Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thank You, Kanye West?

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Rap Videos

The vast majority of rap music videos are boring.

Rap is party music, or at least was initially. As a result, many rap videos portray a party setting, usually without anything of dramatic or comedic value happening, and too often without anything visually interesting going on either, beyond displays of conscious consumption and as much flesh as basic cable will allow. Without a compelling narrative, the audience must endure four minutes of staged party footage.

And while Lil Wayne's obscene limo ride in "Lollipop" may be more titillating than digital video of your nephew's bar mitzvah, they both net the same result: Nothing exciting happens, you get the idea pretty quickly and move on.

In essence, rap is meant to be heard but not seen. At least not in such a preconceived, literal way. Camera friendly acts of the first MTV generation (Michael Jackson, Duran Duran) make sense as stars hitched to the rocket of music video's success. But both music videos and rap made use of existing media tools to create something new, and as such, needed to grow a bit independently of one another before they could meld.

Early efforts such as the iconic "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are no more or less homemade than efforts by their rock and pop contemporaries. (This was 1982 after all, when it was perfectly acceptable for Triumph to lip-sync atop a giant flying-V guitar.)

As the decade wore down, mainstream music videos went from inspired to tedious, and hip-hop videos fell hardest. Entertaining goofs from Run DMC and the Beastie Boys gave way to a three-pronged approach for rap videos as the genre took over Top 40 music for the majority of the '90s. These three options were:

Dance/comedy numbers - Reserved mostly for pop-rap performers
Realism/morality plays - Almost exclusively the domain of East Coast and early West Coast gangsta rap, the videos were filmed on the streets or used obvious symbolism to express the frustrations of Black America.
Fantasy/party scenes - Bacchanalia as escapist entertainment, which isn't bad in and of itself, but fanned the flames of critics and bored those of us who wanted something besides an endless stream of absurd lifestyle endorsements we can't afford.

Despite the big budgets of Tupac's Beyond Thunderdome homage "California Love" and the diet-Ridley Scott of Puff Daddy's "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" [which samples "The Message" -- ed.] both videos fall into the fantasy/party camp and are staggeringly dull.

Even innovations quickly became rote. The body paint, costumes and odd photography that worked so well for Busta Rhymes' "Woo Hah! I Got You All In Check" made for an instantly recognizable calling card, and was greatly expanded on by Missy Elliott. Yet too many MCs learned the wrong lesson from Busta and Missy. A fisheye lens and gaudy lighting are not enough to keep us watching.

There were bright spots. In 1991 Black Sheep's "The Choice Is Yours" took advantage of a cutting-edge editing technique and used it to bolster the song's impact -- and they don't even employ the trick until after the two-minute mark. Budget limitations can be a good thing.

Outkast, and Andre 3000 in particular, embraced the same P-Funk inspired weirdness as the aforementioned Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott, with a string of watchable videos culminating with the ubiquitous "Hey Ya!" in 2003.

In 2006, just two years after Fat Joe would not dance but only "Lean Back," E-40's "Tell Me When to Go" video had dancers the average viewer could root for and driving stunts. And though they weren't doing anything groundbreaking, the first few videos from Norfolk, VA duo Clipse will still scare parents who catch their kids watching online. That's something, right?

If it's not apparent by now, the 1990s were generally a wasteland in terms of compelling hip-hop video. The indie/underground acts of the era tried to match their creative music with more interesting videos, but results were mixed. Present day indies such as Def Jux and Stones Throw make an effort to do something different, generally giving a better noise-to-signal ratio than most, thanks in part to better technology making it far easier to make a cheap video look good.

Now that you've sat through this town council meeting, we will get to the big point. Southern hip-hop aside, rap videos in the past year or two have started to get interesting again. Well, at least more of them are more frequently interesting. And like it or not, The Typing Monkey thinks we have Kanye West to thank.

Like most of you, we have our problems with Mr. West. But for every status quo "Gold Digger" and "Stronger" video, he's taken an equal amount of chances. "Jesus Walks" started out his video career with blatantly incendiary imagery. He made an alternate video for "Can't Tell Me Nothing" staring meta-comedian Zack Galifianakis and folkie Will Oldham. And he's released multiple animation-based videos. (Name another rapper at Kanye's level of fame who'd enlist the talents of Bill Plympton.)

And though West has returned to animation with "Heartless" from 808s and Heartbreak, the video for "Flashing Lights" off the Graduation album marks a high-point in West's canon, and acts as a smart flip of the use of women in rap videos. Gender studies classes will have a field day with it. Russ Meyer would be proud. [The video is mildly NSFW.]

At the time of this writing, Kid Cudi's "Day 'N' Nite" video shows up regularly in MTV's rotation, and it's a breath of cool, minty air -- offering eerie animated hallucinations happening all around the MC as he walks the streets. And as discussed in the post just above this diatribe, MIMS' "Move (If You Wanna)" gets all '90s indie-rock retro by tipping its cap to Spike Jonze.

Keep it coming gentlemen and ladies of the hip-hop world. Your dominance of popular music deserves better visuals, and so do we.