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Music Video Round-Up: Lil Wayne & Kanye West

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Music Video Round-Up: Lil Wayne & Kanye West

’Got Money’ directed by Gil Green (2008)

“Got Money” is the big, dumb pop-rap song of Lil Wayne’s two-million sold Tha Carter III because it’s got buzzing synths, R&B crooner (and maybe the second weirdest dude in pop-rap now) T-Pain on the hook, and it’s loud and about making lots of money. The video, directed by Gil Green and undoubtedly conceptualized by Wayne himself, is not about making lots of money for one’s self, but a kind of anti-capitalist, Robin Hood of “the hood” redistribution of wealth, contextualized in an awkward but effective prologue about the continued economic fallout for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans-born Lil Wayne has enough songs that reference or are explicitly about Katrina in his discography (see: “Georgia Bush” or “Tie My Hands”) that he could’ve made a “political” video for any of them and gotten the right kind of press, but it’s way more interesting—and way more “hip-hop”—that he’d instead get political on a really-great but truly vapid “I got a lotta money” song. Rap though, has always been about reconciling opposites and turning one thing into another, hasn’t it?

Like most popular videos, “Got Money” bounces between a performance part and a plot/narrative. Most videos have a narrative that plays-out and is occasionally punctuated by the performer standing in front of some non-descript backdrop or even colored background performing the song. Here, director Green uses the same location for both the bank robbery and the performance part and just designs and shoots them differently, adding some much-needed cohesion to this event video. The bank robbery aspect is naturalistic, shot with a 70s movie sense of action—no computer graphic or Matrix style here—while the performance aspect is the bank designed by late-90s Hype Williams. Plot and performance are still distinct, but using the same set keeps a kind of subliminal continuity in the viewer’s head that ideally extends to reconciling contradictory messages between the song and video.

What makes rap music—especially a lot of very popular rap music—so confusing for everyone from rock-oriented music critics to Bill O’Reilly is how unstable and all over the place it is. We are used to celebrities and artists having a stable, contrived public persona that may change and evolve over time, but the moment-to-moment immediacy of rapping often brings about many, contradictory personae in a single song. “Got Money” does not reconcile or choose one image of Wayne—or of rap in general—it throws them all around with little interest in consistency; even “contradiction” doesn’t really get at what’s going on here.

The video’s a really solid, extended action sequence (something Green’s very good at, see: “We Takin’ Over”), pretty subversive about the failings of government and Capitalism and a suggestion as to what should be done about it, and it harbors every grotesque rap cliché out there: flashing lights, lots of jewelry, money flying, and gleefully offensive video-girl imagery. But Green also finds the place for quiet, off-the-cuff sloppy reality, such as the quick shots of Wayne counting the chains around his neck just as he brags “I wear 8 chains,” T-Pain’s robot-walk across the screen at the video’s end, or, my favorite, letting the camera hold too long on a stack of bills that rest on the windshield of a moving cop car.

 

“A Milli” directed by Gil Green (2008)

While Green finds a few places for off-the-cuff naturalism in “Got Money,” the video that preceded it, “A Milli,” is three straight minutes of tossed-off, messy realism. “A Milli” has inexplicably become one of the most ubiquitous rap songs of the year. It’s already become a staple for other rappers to rap their own verses over and despite the more conventional Wayne singles “Lollipop” (which also has a video by Green) and aforementioned “Get Money,” it’s this chorus-less, totally out-there rap-rant freakout by Wayne atop a beat that’s nothing more than stumbling slaps of kick drum and synthetic hand-claps and a slowed-down but looped ad-nauseum vocal clip saying “a milli” that’s somehow caught the attention of everyone. Pop music nerds relish the few times a year when something as bizarre as this grabs onto the ears of a million.

“A Milli” simply couldn’t have been a giant party video—or even a smart video pretending to be a party video like “Got Money”—and so, Wayne and Green quickly constructed a single-take making of style video that’s as off-the-cuff as Wayne’s presumably one-take freestyle for the song. It’s important to note that this video dropped first and essentially teased “Got Money.” So its first appearance on BET was baffling to many because it seemed so effortless and anti-climactic: “This is the video for one of the summer’s biggest songs?” Of course, that’s the point; that’s why it’s the perfect video for “A Milli”: it’s equally inexplicable.

A relatively raw and candid portrait of one of pop’s weirdest stars, “A Milli” shows Wayne getting done-up for a video shoot, going to the bathroom, kindly greeting fans, eating some food, and hopping onto set for the “Got Money” video rehearsal, all in a single-take. Taken as a prequel to “Got Money” video, it also becomes some kind of meta-commentary on the unreality of that video versus the near-documentary sense of Wayne seen in a “A Milli.”

There are plenty of cheats in this single-take, but the sense of casual forward motion remains and, for the most part, the cuts are purposeful: they signify the passing of time, match-up to producer Bangladesh’s avant-minimal beat, or seem like fun diversions, as when we see the photos taken with fans. Green has used this interrupted single-take style before on his astounding video for dead prez’s “Hell Yeah.” In the medium of music video, where everything must be as concise as possible and, of course, fit the length of the song, it’s not the technical proficiency of the single-take that matters, but the feeling of it being a single take, and the subtle jump-cutting maintains that feeling.

 

“Champion” directed by NEON

Just in time for the Olympics—and hey, even Michael Phelps is a Lil Wayne fan—comes the “Champion” video, featuring muppet Kanye going for gold. Mr. West’s king-of-everything bit got old like, two albums ago, but when a puppet version’s shown working-out, leading a group of fans equal parts fit and chubby on a glorious jog through L.A., flopping around on an American flag, and winning it all, the egomaniac schtick goes down a lot easier.

There’s a certain indescribable genius to conflating the child-like wonder of Sesame Street-style puppets and the similar wonder one has about the Olympics at that Sesame Street-watching age. In your first-grade history book the Olympics are “the Olympic games,” athletes are “competitors,” everyone involved is a superhero and not just some dude who’s good at swimming that also gets arrested for drunk-driving, and there aren’t any Computer-Generated fireworks.

Although undoubtedly chosen because it’s really funny and entertaining, Kanye as a puppet also makes an interesting statement about the inclusive nature of the Olympics. The other athletes and the camera treat puppet Kanye like a “normal” human—the only person with a problem is the black member of the committee, a sly comment by Kanye on the problems of racial expectation—and West’s shot naturalistically, which contrasts with the overt artificiality of the puppet. Check out the patient zoom on Kanye punching the air, the pervasive lens flare, or the exteriors, clearly shot on-location.

“Champion” the song is similarly inclusive. Based on a Steely Dan sample (“Kid Charlemagne”), West takes The Dan’s tale of a dealer/pimp’s fall and recontextualizes their ironic use of “Did you realize, that you are a champion?” to, well, being a song about being victorious. But not just another “I’m on top” victory song from a rapper, one that contrasts current times of wealth and success with times that weren’t so good—itself a hip-hop cliché (“I once struggled but now I can buys lots of shit”), but done here with the perfect amount of autobiographical detail. West follows-up the joke-brag “Why do I need a stylist/When I shop so much I can speak Italian” with a modest “I don’t know” and a declaration that he “just want[s] it better for [his] kids” and then stumbles into an extended reminiscence about his own materialistic wants as a child and their burden on his parents.

That Steely Dan sample is itself both a materialistic boast—Steely Dan charge notoriously high to sample, so it proves Kanye’s got the dough to buy—and a comment on music history. “Kid Charlemagne” itself borrowed from the Afro-pop and funk of the era and so West, a black rapper borrowing back their rhythms, creates an interesting comment on the porous borders of race and genre in popular music. West then takes it further with the reggae-tinge in the vocals/afro-pop in the drumming (and listen closely for those gorgeously subtle strings playing along to the melody) kind of coda that plays right before a final burst of power synths and uplifting chorus, all visually set to Kanye’s victory and some final, effective jump-cuts of him running with the flag.

Director team NEON (Nabil Elderkin & John Pina) are wise to go light-hearted after their embarrassingly melodramatic (rejected) video for Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” and the computer effects-heavy Sin City-esque awkwardness of stuff like Common & Will.I.Am’s “A Dream” or John Legend’s “Stereo”. “Champion” is thankfully in the vein of the hand-made goofiness they brought to Kanye’s outrageous remix of “Throw Some Ds.”

Brandon Soderberg is author of the sites No Trivia and The Biographical Dictionary of Rap.