I hate making year-end lists because my opinions often change. So instead of calling this alphabetically ordered list “The Best Hip-Hop Videos of 2013,” it’s “Videos That Stood Out in 2013,” although I will say that Bambu and Prometheus Brown’s “Books” video is my favorite. There’s no other video I’ve Tumblr’d more this year than “Books.”
The first thing you might notice about this list is: where are the much-talked-about Kanye videos Nick Knight directed for the Yeezus album? I thought Knight’s “Black Skinhead” video (which, when it was leaked online, led to Kanye reacting on Twitter to the leak in his usual calm, serene manner) was okay, although CGI Kanye looks like the love child of Hologram Tupac and Cita, the motion-capture CGI star of BET’s Cita’s World. Knight’s “Bound 2” video is another story.
Knight is a very stylish, state-of-the-art fashion photographer whose most memorable directorial effort is Björk’s 2001 “Pagan Poetry” video, which was banned by MTV for its body-piercing imagery and which I still can’t watch without averting my eyes (it’s that disturbing). But you wouldn’t know Knight was behind the “Bound 2” video because it looks like a corny Trapper Keeper cover brought to life, and the subpar green-screen FX are below the high standards of Knight’s previous state-of-the-art work (as well as many of Kanye’s past videos).
“I wanted to take white-trash T-shirts and make it into a video. Yes, I wanted it to look as phony as possible. I wanted the clouds to go in one direction, the mountains to go in another, the horses to go over there,” said Kanye to New York’s Power 105 about his vision of “Bound 2.” But that’s not how I picture “Bound 2” whenever I hear it. I don’t see white horses in slo-mo or a dead-eyed Kim Kardashian on the back of Kanye’s coin-operated motorcycle kiddie ride. Because of the tune’s Ponderosa Twins Plus One and Brenda Lee samples, that terrific Charlie Wilson hook and the vintage R&B vibe that hearkens back to Yeezy’s College Dropout sound, I picture an Impala cruising down wet streets like in a Michael Mann movie or a female pool shark turning heads in a pool hall. Myron & E’s “If I Gave You My Love” video, which happens to feature a character who’s a female pool shark, is what I thought the “Bound 2” video should have been more like (plus the pool shark is hotter than any of the Kardashians).
Oh well. At least we got a few amusing parody videos out of “Bound 2” (the funniest spoof so far was the SNL version, simply because Kim got the chance to speak, and anything that comes out of Nasim Pedrad’s mouth whenever she does her Kimpression is comedy gold). By now, I’ve become accustomed to being underwhelmed by a lot of hip-hop videos. I still think a lot of them are either just plain boring or terribly made, especially the Fugees’ VMA-winning “Killing Me Softly” video, which remains way more atrocious than the “Bound 2” video.
I wanted a mini-Walter Mosley novel with a gritty neo-noir vibe because that’s how the Fugees’ cover of Roberta Flack’s tune sounded to me. Instead, what I got in 1996 from Wyclef, Lauryn and Pras was a sloppily edited movie theater riot storyline that had little to do with the song; a theater snack fight (food fights are never as funny or entertaining as their directors think they are, Animal House director John Landis and “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” video directors included); and a baffling reliance on one of the most overused rock video clichés, the Animal House ending (“Praz went on to become C.E.O. of Sony Music Entertainment Inc.; Laryn got married, has 13 kids and founded the Third World Order.”). The fact that “Killing Me Softly” was directed by Aswad Ayinde, a nutcase who’s currently in jail for raping and impregnating his own daughters, explains a lot of his artistic choices during the video. They’re as terrible as his taste in women. The video’s Animal House ending is missing one piece of text: “Aswad went on to rape his daughters and do time. He’s so fucked up in the head he can’t even spell Pras and Lauryn’s names correctly.”
If I were a video director, I’d shoot hip-hop videos exactly like how Chappelle’s Show brilliantly shot the musical guest segments (or how the cyphers are shot for the BET Hip-Hop Awards): the rappers are filmed spitting live instead of lip-synching because lip-synching always looks wack to me. I still don’t know why there aren’t more directors who make hip-hop videos that way. Luckily, there were a few videos this year that were the anti-“Killing Me Softly” and were really creative (or had exceeded my expectations), even though they still had the MCs lip-synching.
Bambu featuring Prometheus Brown, “Books” (directed by Patricio Ginelsa)
Bambu and Prometheus Brown’s “Books” may slink and slide like a ’90s slow jam, thanks to Everett, Washington-based producer MTK and his parody of ’90s slow jam beats (which brings to mind Prince Paul’s “Another Face Song” spoof from Chris Rock’s Roll with the New), but “Books” isn’t a track about hitting that. It’s about hitting the books (a subject that’s on Prometheus’ mind these days because the Blue Scholars MC, a.k.a. Geo, recently resumed his University of Washington studies after dropping out years ago to pursue music). The object of affection in “Books” is literature instead of a hottie (or Rashida Jones, the subject of another Bambu/Geo track). Director Patricio Ginelsa picks up on the tune’s fake ’90s vibe and surrounds Bambu and Geo with animated graphics straight out of Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” video and backup dancers with moves from old Queen Latifah videos. You keep thinking, “Yo, is Blossom gonna Cabbage Patch her way onto the set at some point?” The “Books” video could have just consisted of the ’90s R&B throwback material, and it would have been a decent video. But no, Ginelsa had to throw in footage of Bambu and Geo starring in a fake sitcom about an undocumented Filipino immigrant called Tago ng Tago (it’s Tagalog for “always hiding”), and that turned a decent video into a great one.
To non-Filipino viewers, Tago ng Tago looks an awful lot like Three’s Company and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but to Filipino viewers like me who were exposed as a kid to TV shows imported from the Philippines and had never quite understood most of those shows, it’s every single corny-ass Filipino sitcom that aired on Saturdays on Channel 26 in San Francisco. At first, the fake sitcom seems superfluous and doesn’t seem to tie in to the track’s celebration of intellect, but if you pay close attention, it does tie in to it. Bambu’s character is using a book not for reading but for storing his rent money, and his mistreatment and misplacement of the book causes all the sitcom chaos. It’s essentially “Fonzie Gets His Library Card,” but with much better music and guest appearances by words you couldn’t say during “the family hour” on ’70s network TV (“Let’s try and flip through every page/Your voice reciting wisdom that’s gon’ get yo’ ass laid”). In this world of French Montanas and Chief Keefs, we need more pro-intellect tracks and videos like “Books.”
Chance the Rapper, “Everybody’s Something” (directed by Austin Vesely)
One of my favorite cuts on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape is “Everybody’s Something” because it flips one of my favorite Slum Village tracks, “Fall in Love,” and also because of couplets like “And why God’s phone die every time that I call on Him?/If His son had a Twitter, wonder if I would follow him” and “We just aiming back ’cause the cops shot you/Buck buck bang bang, yelling ‘Fuck Fox News!'” The video for “Everybody’s Something” is equally outstanding and full of well-chosen graphics, from the swirling galactic imagery, as Chance gets existential and wonders about his place in the world, to the old public domain footage superimposed over his face and silhouette. I’m particularly fond of the insertion of the famous shot of the bandit firing at the camera from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery during Chance’s “We just aiming back” couplet. The “Everybody’s Something” video also marks one of the few times the video version of the tune is better than the album/mixtape version: the piano outro by Peter Cottontale is a nice additional touch.
Dumbfoundead, “Huell Howser” (directed by Nicolas Heller)
Dumbfoundead’s videos are always beautifully shot, but for the high-concept video for his Old Boy Jon cut “Huell Howser,” the freestyle king (and now stand-up comic) from L.A.’s K-Town downgraded to faded-looking VHS when he imagined himself as the titular host of the long-running California’s Gold, a travelogue-style show about Cali that was shot on videotape. Howser was a fixture of Southern Cali public TV whom Dumb grew up watching. The California’s Gold host’s boundless enthusiasm for every single ordinary Californian he interviewed was parodied by comedians ranging from impressionist James Adomian to Greg Proops, and when Howser died in January, the likes of Adomian and Proops paid affectionate tribute to him in writing or on their podcasts. But the cleverest tribute came from Dumb. In the “Huell Howser” video, as well as many of his other videos, Dumb shows that he carries as much love for his home turf of SoCal (a region that received the same travelogue treatment several months later in Pharrell’s entertaining “24 Hours of Happy” interactive video, which I discussed here) as the Tennessee-born Howser did for his adopted home state.
Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge, “Rise of the Ghostface Killah” (directed by David Wong)
David Wong currently works as an assistant to director Greg Yaitanes on the set of Banshee, a Cinemax crime show that’s become known for unleashing the most brutal fight scenes in a cable drama since that time Dan Dority merked the Captain with his bare hands in the mud on Deadwood. Off the Banshee set, Wong directed something that wasn’t as graphic and limb-breaking as a Banshee fight scene but was equally awash with gore: the “Rise of the Ghostface Killah” video for Ghostface and Adrian Younge’s Twelve Reasons to Die (Ghostface himself doesn’t appear in the video; his masked Twelve Reasons to Die alter ego Tony Starks is played by someone else). If you weren’t familiar with the Ghostface/Younge concept album, one of the year’s dopest albums, and if it weren’t for the introductory cameo by album co-producer RZA, you could easily mistake the video for old footage from one of the blood-soaked ’60s and ’70s giallos that influenced Younge when he came up with the album’s story (he envisioned it as a lost blaxploitation movie that was made in Italy). Wong nails the look and feel of those low-budget Italian movies, from the lighting to even the typeface of the credits in those flicks.
Joey Bada$$, “Unorthodox” (directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah)
The Beastie Boys’ classic 1989 “Shadrach” video is a masterwork of hand-drawn rotoscoping (an animation process in which the cels are traced over live-action footage) that was done by a team of about 20 painters. But what if “Shadrach” was rotoscoped with digital tools instead of hand-painted? The results might look like either Danny Kleinman’s memorable opening titles for Casino Royale or the stunning illustrative work artist Evan Hecox and a bunch of animators did with live-action footage of Joey Bada$$, “Unorthodox” producer DJ Premier and the Pro Era crew. The directing duo Coodie & Chike, the same pair behind Kanye’s “Through the Wire” video and Erykah Badu’s controversial, all-nude “Window Seat” video shoot, photographed pieces of Brooklyn to provide the animators with picturesque backplates and then shot footage of Joey, Premo and the rest against a green screen. The animation team’s energetic reimagining of both Joey and his Brooklyn surroundings is the latest example of Coodie & Chike’s preference for telling stories that are progressive in the hip-hop realm over what Coodie dismissively referred to in an ESPN interview as “the regular video with the pool, the girls and the cars.”
Rapsody, “Dark Knights” (directed by Kenneth Price)
Jay Z’s acting in the role of Verbal Kint in 1998’s The Usual Suspects-inspired “The City Is Mine” video is as painful as that time he walked out in flip-flops (during his infamous BBC interview, Kanye was right when he said, “No flip-flops for black dudes. I don’t care where you at.”) or more recently, the “Cake cake cake cake cake cake” part of his guest verse on Drake’s “Pound Cake.” In her ill video for “Dark Knights,” the She Got Game mixtape track that’s loaded with references to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Rapsody, a fan of the trilogy, assumes the role of a classic character like Hov did in the “City Is Mine” video: the Heath Ledger version of the Joker. It’s one of two great moments of Batman-related cosplay this winter (the other is, of course, the five-year-old leukemia patient who, with the help of the Make-a-Wish Foundation and his fans in San Francisco, got his wish to transform into Batkid). Luckily, the “Dark Knights” video spares us from interludes of stiffly delivered dialogue. I don’t know if Rapsody can act, but she sure can rhyme. “Dark Knights” is one of my favorite 2013 tracks, and it’s not just because I’m a fan of Batman: The Animated Series, the Gotham Central comic and Nolan’s first two Batman movies. If you removed the Batman references (like how the video omits Wale’s guest verse) and substituted them with references to a different heroic figure (like maybe Betty Shabazz, which happens to be the title of Rapsody’s latest single), “Dark Knights” would still be a dazzlingly produced banger about rising out of despair, not letting greed define you, staying diligent and being true to yourself. The game deserves a better class of lyricist. And Rapsody is gonna give it to ’em.