Rappers are the biggest characters in American pop culture. When “normal” filming doesn’t get quite fit the magnitude of a moment, it’s only right that they receive the animation treatment. This is a list of 12 of the best animated videos in hip-hop history. This is by no means a comprehensive list, or an attempt to be the canon, but each entry is impactful for its own reason. Some of the animated videos are a contingency plan in the absence of an artist. Others help visually symbolize the bars and themes of a song. But they all work to provide a welcome change of pace in the sometimes tropey-world of music videos.
Kanye West — “Good Morning,” “Heartless”
Kanye West at his peak was so creative that he made this list twice. “Good Morning” is an anime-esque voyage to Universe City, a futuristic locale where Kanye — via his iconic bear iconography — is having a rough day before being swallowed up into a psychedelic world, putting on his shutter shades and ultimately achieving Graduation in the intro track to the album of the same name. “Heartless” is a Hype Williams-helmed ode to Ralph Bakshi’s 1981 American Pop film. The video features a rotoscope animation, in which real people were filmed and drawn over.
Eminem — “Shake That” Feat. Nate Dogg
Eminem’s “Shake That” wasn’t his most beloved single, but the creative video is worth a mention on the list. “Shake That” follows the theme of Eminem and Nate Dogg’s tale of late-night debauchery, with a notably inebriated Slim Shady and Nate charging forward amid clips of their romp through scantily clad women. The whimsically animated video gives off the vibe of an Adult Swim cartoon. It’s also interesting that Eminem and Nate Dogg are animated differently.
Slick Rick — “Behind Bars” (Remix)
This entry to the list is more necessity than anything else. Can you guess where Slick Rick was when “Behind Bars” was released in 1994? Unfortunately, the iconic MC was incarcerated on an attempted murder charge when this Warren G-produced remix was released, so Def Jam Records had to exercise some ingenuity with this grim, black-and-white visual. The video actually works well to illustrate Slick’s tale of woe at the hands of the carceral state.
Jay-Z — “The Story Of OJ”
Jay-Z’s “The Story Of OJ” depicted the chronicles of Jaybo, a Sambo-like figure with a purposeful resemblance with the legendary MC. The video’s sleepy black-and-white visuals serves as the perfect companion to Jay-Z’s commentary on the inevitability of racism, no matter how big or transcendent one views themselves to be.
Tupac — “Do For Love”
Unfortunately, “Do For Love” is another video on the list that essentially had to be animated. The Bobby Caldwell-sampling single is a song from R U Still Down (Remember Me), Tupac’s second posthumous album. The Bill Parker-created video depicted Tupac in a mansion and on the block, intermittently shifting from animation to claymation. The ambitious video explored a range of animation techniques, perhaps trying to parallel the myriad personalities of the late rapper.
Madvillain — “All Caps”
It’s only right that Madvillain, the duo consisting of MF Doom and Madlib, would employ a comic book style for “All Caps.” Both men, Doom especially, have cultivated a comic-book-like mystique about them, from Doom’s infamous mask to the irreverent stories he rhymes about in records like “All Caps.”
The Alchemist — “Lose Your Life” Feat. Snoop Dogg, Jadakiss, Pusha T
This video is every bit as sinister as could be expected from a song titled “Lose Your Life” with three “gangsta rap” icons trading bars over an Alchemist beat. The video starts off with Alchemist taking a look at the Advanced Dungeons and Gangsters Mobster Manual” before summoning the three MCs. Each artist had their own assortment of gore and surreal horror going on throughout their verses, taking off some of the edge of their stinging bars and cleverly highlighting their artistic license to talk just as dirty as a horror scriptwriter would.
Sean Price — “How Sean Price Stole Christmas”
The late Sean Price is the most brolic rendition of the Grinch ever on “How Sean Price Stole Christmas, “ a Kimson Albert-directed video where P goes around terrorizing kids as the video depicts his creative threats, including, “wash my nuts with the toothbrush you had on display.”
The Roots — “Understand” Feat. Dice Raw and Greg Porn
The Joe Baughman-crafted video for The Roots’ 2014 “Understand” record doesn’t depict the legendary group at all. Instead, the video fixates on a claymation rendering molded into several different faces during the course of the video. Each man’s verse is also met with ever-winding imagery that hammers home their bars, colliding visually as Black Thought, Dice Raw, and Greg Porn’s themes of poverty, religion, and morality coalesce into a poignant social — and visual –commentary.
Quelle Chris — “Obamacare”
The collage-style video for Quelle Chris’ urgent “Obamacare” was, in Quelle’s own words, an “homage to many of my favorite PBS, Sesame Street shorts with a touch of Terry Gilliam.” He said that 95% of the video was crafted with clips from archived magazines, which collectively created a surreal, whirling visual that fit the dire tone of the track.
Travis Scott — “90210”
Travis Scott’s “90210” is the second Hype Williams entry on the list. The ambitious video for “90210’s” tale of wayward love follows in the footsteps of ”Good Morning,” featuring an animated version of Travis traversing an animated universe. He’s romancing a censored love interest (including “full-frontal nudity” featuring Barbie doll-like figurines), then turning into a Godzilla like-figure, destroying the town while zooted out of his mind. The song’s beat switch then makes way for a tree to gradually grow throughout the second half of the video.
Gucci Mane — “All My Children”
The video for Gucci Mane’s “All My Children” highlights Guwop’s impact on the “New Atlanta” and overall hip-hop scene with colorful hodgepodge of a who’s who of young rappers. There appear to be depictions of rappers like Young Thug, Peewee Longway, Lil Yachty, Quavo, Lil Uzi Vert and more. It’s unclear how each artist feels about their depiction, but Gucci Mane’s presence in paving the way for many of them is hard to deny.