YouTube Rap Videos, Please Break Up
Already looks quaint
When Prodigy shot his quickie horrorshow "Mac 10 Handle" video and threw it up on YouTube a few months back, he realized a few things. The few music-video networks barely ever show music videos anymore. In those few time-slots they've allocated to actual music, they've taken shockingly thin playlists of ten or fifteen big-name videos and absolutely run them into the ground. And someone in my comments section pointed this out a while ago: particularly for rap, MTV and BET have become almost useless for marketing purposes as their standards-and-practices people have gone batshit-ass crazy with caution. Any rapper that makes even the most oblique reference to illegal or antisocial activity can expect to have his words censored, which disrupts flows and punchlines and renders most commercial rap virtually unlistenable. (Radio stations have been doing the same thing, with similarly mind-numbing results.) Some artists have been able to work within those restrictions; 50 Cent often hides his more risque material behind so many layers of innuendo that it become virtually meaningless, and Kanye West barely ever talks about violent stuff anyway. All either of those guys has to worry about is the occasional and expected cuss-word abridgment; not coincidentally, those two are two of the only rappers who can actually still sell records in the millions. But Prodigy's been exploring darkness and nihilism for more than a decade; he's never going to be able to adjust to ever-tightening FCC and network regulations without losing an essential part of himself. Since Prodigy's first YouTube video, a lot of other rappers are figuring out the same thing, and it's getting to the point where we can't go one weekend without four or five big-name rappers posting videos and taking advantage of the freedoms that the internet affords. Too bad almost all those videos completely fucking suck.
Part of what made the "Mac 10 Handle" video great was the way it took both the internet's lack of censorship and its own restrictively low budget and turned them into aesthetic advantages, ways to get away from the increasingly stale rap-video visual vocabulary. Instead, Prodigy and director Dan the Man reached for a gritty and unhinged B-movie immediacy, fitting in inexplicable psychedelic touches wherever possible. Since then, Prodigy and Dan the Man have collaborated on a couple of other videos, "New York Shit" and "Stuck on You," both of which are pretty good but both of which increasingly fall back on standard video cliches of girls and jewelry. "Stuck on You" is especially dispiriting; the only real differences between it and virtually any video on Rap City are the grainy camerawork and the presence of guns. Still, Prodigy remains the Scorsese of YouTube rap videos, especially when you consider the other stuff that's come out recently: Lil Wayne leaning against living-room cabinets and looking cracked-out, Beanie Sigel displaying his unbelievably bad posture. (Actually, both of those examples come originally from DVD mixtapes, which have been including extremely shitty low-budget videos for years, but I still imagine the artists made these videos with the understanding that they'd be going up on YouTube almost immediately.) This is where we get into the biggest ingrained drawback of the YouTube rap video; any half-decent director would've told Beans to sit up on the damn couch. The best of these recent videos, Kanye West's "Throw Some Ds" remix, is still pretty dumb, but it's redeemed by some half-decent production values and a star who's willing to look absolutely insane.
YouTube has also been instrumental in popularizing and escalating the past month's two ridiculously dumb and entertaining rap beefs: 50 Cent/Cam'ron and Timbaland/Scott Storch. It makes sense: the rappers can shoot the videos quickly and cheaply and post them right away, and they know that the ensuing internet shitstorm will lead a lot of people to see the videos. With the DJ Drama and Don Cannon arrests, mixtapes might not be a viable vehicle for those battle-tracks for much longer, and anyway mixtape disses don't hit as widely or as immediately, and videos allow rappers to include lots of embarrassing pictures of the people they're dissing. Still, it would be nice if someone involved in either of these battles would put together a half-decent song or video. 50's "Funeral Music" video is a pretty standard exercise in girls-and-cars standbys, except that the girls are slightly more busted than usual and now they can make out with each other and fondle guns. Cam's "Curtis" video is a hilarious mess, notable mostly for the weird array of people who yell "Curtis!" at the camera, for Cam's ill-advised standing-on-a-moving-car stunt, and for the random guy who interrupts the video to shout some stuff about snitching; the whole thing runs more than six excruciating minutes. Young Buck and 50 at least look cool dressing up like 1930s gangsters in the "Hold On" video, and the beat is a nice bit of warm, strutting vintage New York rap shit, but I'm more likely to remember it for 50 making fun of Cam's irritable bowel syndrome and saying he has AIDS; we're finally reaching a point where 4th-grade playground bullies are way more tasteful and erudite in their attacks than fully-grown million-selling rappers. As for "Built Like Dat," the last time a millionaire celebrity willfully allowed himself to look like such a chump was Charles Barkley's footrace against Dick Bavetta during All-Star Weekend, and at least that was funny on purpose; Scott Storch should really consider firing whoever told him this was a good idea. I can't wait for the follow-up video where Timbaland points guns at the camera and rips his shirt off like Hulk Hogan. Welcome to the future.
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