Hip-Hop for Life: the Music Video Edition

Lately there’s been an effervescence ringing through the city, and my bets are on it being from CJLO celebrating its third Hip-Hop for Life this week! The Afro-American music genre transcends itself into an impetus that sparks social change, awareness and community. In addition to curated shows, playlists, conferences, and workshops all dedicated to celebrating hip-hop’s vast and pervasive influence within art, the media, politics, culture, language, fashion and so much more; the magazine team wants to hop (pun unintended) onto the zeitgeist too and show some love. Without further ado, here are Remi Caron’s top hip-hop music video picks. – Kaitlyn DiBartolo, Magazine Editor

    If I were to take on the task at declaring the best movie about hip-hop of all time the title and remaining champion in my book would be F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, a biographical portrait of the rap group N.W.A. However, I shouldn’t overlook the performances that rappers bring to the silver screens, including Eminem in 8 Mile or Tupac Shakur in Juice. Sadly we lost Tupac too young to see what he would have become as an actor in his later career, and Eminem’s only other acting credit was a cameo in Funny People where he has an argument with Ray Romano.  However, being a fan of music videos as much as I am of film, I have decided to highlight some hip-hop/rap videos that have stuck with me and that you should consider alongside the aforementioned greatest hip-hop movie of all time, and of rappers-turned-actors. 

1. N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton 

Since I offered up my favorite hip-hop film of all time, it’s only fitting that I would begin with this group and their debut music video. Off their first album and debut single N.W.A. (​​Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren) with the comments, “you are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.'' Ice Cube takes the first part of the song where he raps about going two-to-two with the police and the life of being in gangster culture. MC Ren continues with how people underestimate him, however, he is part of the gangster culture as well. Easy-E closes the video with his verse in the same vein. The video itself is timeless as N.W.A. are the pioneer leaders of gangster hip-hop videos that showcase the LA hip-hop scene, as well as the clash that N.W.A. always had with the law and authority. This would lead to later tracks on the album that for censor reasons we can’t publish but Ice Cube has the powerful line about law enforcement: “they have the authority to kill a minority.”

2. Beastie Boys- Sabotage

Directed by Spike Jonze during his music video days in the ‘90s, Sabotage by the Beastie Boys is pure nostalgic fun, alongside the rock/rap combo the group provides. Don’t tell any Weezer music video fans that I feel that Sabotage may be the best video by Jonze from the ‘90s, as he directed the Buddy Holly music video. In the video, the Beastie Boys comically dress up as these cops from a ‘70s themed police detective show, and it works in the same way Learning To Fly works for the Foo Fighters. Showing off a comical side, this video works in truly capturing the energy and spirit of the Beastie Boys; they're like Buddy Rich when they fly off the handle, with a great vision excecuted from Jonze.

3. Eminem- Stan

In the era of MTV music videos it’s hard not to talk about the king of controversy Marshall Mathers, also known as Eminem. I could have gone with “The Real Slim Shady” or “My Name Is” as both were featured excessively in their height on MTV, however I am going with the one that has a little more depth; “Stan.” Directed by Dr Dre and Philip Atwell, the music video features Dido sampling her hit song “Thank You.” The video stars her as a wife to Stanley “Stan” Mitchel (Devon Sawa), an obsessive fan of Eminem. As the video progresses, Stan becomes more and more deranged through his letters to Em, expressing his contempt at Em not responding back to his fans' correspondance. The finale is somewhat of a tragedy where Stan states one of the biggest enigmas to any rap lyric that still puzzles me, “you know the song by Phil Collins, ‘In the Air of the Night’ / about that guy who could have saved that other guy from drowning but didn't / then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?” The final epilogue shows Em trying to console Stan by responding via letter but then states that he read about the tragedy, “come to think about what his name was, it was you / damn!” leading to the revelation. Many accolades went to this music video as it touches on the themes of fame and fortune taken out of context, a theme that Eminem deals with a lot in his songs and personal life. As for the legacy of “Stan,” the term has been inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary denoting, “an overzealous or obsessive fan, especially of a particular celebrity.

4. Kanye West- Though The Wire

Don’t you miss the old Kanye? I certainly do every single day because he was one of the first reasons I got into hip-hop as a whole art form of sampling. My mom went out and bought me a copy of  Late Registration, when I probably was still too young. Through The Wire was the first video produced alongside Jesus Walks for The College Dropout, that samples Chaka Khan’s hit “Through The Fire” and speeds it up to match Kanye’s pace as he does his best to rap though his rehabilitation after a nearly fatal car accident and his jaw being wired shut, multiple surgeries later only two weeks after the accident. The video itself is a collage video set as polaroids and photo strips on a cork board, post-accident and West’s life up to that point in the music industry. Watching the Netflix documentary, Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, it’s easy to get emotional as he undergoes dental surgery, nothing is stopping him from spitting out the main hook to the song that started it all and proved to Roc-A-Fella Records to put out the album.

5. Jay Z- Moonlight

Re-listening to 4:44 this past week I couldn't think the record isn’t Jay Z’s most personal album where he opens up about issues in his personal life after the elevator incident with his wife's sister, Solange in 2014 where she physically fought him and when everyone was wondering who Becky with the good hair was. 4:44 is a self-reflective video sampling the song “Late Nights and Heart Breaks" from Hannah Williams & The Affirmations and focuses on his relationship with Beyoncé,  addressing his marital issues and past infidelity indiscretions while apologizing for his past behaviour. The video starts with a young Black boy singing a cover of Nina Simone’s “Feel Good" before cutting to a clip of All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, where Eartha Kitt talks about love: “a relationship has to be earned.” Another person is interviewed after being involved in a hit and run and talks about the nearly fatal accident stating that, “God had shown him too much to take him now.”  A male and female dancer perform an interpretive dance in the music video as Jay tries to atone for his past through his rap lyrics alongside short cellphone videos without any context and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork alongside one of his interviews. The video ends with a video of Jay Z and Beyoncé performingDrunk in Love” as Al Greens “Judy” closes the video. “Moonlight” on the other hand takes on the culture of the time, referring to the 2016 film Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkinsand the big stint at the Oscars when La La Land was awarded with Best Picture only to have it redacted as an error on the part of the presenters and the award actually going to Moonlight at the very end. The music video starts with a reference to the '90s sitcom Friends by subverting it with an all Black cast including Tessa Thompson, Tiffany Haddish, Lakeith Stanfield, Jarrod Carmichael, Lil Rel Howery and Issa Rae. The result is a reflection on the deeply rooted racism within our culture and Hollywood.

6. Kendrick Lamar- Swimming Pools (Drank)

Addiction to alcohol and how it might be rooted in family history is the central theme to “Swimming Pool (Drank)”. The music video, directed by Jerome D, sees Kendrick Lamar falling backwards until the very end where he lands into a pool of water. There are some partying scenes that are shot in red hue lighting as Kendrick’s conscience starts speaking to him, “okay now open your mind up and listen to me / Kendrick I'm your conscience / if you do not hear me then you will be history / Kendrick I know that you're nauseous right now / and I'm hopin' to lead you to victory / Kendrick If I take another one down I'ma drown in some poison abusin' my limit.” This would be just the start of the innovative videos that Lamar would put out. 

7. Childish Gambino- Sweatpants/3005

Not all music videos need to be ambitious. Take it from Childish Gambino, (Donald Glover), with his one-take videos and humorous verses. Directed by Hiro Murai, Sweatpants is a one-shot of Donald Glover rapping as he meets his friends at the diner alongside some fun references, “more green than my Whole Foods and I'm too fly, Jeff Goldblum.” We get a glimpse of two Donald Glovers once he returns to the diner after exiting for a text message. Soon, all of the dinner staff and patrons are Donald Glover.  Once again going with the one-shot take from director Hiro Murai,  “3005” sees Donald Glover and an oversized carnival plush prize riding a roller coaster together as he laments on love, “I used to care what people thought / but now I care more / man nobody out here's got it figured out so therefore, I've lost all hope of a happy ending / depending on whether or not it's worth it / so insecure, no one's perfect.” Keeping it simple like a one-take with different vantage points as a way to edit things in and out with a director like Hiro Murai is why Childish Gambino music videos work effectively as an art form. 

8. Kanye West - Runaway 

Secluding himself in Hawaii post VMA incident with Taylor Swift, Kanye came back with his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The deluxe edition of the album included the promotional full length film directed by Kanye for the album, Runaway, that has a central premise of a love story between Kanye and a phoenix. After stepping away from a dinner with all the guests dressed in white, Kanye moves to the piano and starts plucking away at it as a group of ballerinas dressed all in black come out and start to synchronize dance to the piano. A more personal track for West off the album where he reflects onto his past behavior, "never was much of a romantic / I could never take the intimacy / and I know it did damage, 'cause the look in your eyes is killin' me” while raising a glass to the “rejects” of society. The final moments of the video and the song are excessively in autotune. “Runaway” is one of the best tinkering, piano plucking tracks to ever grace a rap music video. 

9.  Kendrick Lamar- The Heart Part 5

Going with another Kendrick Lamar video for my bonus pick here because he is one of the most innovative and prestigious rappers in the business. “The Heart Part 5”  has to be my favourite songs off of Mr Morale and The Big Steepers that was slated as a single to come out before the album as his other “The Heart Parts” before the album drop. The song samples from Marvin Gayes “I Want You.”  The video itself is timely as it starts out with Kendrick Lamar who  morphs, using deepfake technology, into various Black men. There are the less polarizing people seen as heroic icons like Koby Bryant and Nipsey Hussle. Then there are the more polarizing figures such as Kanye West, OJ Simpson, Jessie Smollet  and Will Smith for which Lamar comes out with the verse, “in the land where hurt people hurt more people / f*ck callin' it culture.”

Remi co-hosts At The Movies, which can be heard every Tuesday morning from 8:00 - 9:00AM. Tune in for discussions about movies, soundtracks, and iconic film scores. At The Movies also covers film festivals that are located in Montreal.