We should establish two things right off the bat.
First, R. Kelly has been arrested and accused enough times for us all to accept the basic idea that he has deep, ingrained pedophilic tendencies.
Second, there is no hard evidence, grainy internet film notwithstanding, that R. Kelly ever urinated on anyone.
But this isn’t an indictment or a defense of R. Kelly. I don’t pretend to know anything about him as a man, or as a singer either. My sister has a soft spot for R&B, but it always struck me as the honey dripper bullshit that Chuck D once proclaimed it to be. I took it that if you appreciated the crisp diction and streety rawness of hip hop you were honor bound, as it were, to thumb your nose at R&B and the endless sloppy crooning of it all.
That was before I saw Trapped in the Closet, which broke me down and rearranged me as a man. There is no way to describe Trapped in the Closet properly. It’s a long R&B song. It’s some kind of opera/soap opera/TV drama. It bears some vague genetic resemblance to the Hip Hoperas of the brilliant Prince Paul from a few years back. It’s sort of like a music video.
But as much as it is all these other things, it is simultaneously, incredibly unique.
The story starts with a character, played by R. Kelly, who wakes up in a woman’s bedroom after a one-night stand and immediately has to hide in the closet as the husband arrives home unexpectedly. From there, the R. Kelly persona morphs into two or maybe three semi-distinct characters: the character in the story, the singer of the song, and the meta-narrator who is sometimes also to be found hanging out in other closets all around town. The story then immediately splits into several more complicated sub-plots, all of which end up being interconnected in various streams of adultery, deceit, sex, and, violence. So, the material is good (I would mention something here about the guy who comes out of the kitchen cabinet but you really need to experience that moment for yourself).
The song is simple and loosely structured with no chorus, allowing R. Kelly to use his patented ‘rhyme-a-word-with-the-exact-same-word-repeatedly’ technique. Though there are various characters played by different actors, they all lip-sync to the voice of R. Kelly, who sings each part himself with gusto. The tension points in the story, of which there are quite a few, are punctuated by R. Kelly’s lyrical flourishes in what amounts to a remarkably effective drama heightener. The thing is extremely frickin’ watchable. Indeed, it is a rare occasion when I pop Trapped in the Closet into the DVD player, as I have done repeatedly in the last weeks, and witness anyone drifting out of the room before it’s over. It grabs you in some strange concoction of melodrama and lyrical flow. It has a hypnotic quality, without robbing the viewer of self-awareness. In fact, that is one of the oddest things about Trapped in the Closet. You can’t believe you’re watching it, and you can’t stop. You have no idea exactly what it is, even, that you’re watching or how such a thing could possibly have been created . . . and you want more.
Somewhere around the fourth viewing I decided, reluctantly, that R. Kelly is some kind of genius and that he’s spewed out something so utterly singular that a person simply has to give in to it. And it struck me, further, that I couldn’t admit this simple and irrefutable fact without also acknowledging that this accomplishment has something to do with R&B. As much as Prince Paul’s Hip Hoperas are infinitely smarter, more clever, and more sophisticated, they are also, maybe, too much all of those things. R. Kelly comes along with his complete, almost utterly naïve lack of just those qualities and creates something that is a genre unto itself. Whatever the failings of R&B as a musical style, there is something direct and immediate about the way it portrays human emotions that is difficult not to relate to. R&B is not afraid to lay it out on the line. However you’re feeling, that’s okay, man. Just sing about it. Nothing complicated here, you’re hurtin’ or wantin’ or missin’ or something like that. Just, you know, tell us about it. The thing I used to hate about R&B is also a kind of strength, if you look at it a little differently. And it struck me even further that the straightforward narrative simplicity of R&B lyrics are just another way to portray the complexities of human experience. It is the emotions that are complex. The language and syntax that expresses, however inadequately, those emotions, doesn’t have to be.
Indeed, it was while watching Trapped in the Closet for the eighth or ninth time that I recalled a conversation with a friend of mine, Alan Fishbone, who runs the Intensive Latin Program at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and has often had occasion to think about how language works. He once remarked to me that there is nothing but syntax, only syntax exists. He was in an extreme mood, and the comment has the ring of exaggeration to which Fishbone occasionally succumbs (I recall that it was also around this time that Fishbone started talking about stockpiling weapons and canned goods out in the woods somewhere. His beard had grown particularly scruffy and his eyes were sunken even deeper into an already cavernous skull. I started to worry that he might have joined some Humanist Militia, Juvenal-and-AK-47s-type outfit. But the phase passed). The comment, however, stuck with me. He meant, basically, that semantics gets you nowhere. Meaning comes out of the arrangement of words, not out of the individual meanings of individual words. There’s a perfectly respectable school for this type of ‘meaning holism’ among philosophers of language, but it somehow seemed more impressive coming from someone who’d gotten there solely in long, dark nights’ labors with impenetrable sentences in Tacitus that suddenly revealed themselves as if in a magical flash. Syntax is like that, he said, like some weird kind of magic with language.
Pushing this a little bit further (indulge me for a moment), if it’s true that it all comes down to syntax, then you could also say that human thought can be divided into two basic categories, paratactic and hypotactic. They are the two most elemental ways of putting thought together. In paratactic arrangement, you just keep adding something more. The greatest ally to parataxis is the conjunction. Such and such happened and then such and such happened after that, and next was a little episode of this and that, and then it all came to a head with this particular series of events, and then after that a whole new thing started. That’s pretty much how parataxis works. Epic poetry tends to unfold in parataxis and no one did it more paratactically than Homer. It just keeps coming, line after line, thought after thought, event after event. There’s barely a subordinate clause to be found in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Parataxis works, in a sense, in real time. It unfolds as experience unfolds, in a narrative line. It’s thick with the relentless forward push of lived temporality.
Hypotactic arrangement, by contrast, nestles thoughts within thoughts, steps to the side, qualifies, alters, and modifies. It has the structure of reflection and argument rather than that of lived experience. It is thus no accident that when one of the earliest Greek philosophers, Parmenides, wanted to appropriate the dactylic hexameter of epic verse for his complicated ontological argument about the necessary logical structure of all that is, he dropped the parataxis. Parmenides’ poem, despite its first-glance resemblance to epic poetry, is a mess of complicated hypotaxis.
The thing is, you can’t really choose one over the other; parataxis or hypotaxis. It doesn’t make any sense. That would be like saying that Homer is better than Parmenides or vice versa. They’re both great, they’re both doing amazing things. But when you start analyzing it you realize that they’re doing completely different things. Parmenides is messing around with the very structure of language, going inside of it in order to pull out inferences about the logical structure of Being. Crazy, maybe, but somebody had to see where that would go. Homer is riding on a sea of language, completely comfortable in it, surrounded by it, happily willfully drowning inside it. Homer doesn’t even say things like “I ask the Muse to help me sing such and such” like some of the later epic poets do. He just says “Muse, sing,” as if the difference between Homer, the Muse, and language itself is swallowed up in the great gush of the telling. By the end of the first few lines of the Iliad you are so much inside the narrative that there is no time to sort anything out. You just have to keep moving forward, adding more and more layers of experience. I always thought that Matthew Arnold got it right when he advised those attempting to translate Homer that, “he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas.”
Now, I’m not saying that R. Kelly is Homer. Trapped in the Closet will not be studied and revered by armies of scholars three thousand years from now (though you never know). But I am trying to say something about the power of parataxis. In that, at least, Homer and R. Kelly share something. There’s an amazing feature to the Trapped in the Closet DVD where R. Kelly gives his commentary to the episodes as he’s watching them. This should be the hypotactic moment where Kelly busts open the immediacy of the narrative and analyzes it, breaks it down, fills it with parenthesis and reflection, etc. But he can’t do it. He doesn’t think that way. So, basically, he simply ends up telling you the exact same story he is singing on the screen. He’s paratactic all the way, baby. It’s his only register. He has nothing to say about the story whatsoever except to reiterate it. That is goddamn amazing to me. It’s like he’s a traveling Rhetor from the sixth century BC to whom the very idea of ‘commentary’ as we generally think of it is completely foreign. When I watched that DVD commentary I was truly sold. People like R. Kelly don’t get produced all that often. I’m a changed man.