As the new video for Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” begins, you might doubt for a moment that you’re watching a Hype Williams clip: A young child wanders down snowy streets, lensed in vérité black and white while somber piano and strings play. Then the strobe effects kick in, the seizure-inducing titles start to flash, and West starts dancing in front of a blank backdrop and we’re back on well-trodden ground.
West and Williams take their cues from Gaspar Noé’s nihilist afterlife fantasy Enter the Void—not just in its epileptic titles and colorful strobing, but in its snippets of traumatic first-person memory. The song, an allegory about fame, failure, and a quest for redemption, is paired with a stream of frenetic, psychedelic imagery. When the video is actively mimicking the French filmmaker, things work: The song’s lyrics and titles pop off the screen, and the bombardment of fonts, colors, and lights all dance on the boundaries of flicker fusion.
But the first-person consciousness is dropped halfway through, and soon we’re killing time with Rihanna and Kid Cudi lazily swaying and chest-thumping in front of a spotlight, at which point the enterprise quickly loses steam. And while “cop lights” may be in the song’s lyrics, having West dancing on top of a police car is a deflationary easy reach.
The best music videos prove to be skillful adaptations, evoking the intangibles of a song and performing a synesthetic conversion of sound to image—or they use that additional path of sensory access to counterpoint the ideas and emotions washing past our ears. “All of the Lights” does neither, and Williams makes the same mistake he did with Beyoncé’s “Video Phone” in confusing visual stimulation for content.
In discussing the choices he made while directing the short film “Runaway,” West said that he wanted to give all of the tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a sense of visual identity. “All of the Lights” has its own segment in that film, and I initially accused that display, with its twirling acrobats and giant Michael Jackson effigy, of being self-indulgent. But that kind of expansive, crowded parade of spectacle feels much closer to the identity of the song than the broken confusion of the Williams clip.
“All of the Lights” is an epic track, as this video tries to remind us by blasting the entire list of the song’s star collaborators. But that’s the extent of it; the rest of the clip seems content to believe that skillful mimicry is an acceptable substitute for a vision.