As most of us pessimistically predicted, it was Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ that took home the Grammy Award for Best Music Video last week. One accepts the inevitability of the award academies such as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences making depressingly obvious choices while simultaneously acknowledging that for every depressingly obvious winner, there’s an equally predictable yet egregious snub – in this case, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’. History will look kindly on Lamar, however – his song and accompanying video, and indeed the entire To Pimp a Butterfly album, will survive in the annals of history as a seminal work inextricably linked with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s easy to forget that there were other three contenders in this category. Pharrell Williams’ ‘Freedom’ and The Dead Weather’s ‘I Feel Love’ are easy to forget because they’re forgettable. The former is jarring to watch due to the clash of Williams’ trademark upbeat soul musical style paired with heavy-handed and clumsily political imagery; it smacks of a mixture of Majestic Casual and Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The Dead Weather’s video shows a leggy blonde struggling to march against the force of a heavy wind, a singular and boring image and its themes are left undeveloped which renders the video lazy and unsatisfying.
A$AP Rocky’s video for ‘L$D’ is nestled between greatness, obviousness and underwhelming “just okay”-ness. It’s easy to make the grave error of overlooking Rocky’s offering, but to do so would be to ignore a masterful production and testament to the extent to which rap is eclipsing other genres in terms of inventiveness.
Shimmering city light vacuity a lá Enter the Void meets the drugged-up Gothic of two slack-jawed lovers weakly holding hands as they stumble through the streets in the Dexter Navy-directed promo. Rocky’s soporific, hypnotic vocals pair well the migraine-aura luminescence of the rarefied neon bulbs which bleed into each other and bathe the landscape in an electric haze. The kaleidoscope-acid tinted glasses with which we view the city reinforces the borderline surreal excess of modern urban spaces, reminding one of how closely these images run to the reality of the palaces of opulence that can be seen in Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
While the merits of the ‘L$D’ video may seem purely sensuous and superficial, there’s a inner gloom to the narrative. Its bleakness lies in the emptiness within the eyes of Rocky’s characters; the falter of their foot fall against the pavement, how all their passion is subdued, how their hands swim weakly through the air as if it were water. It all speaks to the nihilistic devastation behind the drive to get mind-fucked and delirious on a Friday night. Therein lies the depth and artistry of this creation – it’s a carefully executed homage to the drug experience which almost rendering “the high” an art object, taking into account both the vivid beauty of an acid trip and the destruction it can wreak on the human body. Rocky and Navy manage to appreciate the colour and beauty of LSD while acknowledging how ugly and diminishing intoxication can ultimately be.
Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and the other acid-fiends which made up the infamous New Journalism “Merry Pranksters” spring to mind here, almost leading one to wonder whether the general surge in psychedelic hip hop could herald the beginning of a Neo-Hippie movement. While Rocky is certainly not the most prominent or skillful contributor to the burgeoning sub-genre (Madlib, De La Soul and their ilk demand mention here), he’s the most mainstream contemporary example. One also wonders whether the fact that rap and hip hop now seem to have claimed psychedelic iconography can be credited to the influence of sizzurp on Southern Rap or seen as further proof of how rap and hip hop are beginning to fully occupy the sacrosanct artistic space once occupied by rock music. Whatever the case, Rocky’s video is worthy of attention here as it marks the most well-known current example of the suitability of psychedelic imagery for rap music.
This could be a bit of a stretch, but one could also argue that dialogue surrounding the drug experience has been reopened in the wake of the hesitant concession by law and policy makers that the “War on Drugs” has failed. That’s not to say that this kind of art will ever seem anything less than countercultural, nor will it ever fully shake taboo associations. It is, however, possible that the relaxing of drug policy has re-legitimised the drug experience and allowed artists to engage with it without being dismissed as lazy and addicted millennials merely hyper-intellectualising their vices. Rocky’s video portrays getting high as not merely a recreational experience, but a psychologically complex process that fuses pleasure with pain and community with loneliness.
There’s something weirdly profound about the video’s ending which shows Rocky standing atop a balcony with downcast eyes. His lover has disappeared, which could be interpreted as either implying that she never existed (and was in fact the product of Rocky’s lonely narcotic-fuelled fantasy) or showing how tenuous and superficial that the friendships made in intoxication are and how quickly they dissipate in sobriety. There’s a vulnerability to it, vulnerability not being something often expressed in rap, a genre in which toxic machismo reigns. This video most definitely deserved its nomination, but it risks slipping between the cracks and being obscured by the bigger, more attention-grabbing names that were in this race. ‘L$D’ is indulgent without sacrificing depth and very interestingly demonstrates the level of innovation in the rap and hip-hop genre today.
Hat-tip to Dean Van Nguyen, de facto holder of a doctorate in rap music, for his contributions to this piece