By all accounts, the music video should be dead by now. The standard line on music videos for decades was simple: We’re laying out all this money to create a promotional clip, an advertisement that will hopefully push someone in the direction of buying an album. Well, you don’t need to be told that no one buys albums anymore. And they haven’t for a long time. For a while, the fate of the music video seemed to follow suit.
After MTV shuttered its music video countdown at the tail end of 2008, the prospects of the music video looked grim. BET’s 106 & Park hung around for six more years before calling it quits, but the message was clear; the music video had long ago lost its purpose as a promotional vehicle, but with these daily celebrations of the format now dead, the clips had lost their cultural importance as well.
Paradoxically, however, rap videos have only grown in scope and scale since their main booster went dark. As the internet opened up a way to reach their audience directly — and via social media platforms — rap videos helped foster a community of eager, young fans willing to watch videos at any time and not just for an hour after school let out. In turn, the genre seems to have entered into a golden age for ambitious, smart and thought-provoking videos from all over. Fast forward to 2017 and everyone from socially conscious stars to drug and party rappers are releasing videos that are meant to amaze viewers in ways we haven’t seen before.
But before we get to what makes this new crop of videos from artists like Young Thug and Kendrick Lamar so exciting, we have to take a second to remember what rap videos used to look like.
20 Years Of Glitz And Glamour
Do me a favor of picture a music video from the ‘90s. What’s the first thing that comes into your head? It’s probably Puffy and Mase in shiny suits rapping straight down the barrel of the camera. If it’s not that, maybe it’s Biggie donning a suit to rap more eloquently from a world where everything’s slightly gold-tinted. This was the norm for most of rap during the height of the music video era.
Almost all videos were performances, with rappers standing and spitting at the camera in a variety of outfits and locations to flaunt their wealth. Tupac may have built a Thunderdome in the post-apocalyptic Oakland desert, but he also built a stage in the center so he could rap right at you. Occasionally there was an action sequence to justify the rapidly inflating budgets that came before the industry’s crash, but for the most part the formula remained unchanged throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s.
The Beginnings Of A Shift
Over the last several years, however, rap videos have broken with convention. Rappers are minimizing their own time in the spotlight in the name of making visuals that stand alone as art separate from the song. Kendrick Lamar floated over Los Angeles in between clips of dancers and cars doing donuts around stunned police in the “Alright” video. ScHoolboy Q makes himself another actor in the robbery story of his Blank Face trilogy. Kanye West appeared in his own video for “Famous,” but he surrounds himself with the world’s most sh*t-stirring Madame Tussaud display.
Run The Jewels removed themselves from the process entirely, declining to appear in their video for “Close Your Eyes” and placing a brutal fight between a black citizen and a white police officer at the center instead.
Young Thug took it one step further and failed to even show up for “Wyclef Jean,” a hilarious meta-commentary on the process of video-making that’s going to cement his place in the history of rap marketing whenever they decide to drop the act.
Even when rappers are doing straight-up performance videos, they are taking it to weird places. Migos might be rapping at you in their video for “T-Shirt” but they’re doing it on top of a mountain covered in bear fur and practicing archery. And that video that was co-directed by one of the members of Migos! What’s the last video that John Lennon or Macca directed, hmm?
Chance The Rapper subverted the idea of performing for you by setting his “Sunday Candy” video inside a community theater production. If he’s going to rap at you, he’s going to do it in his own innocent-eyed framework via a twee-as-hell, seams-showing and intentionally shoestring clip.
All of these rappers are using their videos to make artistic statements. They’re going beyond the flaunting to express actual ideas, worldviews or personal aesthetics. Or at least they are making something that looks really great, beyond the idea of ridiculous wealth (in Migos’ case). And these videos seems to be happening more and more often, becoming closer and closer to what is considered mainstream.
So, why now?
Savvy Business Move Or Art?
There’s a few potential reasons that music videos are getting interesting in their own right at this particular moment. Let’s start with the boring and cynical answer: It’s just business.
Music videos are getting weird after the channels that traditionally got them to peoples’ eyeballs have crumbled, and the reason they are doing that is it’s harder to stand out in a crowded and fractured marketplace. With no dedicated lane to get them to viewers, artists are forced to make more and more outlandish videos in the hopes that the viewers come to them. Videos have become cohesive artistic statements because it’s not enough to reach someone in a Twitter feed — you have to keep those viewers watching, and be compelling enough that they send tweets about said video. Today’s video watchers have literally every other option imaginable at their fingertips courtesy of a search bar and a constantly updating feed. If you aren’t telling a story, you risk losing them.
But putting the whole thing down to entries on a spreadsheet and market research seems a little wrong. It robs the rappers of their own artistic agency and assumes that they care about the numbers. The rise of the rap music video as art in its own right has a lot more to do with where the genre is at at the current moment.
All genres move in the same cyclical fashion: They start out rudimentary, then once the genre is established, they start to bloat. The genre gets opulent, lazy and complacent. That bloat will be shouted down by a group of back-to-basics young people who can’t see themselves reflected in the glitz, and then the art weirdos will see the genre blown apart, and seize their moment to enter into the conversation before it swings back to the norm and starts to bloat again.
This happened in rock music, ramping up from Chuck Berry to Elvis and bloating up to prog rock. Then the punks came in and wrecked stuff, and the post-punks stepped in before the genre started fattening up again. So in this comparison, hip-hop is currently in the midst of its post-punk moment; Young Thug, Chano and Migos are all the oddballs who saw that the landscape was wide open after trap and drill brought down the glitzy rap of the ‘00s.
In which case, that means the reason that we’re seeing so many odd, interesting videos is because we’re living through a moment where a lot of odd interesting people are making rap music. Yes, oldheads, that includes Lil Uzi Vert. Take a look at “P’s And Q’s” if you doubt me.
Of course, this means that we might soon enter into another period of bloated, safe commercial rap. And who knows if the music video can survive a shift back to the boring now that all of those old industry safeguards are gone. But for now, we have Lil Yachty releasing a video that seemed to be shot from inside of the internet, so let’s enjoy this oddness while it lasts.