Jimmy Ness’ first communion video was directed by Diane Martel
Modern rap videos seem to direct themselves. They have 2-3 scenes. The artist does their best frowny face and points a finger gun at the camera. There’s a cool rented car, a gritty urban backdrop, a seductive vixen and an appearance from another popular artist. You submit one view to YouTube and the hip-hop bots tirelessly start the next project on the content assembly line.
As major rap labels edge closer to the precipice of irrelevance, creativity is the first casualty in their Soundscan scramble. Like Doc Zeus stated in his article on Jeezy’s recent colourless album, labels are trying to stay profitable by relying on unchanging methods. Popular guests are recycled as Chris Brown cashes another check for singing “the ladies track” and artists collaborate with the same dependable producers in pursuit of that Billboard debut. This clinical formula for success has sucked the life out of music videos, and often the visual art form is reduced to a few cliché scenes hastily packaged into a marketing plan.
The 90s golden era is largely an invention of nostalgia and there’s plenty of cringeworthy examples from the past too, but it’s undeniable that budget cuts have impacted the quality of music videos. The days of feeding supermodels champagne by the crate during a million dollar trip to the Trinidad Carnival are long gone. But money shouldn’t limit creativity. The best clips can be shot with no budget on a stolen camcorder or a third-hand smartphone. Chief Keef rapping in his mother’s kitchen or flashing a UZI is more exciting than French Montana dapping Rick Ross for the sixth time.
A depressingly relevant illustration is Juicy J’s single “Ice.” The uninspired video fails to capitalise on three of the most charismatic major players in rap. The legendary Memphis misogynist rhyming alongside Dungeon Family’s emotional cyborg Future and the A$AP Mob’s sole creative Ferg sounds vibrant in theory. Unfortunately the clip, which premiered on Worldstar, doesn’t feature a frostbitten Future surrounded by mean-mugging snowmen. Cold, sterile and coma inducing, it barely packs anything interesting at all.
The trio unexplainably recite verses in a disused warehouse and on neon lit stairs. They fulfil the metaphor of wearing diamond-frosted jewellery (ice, geddit?) and for some reason lingerie babes pose seductively between scenes. In a storyboard that any armchair rap fan would have conjured in five minutes, the only quirky surprise is Juicy’s Brazzers t-shirt and a quick glimpse of celebrity jeweller TV Johnny.
Posted on popular blogs and delegated to page two within half a day, a new uninspired video is released as quickly as yesterday’s is forgotten. Nicki Minaj’s cartoonish booty showcase “Anaconda” sabotages attempted creativity by including excessive product placement. The hypersexual clip randomly features dancers in front of a huge sign for fruit-infused Moscato brand MYX Fusions, the detox tea MateFit, a Beats Pill speaker and VSX workout gear.
G-Unit might have gone independent, but they’re not doing much better. On recent track “Watch Me,” Eif Rivera resorts to his familiar method of using quick cut scene changes to disguise zero interesting concepts. Nausea inducing editing can’t compensate for the rapping in a hallway cliché or the cheesy drummer pretending to play the “rock inspired” beat.
Some modern artists do get it right though. Missy Elliot, involved in some of the most bizarre and well-choreographed visuals of all time, has recently directed two great flicks for her artist Sharaya J. Vice nailed a potential video of the year for Action Bronson’s “Easy Rider”.
What most rap videos are missing is some unpredictability – a cool surprise or the willingness of the director to push the artist to do something different. Despite our unlimited appetite for content, some images don’t fade once the press cycle is finished. We remember Ghostface’s hat, T.I rapping in front of Shawty Lo’s projects and Pimp C burning dollar bills. Music videos should be treated as an art form not a necessary rehash of the same ideas.