I Keep Seeing This Weakness In Rap Videos
Until recently, I ran a weekly column on the best videos coming out each week. I’ll watch anything from experimental noise bands to straight rock to rap, and I’ve got to tell you, rap and hip-hop are two places where the art of the music video is still reaching for greatness and failing.
First, let me say that I define a good video by how well it conveys the meaning of a song or tells a story visually while complementing the music.
Eminem’s “Sing for the Moment” is a good example of a great song and a terrible video. It’s essentially just him either rapping to the screen against a background or b-roll footage from his tour. You can sort of feel the power he’s trying to communicate in the lyrics, but there’s no movement or sense of progression, at all. Plus the fact that rap songs often land in the four-minute-plus range, and you’re left with a dragging short film that has a good beat but starts nowhere and ends there, too.
This is a recurring weakness in rap videos, especially ones from independent artists (and being from Houston, I see a lot of independent rappers with iMovie and not enough forethought). I get that rap is arguably the most personal music a vocalist can perform—subsequently, rappers are generally extremely passionate in their performance.
That works on stage, but it rarely works on the screen. Standing in front of a place you like and talking to the camera just doesn’t cut it. On stage you’re a giant; on YouTube you’re not. Even major acts phone in these weak, bland music videos, using them as self-promo instead of art—when they could be both.
There are great rap videos. For my money, Jay Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” not only contains the most poetic and socially important quatrain of lyrics written in the 21st century, but it’s one of the greatest videos ever. Essentially it’s just one long mob scene, but the way it builds from a standoff into a full-scale riot is compelling. We don’t have any concept of what’s inspired this demonstration and face-off with authority, only that everyone came expecting battle not words. That’s a brilliant juxtaposition from director Romain Gavras, who weaves shots of religious statues in and out of the fighting and fire. That’s how you make a rap video.
Or let’s go back to the pioneers of the ’90s. In 1996, Bone Thugs N Harmony created one of the great mainstream crossover songs with “Tha Crossroads.” Its meteoric rise up the charts is often compared to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.” That is good company to be in. At least part of its success can be attributed to its impossibly brilliant music video, which dominated MTV (back when that mattered). Dedicated to the late Eazy-E, it featured a mysterious man collecting the souls of the recently dead. Eventually the souls reach a mountain top where BTnH watch the man unveil his wings and lead their friends and family beyond their reach. It’s beautiful and sad. There’s very little catharsis in the video; more of an acceptance that life is hard and unfair and we just have to deal with it.
Now in both cases I realize that we’re talking about big budget acts that can afford to rent tanks and create CGI wings at a time when that was still considered magic. What is an independent artist to do to stand out from the crowd? Well, I’ve got some good news. You don’t need to be rich, just clever.
Clipping’s video “Get Up” is one of my favorite videos of 2014. Using a few colored lights and some fake blood, you tell a tale with a twist that you totally don’t see coming until it’s too late. It probably cost less than $100 to make, but it’s a kick in the chest. Partly it works because it is so simple; the difference is that “Get Up” gives us a reason to watch and listen to the words and look to what happens next. That’s the art of the rap video. You’ve got to tell a story in two ways, not just narrate at the audience.