Let’s not worry about whether Kanye West’s video for “Bound 2,” featuring our blue-screened hero sexing Kim Kardashian on a motorcycle amid SyFy Channel-grade special effects, is a visual disaster, albeit possibly an intentional one. Because more importantly, this very public love letter of a promotional device is a fascinating new chapter in how Kanye West, conflicted misogynist and dude who should just plain know better, presents women in his music videos.
A walk through his videography offers a more sophisticated and nuanced presentation of Ye’s conflicted feelings about the opposite sex than you can find in his songs. Save for choice moments of empathy (“All Falls Down,” “Hey Mama,” “Hell of a Life”) and those rare but endearing love-song guest-raps (Ne-Yo’s “Because of You,” Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down”), his rhymes about women tend to be fairly typical in their hostility.
But when Kanye arrived with The College Dropout, his playful, quirky videos were notable for a clear and concerted effort to only cast black women (save for Anna Nicole Smith in “The New Workout Plan,” though she was there to be ridiculed). That was a bold and significant decision from a guy penetrating the mainstream with conscious hip-hop values. The “All Falls Down” clip featured model/actress Stacey Dash, nearly a decade after her breakthrough in Clueless; her appearance had an anti-ageist quality to it, too, and furthermore, she’s a legitimate character in the video (West’s love interest), not a conventional “video girl” (that is to say, the kind Lily Allen feels comfortable mocking, or mocking to mock hip-hop, or whatever she was trying to do with “Hard Out Here”).
For Late Registration‘s “Touch the Sky,” Kanye cast Pamela Anderson — the white, blonde babe-above-all-other-babes for a certain generation of American males — as his love interest, though that ends with two black women (played by Nia Long and Tracee Ellis Ross) angrily confronting West: “I told you when he gets on, he’s gonna leave your ass for a white girl. You want a Barbie?” Fitting of Kanye’s contrarian career, it was a shift in values, even something of a heel turn, but also a way of shaking away the codes of the underground just a year or so after he attempted to smuggle them into the mainstream.
What followed over his next three albums were disturbing, often vengeful presentations of women. Graduation‘s “Flashing Lights” found Kanye tied up in a trunk and stabbed with a shovel by lingerie-clad model Rita G, a wrathful take on the “video girl.” It’s as if Kanye is being killed for hip-hop’s misogynist sins. 808s & Heartbreak‘s “Paranoid” presented Rihanna as some kind of hybrid between a wraith out of gothic literature and a crime-movie femme fatale (dashes of Sin City neo noir abound), placing Kanye’s distrust of women in a larger history of problematic portrayals. Then there’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s “Monster,” a video full of dead and dismembered models posed in provocative positions. It’s not entirely successful, but he seemed to be trying to reduce hip-hop’s use and abuse of female bodies to absurdity. (I wrote more about all that here.)
If Kanye were simply out to make typically exploitative videos, he has taken the most obtuse and scenic route possible. These clips speak to the way he wrestles with rap’s messy value system and attempts an album-to-album snapshot of how he feels. This is what rap does best: It allows for two opposing ideas to exist at the same time, and creates semi-coherent art out of that tension. Even by pop standards, rap can be aggressively temporal and in-the-moment, and Kanye’s found a way to turn hip-hop’s flighty qualities into public, personal-is-political introspection.
Here, it also seems important to note, especially so close to that recent Lily Allen debate, that rap videos, even of the lecherous sort, cannot be simply dismissed as “exploitation.” Even an aggressively anti-hip-hop writer like Stanley Crouch has conceded that rap music has allowed for a wider understanding of female beauty: “The national appreciation of full, round buttocks is not only new, but may be the only significant cultural contribution to come out of rap,” he wrote in his 2005 book The Artificial White Man. Though we should also note Tina Fey’s observation, from her memoir Bossy Pants, that all rap-video culture really did was “add to the laundry list of attributes one must have to qualify as beautiful,” including “a Jamaican dance hall ass,” “the hips of a nine year old boy,” “the arms of Michelle Obama,” and “doll tits”; she also notes that “the person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”
Which brings us back to the “Bound 2” video. It stars and dotes on Kardashian, a figure of constant public ridicule, and affords her a knowingness she doesn’t get to display very often. Why is she someone to mock, exactly? Because she’s on a reality-television show? Because she’s had plastic surgery? Because she made a sex tape? In 2013, why would any of these things be objectionable? Notice how Kanye and Kim are on equal footing (or close to it: Kardashian is topless, though it seems like it’s only a matter of time before we get a John-and-Yoko-style photoshoot with those two), and as a result, Kanye seems more implicated in the crazy concept, not above it.
So sure, he’s winking here a little, daring viewers to take this thing seriously – especially those fucking-on-the-bike shots – and adjusting a certain kind of CMT Americana (John Ford landscapes spruced up with CGI; horses running like they’re in a beer commercial) until it feels uncomfortably sincere. But if “Bound 2” is in part a song about transcending all the bullshit in our lives and falling in love, no matter how corny that shit might look from the outside (especially if you’re a scowling art-rapper like circa-2013 ‘Ye), then give him credit for turning his entire tasteful aesthetic into something corny and easy to clown, and daring viewers to clown him. For once, Kardashian, who seems pretty self-aware, gets to be in on the joke. Hell, she’s the inspiration for this guard-down clip.
The “Bound 2” video is a pretty bad idea seen through so completely that it stops being a bad idea. To suggest that it’s merely a ridiculous mess is to miss the point. And at an ARTPOP moment when Rihanna’s cribbing moves wholesale from Tumblr irony, Gaga’s slumming it with chintz-master Jeff Koons, and one half of Tim and Eric is directing out-there obnoxious videos for Diplo, Kanye’s full-stop embrace of computerized ridiculousness — and the big, stupid, embarrassing, uncool feeling of being in love — is admirable. He’s putting himself out there, which is what you do when you’re in head-over-heels, doin’-it-on-a-motorcycle love, right? “Bound 2” is the heartening end result of Kanye’s decade of bumpy, somewhat progressive music videos, questioning the video-girl role and adjusting the mores of female representation in hip-hop. Let’s hope he works more of that into his actual raps.