By Kristopher Tondre
Rappers and the film industry have had a long standing relationship since the early days of hip-hop and its portrayal on the silver screen. There’s been documentaries (Style Wars, My Vinyl Weighs a Ton and Rhyme & Reason), movies about growing up in the culture of it (Brown Sugar and Hustle & Flow) and films loosely based on rappers themselves (Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and 8 Mile). Although it may not be broadcast at the Grammy’s all too often, rap still has a presence on television with emcees such as Ice T (Law & Order SVU) and LL Cool J (NCIS: Los Angeles), as well as shows revolving around the industry and drama behind it (the highly successful Love & Hip Hop series). With a continued presence of rappers and their lifestyle being broadcast via movies and television, this would, of course, have a natural influence on the music videos an artist produces. At present, the visuals a rapper puts out are nearly, if not just, as important as the music they craft. This could be the very reason why a select number of artists have chosen to go above and beyond when deciding what to do visually in order to best promote their work, whether that is a small cluster of songs, or an entire album.
Kendrick Lamar isn’t the only visually creative mind on the Top Dawg Entertainment roster. Although the accompanying videos to his album, To Pimp a Butterfly saw theatrical elements, including the riveting God is Gangsta short film, Lamar’s former hype man has proven his capabilities of going beyond the typical music visual. Los Angeles based rapper ScHoolboy Q and the TDE conglomerate went into full grind mode as they prepared for the release of his latest album, Blank Face LP. Music videos for the singles “Groovy Tony” and “THat Part,” featuring Kanye West, were released in typical fashion, but the visuals that would succeed these were more like a three part play than the typical music video. First it was the nearly nine-minute long video for his song “By Any Means.” It started with a typical day in the hood before Q and his crew circled back to a pawn shop they’d visited earlier in the day. It’s in the second part of this trilogy that the crew hit a lick on the shop owner and rob him at gunpoint. It’s not long before the cops catch up with them though, and ScHoolboy Q, along with homies, TF and Traffic are charged, processed, questioned and escorted to prison; all set to the sounds of the closing track on the Blank Face LP, “Tookie Knows II.” Picking up right where the second video ends, the third and final part to this series sees Q and comrades amidst a trial for the robbery they committed. In the moment that the prosecutor tires to make a deal with Q to reduce his sentence, the video transitions into the song “Black THougHts.” It’s a moment for Q to reflect on the consequences of his decisions, and how they could affect the most important person in his life: his daughter. This trilogy plays out more like a hood flick than just a collection of music videos that tell a story; but where this short film seems more reality based, some artists choose to take a more abstract approach.
In October 2010, Kanye West premiered the half-hour film Runaway that accompanied his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. About two and a half weeks later, the short film made its television debut on channels such as BET, MTV and VH1. This abstract work of art depicts a peculiar romance between a man and a half-woman, half-phoenix character, all set to the tune of MBDTF. The entire film displays West’s penchant for flare; from the opening scenes of Mr. West’s character driving through a forest to the tune of “Dark Fantasy,” to the moment the phoenix freaks out over the food served at the dining table to “Hell of a Life” and to the final moments when “Lost in the World” tunes in. The film offers a unique way to showcase the album that many would later consider to be his best work. Kanye has never been subtle in his approach with anything he does, whether it’s music, fashion, particular statements made about former presidents or who is more deserving of certain music video awards. With Hype Williams behind the camera, West pushed creative boundaries for what it meant for rappers to visually present their music. However, I do believe that this monstrous premier was only the springboard for certain creative’s to further elaborate on the idea.
Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, Troy (whatever you choose to call him) is a creative genius who always pushes to expand, rather than becoming complacent with his artistic reach. Gambino has just about done it all, as far as creative outlets go. He’s an actor, writer, comedian and musician who has excelled in each and every creative foray he’s entered. With the release of his second studio album, Because the Internet, Gambino put on display his many talents to create not just an album, but an experience. About four months prior to the release of the album, Gambino released a short film called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. The short film, shot in a house owned by NBA player Chris Bosh, previewed new music that would later appear on BTI, and featured cameo’s from Flying Lotus, Abella Anderson, Danielle Fishel, Chance the Rapper and Trinidad James; but what makes the nearly half an hour film so important is what it set up down the road. Gambino didn’t simply stop at a short film and a handful of music videos for Because the Internet, he wrote an entire screenplay to accompany the Grammy-nominated album. The 72-page screenplay was written to sync up with the album. The listener plays the music and reads along with the script as Gambino tells the story of a character only ever referred to as “The Boy;” a continuation of the character introduced with his debut studio album Camp. When the original site displaying the screenplay was still active (later deleted when Gambino went into a social media blackout and cleared out all of his personal online presence) it included audio player breaks and gifs that portrayed what was going on that very moment in the screenplay. Later, secret records were found from the online coding of the script, and the gifs were compiled after Gambino’s social media purge, but the experience that he created with that album, and everything that accompanied it, has not been replicated or even approached by any other rapper. And that’s not even including conspiracy theories drummed up by fans about Gambino’s portrayal of the character, the art exhibit and the actual music videos that were released for the songs off the album. The very same man who once wrote for the show 30 Rock has set the standard of just how creative an artist can get with how they visually capture their music.
Witnessing the extent emcees are pushing the boundaries to further elaborate upon their music and the stories within their lyrics has been incredible. For some artists it’s not just about dropping a music video for the sake of promoting the song, but to portray an entire experience and truly portray the stories they’re trying to communicate to listeners. Whether it be via a handful of extended music videos, a short film or an entire script, rappers are exploring every creative outlet they have at their disposal to better tell their tale.