to meet his voice, including a pocket of dedicated women who instinctively add the “I can fly” backup harmonies to trail his original lines. I’m not trying to just brag about a cool thing I did, but I hope it can be mutually understood how amazing it is to have R. Kelly in front of you, singing a song from Space Jam along with a few hundred people, with nary a camera or cell phone to preserve the moment. It simply existed with all of us, as it now does with you. We can soar, as if there was ever any doubt.