“Power,” Paintings, Pomposity: The Uncertain Evolution of Kanye West’s Music Videos


Art: this is how we explain away indulgent decisions. Last night, Kanye West released the first visual–do not call it a video–from his as yet untitled new album: a “painting,” as he and his director call it, for “Power.” The clip premiered on MTV directly following an episode of the network’s most popular program, Jersey Shore, and was created by Marco Brambilla, an accomplished video artist and one-time director of Alicia Silverstone caper comedies. The “Power” painting is 93 seconds long. It is art. Or something like it, anyway.

In 2008, Brambilla made a video installation called “Civilization” that is a truly mind-crushing thing. It’s intricate and varied, layering imagery–exploding skies, billowing mushroom clouds, chorus lines, roller coasters, bodybuilders, strippers–atop itself in a descending reel. The work is a magnificent achievement at first glance, but maybe a bit less impressive than it thinks it is. Reportedly Kanye saw this thing at the Standard Hotel, where it runs on a loop, and contacted Brambilla. Their collaboration, “The Portrait of Power,” is a similar piece–action unfolds slowly, with grandeur. Each motion is meant to crush minds. But the clip never quite gets there.

There’s precedence for this. From the storming African warriors and their barely concealed female counterparts in the Simon Henwood-directed video for 2009’s “Love Lockdown” (memorably premiered on Ellen, of all places) to the Sleepy Hollow-on-Paxil treatment for “Coldest Winter,” Kanye has lately seized on a style that typically signifies little more than strength and confusion. His music videos often feature slow motion and spectacular visuals–a woman plummeting through the clouds, West trapped in an all-white chamber, color-splashed animated fantasias, etc. But this wasn’t always the case.

He was heartfelt before, as in the memorable video for 2004’s “Through The Wire,” directed by Kanye and his then-visual partners Coodie and Chike, who cleverly used moving Polaroids on a tack board to tell a life’s story.

In the gripping visual for “All Falls Down,” the camera stages a first-person trip that follows Stacey Dash (such a wonder, still!) from limousine to terminal to airplane, away from a young, sad-eyed West.

And he was funny, too–consider the infomercial spoofing in “The New Workout Plan.”

The three-video treatment for “Jesus Walks” changed all of that–soon, one-upmanship became the goal.

Chris Milk, by then Scorsese to West’s DeNiro, helmed “Touch The Sky,” a too smart by half thing that found West as a black Evel Knievel, jumping ramps as Nia Long and Pamela Anderson fought for his affection. It’s cheeky and expensive and too long, but still pretty fun.

Same for the candy-colored, almost cartoonish look of SoMe’s “Good Life” and Hype Williams’ “Gold Digger.”

But things got weirder: Electro futurism in “Stronger”…

…cloud fetishism in “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”…

…black and white composition and Chris Martin’s face in “Homecoming”…

…mutilation and ass cheeks in Spike Jonze’s “Flashing Lights” (which was also famously truncated)…

…tribalism in “Love Lockdown” and “Amazing.”

For more than two years, Kanye has been consumed by aggressive, slow-moving visuals; women–always buxom, rarely moving–are art pieces. Men are fierce creatures at war, often with themselves. His 2009 short film with Jonze, “We Were Once A Fairytale,” is a bizarre, entertaining, deeply disturbed look at the loss of self; it’s self-effacing but also, well, I’m not sure what it means. Everything happens slowly in these works because that’s beautiful, we’re meant to think.

And though “The Portrait of Power” is a different sort of project–not a paradigm-shifter by any stretch, but an interesting choice–it’s not progress. Nothing is subtle. Kanye is wearing the same Hourus chain that he wore at the BET Awards last month, standing in front of an ever-expanding row of pillars. The Sword of Damocles hangs over his head. A winged, barely clothed demi-god sits at his side, subservient and stone-faced. More women–models, really–flail toward him in slow motion, ready to attack, or seduce. Two sword-swinging warriors lunge toward each other right in front of Kanye, preparing for an epic collision. The detail is astonishing; the way the arm flesh of the dueling, horned, staff-wielding models ripples in the opening moments is impressive in a way that is hard to explain. All around him West is unmoved; he is our very own Vigo The Carpathian, trapped in portraiture. Brambilla described it as “a highly constructed, highly mannered, somewhat religious tableau that communicates the end of an empire.” That’s probably too clearly defined. It certainly feels important. But it hardly means anything.