Imma Let You Finish But Kanye West Is One of the Least Video-Driven Pop Icons of All Time
It was inevitable that someday Yeezus would earn the Video Vanguard award, but are his clips up to snuff?
Rarely is an artist’s career as defined by so many facets as Kanye West’s: his singles have topped the charts, his albums have routinely steamrolled critics’ polls, and his interruptions — of awards shows, telethons, you name it — have permanently engraved him in pop culture. Visual presence, by his own admission, is a huge part of his art; as of August 2015 we know a lot more about his objectives for breaking into the fashion industry than what his next album will be like. And his album covers are unlike anyone else in rap, particularly how his face doesn’t appear on any of them, unless you count the two crudest options for 2010 landmark My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
So why does it feel so unusual to receive the news that West will be presented with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award (hopefully by Taylor Swift) at the MTV Video Music Awards this Sunday evening? Maybe because videos had less to do with Kanye West’s icon status than Michael Jackson, Madonna, Nirvana, Lady Gaga, or Eminem. It’s totally possible that we’re just feeling the effects of his being merely the first superstar of the post-MTV era; Drake will likely receive this award in five-ten years himself and his clips have even less to do with his public image. Kanye has mastered other social media; before more or less retiring from Twitter he was the most vital musician to follow on it.
Combined, Kanye still has more memorable videos than almost anyone else to debut in his shadow: following Stacey Dash all the way through an airport, x-ray and all, in 2004’s “All Falls Down,” the eerie distant murder of 2007’s “Flashing Lights” (whose menacing glacial pace is closer to Radiohead’s Orwellian “Karma Police” clip than anything), swiping Justice’s kaleidoscopic typography for “The Good Life.” The 40-minute “short film” for 2010’s “Runaway” certainly strove for “Thriller”-level immortality, but 2010 MTV is very different from 1983 MTV, and 40 minutes are very different from 14. The austere, side-scrolling crawl of 2012’s “Mercy” deserved more attention than it got, and the strobe-torso “Black Skinhead” clip presaged the more abstract, body-horror likes of Arca and FKA twigs.
But the closest that any of Kanye’s clips has come to defining him, the way “Thriller” did for Jackson or “Single Ladies” for Beyoncé, is 2007’s “Stronger,” merely for the shutter shades he wears in the video. And even that video itself is far less remembered than his then-revolutionary Grammy performance with Daft Punk. His second-most memorable clip might be, um, “Bound 2?” You know, his much-parodied, horses-and-green-screens video valentine to his equally famous wife?
Thing is, Kanye might ultimately be a reluctant fit for a format he might just think himself too big for, just like how his last album treated the physical CD medium like a skeleton to be picked clean. His preferred theater isn’t the tiny letterbox of YouTube but projecting his visage onto city buildings. He’ll take the MTV award and anything else you’ve got. But don’t be surprised if his preferred premiere for the purported, upcoming SWISH is like, beaming it into strategically scattered 3-D printers around the world or something.
My personal favorite Kanye video is the “alternate” clip for “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’,” in which Zach Galifianakis (who I normally despise) and the oddly star-connected Will Oldham(!) mean-mug while mouthing the song in a farm setting; the overall non-sequitur effect is not unlike that of Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise.” Kanye himself commissioned the thing; he doesn’t appear in it at all. Perhaps his relatively modest, or at least artsy, approach to music video is why he’s earning this prize. Maybe it does have a hand in why he’s so major, and for a reason few would ascribe to a man who once credited a song as “featuring God”: his restraint.