Childish Gambino is currently the most-talked about rapper on earth. Think about that. That title was previously held by Kanye West, whose Twitter stream of consciousness and frankly bizarre interview conversations kept a strong grip on the music conversation for over a week and half (equivalent to months in the Twittersphere). But slightly over a week ago, rapper Childish Gambino—who at this point is probably more well known as actor/writer/comedian Donald Glover—released without warning the video for “This Is America” minutes before his Saturday Night Live performance. The visual has usurped any attention that was given to Kanye’s “free thinking.”
The music video has become the conversation on all social media networks. While most praise it for its symbolism, perspective on race, and other socio-political issues in America, there are detractors who condemn the clip for pandering. It hits every major mark on the large conversation America has been having between racial issues and gun violence over the last four years, while also providing artistic interpretation far beyond those boundaries, and up to the people to decipher. As it relates to the music industry, it’s another proponent for the importance of accompanying visuals in 2018. Arguably without Gambino’s meticulously constructed music video, the conversations about his single (metaphors, new Kanye, memes) would have ultimately gotten lost in hip-hop’s never ending news cycle.
The visual has inspired dozens of think pieces, found additional life through memes (as is the rite of passage for any popular video in 2018), and has been viewed over 100 million times on YouTube. It’s a perfect storm of impact and attention, and that has carried Gambino to his first number one single. A chart-topping single for Donald Glover’s rap alter-ego would’ve been unlikely in any incarnation of his career from backpack, rapping CAMP nerd to soulful, psychedelic “RedBone” connoisseur. However with the addition of streams to the Billboard formula a few years back, a video which features any whirlwind of attention such as this certainly benefits from the latest tinkerings to the chart-positioning metrics.
Hoping the importance of music videos make a big comeback in 2018.
— #MeelzLive ✊🏾 (@MeelzTV) December 26, 2017
Last year I urged for the importance of music videos from our favorite artists. For the last decade and a half, hip-hop videos have downsized in both budget and importance from the late ’90s to early ’00s golden era. Think of the wealth of imagination and creativity captured by Hype Williams on Missy Elliott’s early singles “The Rain,” “Sock It 2 Me,” “She’s A Bitch,” and “Hot Boyz” that would help establish Missy throughout the rest of her career. As DMX continued to transition to the mainstream and experience massive success, he connected with director Little X (now known as Director X) for the powerful “What’s My Name” video, which became notable for its sleek futuristic backdrop accented by DMX and Ruff Ryders’ hood appeal. Busta Rhymes still holds one of the most massive video budgets in hip-hop history with “What’s It Gonna Be” costing an estimated 2.4 million dollars to produce.
With the decline in sales of the music industry throughout the aughts and early 2010s, the creativity and the dollar behind music videos were downgraded outside the standard hip-hop elite. Acts learned to be creative with their dollar, but it rarely amounted to the right combination of creative content and fanfare. While videos provided context for whatever single was available, it would rarely carry it beyond the borders of the audience already positioned to hear the song. Videos from the stars of the time resulted in uncreative and linear-thinking clips, like Meek Mill’s “Amen” below, featuring Drake.
However over the last year, hip-hop has been revitalized with a new, youthful creative taste. Younger artists are taking videos into their own hands and enlisting amazing new directors to deliver their vision. Young Cole Bennett is creating visuals for the Soundcloud elite like Ugly God, Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, Lil Yachty, and more. British talent Daps has already directed game changers for Migos (“Bad & Boujee” & “T-Shirt”), as well as creative clips for Wizkid (“Come Closer”) & Rich The Kid (“Plug Walk”). With streams being the new juggernaut for album sales, visuals have become more important than ever in the lifespan of an artist’s single, album, and frankly their career. According to 2017’s Music Consumer Insight Report, YouTube is responsible for 46% of all on-demand streams and videos themselves taking up 55% of all on-demand streaming time.
Before Gambino struck gold (literally) and Kanye West muddied up the musical space, Drake—as he tends to do with every album cycle—dominated the conversation. Drake’s music videos for the first few years of his career was sketchy at best. For every momentous “HYFR,” there was a “Childs Play” or “Energy” that brought the average back down. In 2014, Drake reached a new level of musical omnipotence with “Hotline Bling.” The video successfully broke the internet through a series of memes that followed it, and propelled the video into god-like status. “Hotline Bling” became one of the most viewed videos of all-time on YouTube, currently sitting at around 1.39 billion views.
This June, he plans to release his new album Scorpion, and in support, he has released two singles that may not have attained the long-lasting impact they have without the visuals they were equipped with. The first video “God’s Plan” was released sans all the normal Drake-isms. No skyline view of Toronto. No gorgeous, voluptuous women. No heavy-handed mob bars to his enemies. Drake was given a $999,631.90 budget for his music video (which feels insane even for 2018 standards), and he decided to film a video chronicling his journey on giving it away to citizens in Miami who needed it the most. The song was already successful, but the down-to-earth, philanthropic impact of the video took it to another level. But before the song could begin to falter, Drake launched his second single “Nice For What,” a woman-empowering anthem with a familiar New Orleans bounce. The visual features minimal focus on Drake and all attention on the incredible cast of women. Issa Rae, Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis-Ross, Tiffany Haddish, Yara Shahidi, Olivia Wilde, and Letitia Wright are all captured as natural beauties throughout the inspiring video. Both clips are a win across the board for Drake, as he replaces his usual self-serving videos for a much broader scheme.
Kendrick Lamar remains another juggernaut in music video realm. The Dave Meyers and Lil Homies-directed “HUMBLE” was the first visual by Kendrick Lamar that took the world by storm and helped propel the record straight to #1 on the charts. The evocative video features moments of symbolism and social commentary, but it’s largely used to bring the captivating lyrics of Kendrick Lamar to life. The team would follow the same evocative formula for the Black Panther soundtrack single “King’s Dead,” a clip which volleys between hood aesthetics, wall street backdrops, and creative wide zoom performance shots. Kendrick also owns the most breathtaking video of the year by far, the SZA-accompanied “All The Stars” for the Black Panther soundtrack. As a prelude to the the movie bringing African culture to widespread audiences, “All The Stars” is dripping in African elegance from the colors, patterns and fabrics, to the setting and symbolic artwork.
The music artists of 2018 have done a great job of restoring the feeling of music videos being more than releases, but as full-fledged events. Alongside the previously mentioned cuts, hip-hop royalty JAY-Z and Beyonce have put their truths on display in their latest clip “Family Feud.” Lil Dicky earned a new level of prominence with his quirky DJ Mustard-produced single “Freaky Friday” in which he switches bodies with music superstar Chris Brown.
Even newer stars are benefitting from the rise of music videos again. Ella Mai is currently living in a moment with the success of “Boo’d Up” which most recently came with a video to boot. Boy band BROCKHAMPTON have taken things into their own hands in regards to directing, and most recently, the group went from an internet-based secret to a major label act. Blocboy JB’s “Look Alive” video was released alongside the song, and the result has the entire country doing the “shoot dance.” A notable music video may be more important to artists in 2018, more than any other point in history.
It’s still unclear whether the goal for releasing music videos in 2018 is creativity or for the conversation. But with streaming still the deciding factor in album sales, chart positions, and RIAA certifications, and music videos being factored into streamings, the newest era of culture-shifting, world-stopping, internet-breaking content will be around for the foreseeable future.