- Text Hillit Wahlberg
- Images Noa Snir
- Date February 18, 2018
- Est Read time 5 min
The music world kicked off 2018 with a huge nod to hip hop and R&B with a complete takeover of the Grammy Awards. The old claim that the Recording Academy doesn’t reflect the real state of music today was fueled further by the 2015 controversy behind Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ win over Beyonce’s self titled album. Three years later, and among the five nominees for Album of the Year were three hip hop performers: Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino. And though Bruno Mars was the official winner of the night, the mere presence of these three in this category, as opposed to the usual exile to Rap only categories, is an impressive achievement. Not to mention, Kendrick Lamar’s standing ovation worthy performance.
Kendrick’s performance at the Grammys
Though the Grammys celebrate outstanding achievements in the music industry, these three artists represent much more than that. They personify the new kind of music artist that has everything to do with the culture that cultivated them. More than a genre of music, hip hop started out as a movement consisting of four elements: the DJ, the one that plays the beat; the MC, the one who raps or rhymes; B-boys or B-girls, the breakdancers who add their sense of style to the mix; and the art of graffiti deals with aesthetics, originality and rebellion. The fifth element, that was introduced by Afrika Bambaataa and The Zulu Nation in the late 90’s, is knowledge – the glue that holds the artistic elements of hip hop.
That holistic approach allowed this genre to transcend into a movement. Its definition as a culture or a way of life is what elevates music today into a multidisciplinary art form that other creatives, like designers, should strive to learn from. This idea can be viewed in all three nominees’ recent work and in particular, the way their visual style complements, in some cases even completes, their music.
Jay-Z’s art of mixing ideas
Jay-Z’s recent album, 4:44, is an excellent case study in that sense. Each track on the album was followed by a music video, which was more of a short film that completed the idea in the track. For example, the Nina Simone-sampled song, ‘The Story of O.J.’ stands alone as an essay about the life of a black artist in America. But it is the collaboration with director, Mark Romanek, that elevated the song into an idea that is even bigger. The choice to reference the 1920’s animation style of the racist minstrel show didn’t just reflect the original song, it actually complemented its message. So did the nod of Jay’s character in the video, Jaybo, to the children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo that perpetuates African-American stereotype in kids’ literature.
Watch the video for The Story of O.J.
Another example of a fruitful collaboration is with the video for ‘Moonlight’. Though the song is a little over two minutes, the seven-minute video directed by Master of None’s co-creator, Alan Yang, is a meta commentary on black representation in the media, as well as a statement about artistic ownership. The reference to the Academy Awards’ notorious incident with Jay’s lyrics: “We stuck in La La Land / Even when we win, we gon’ lose” is also the essence of hip hop’s remix culture, that goes far beyond the lyrics to make important statements and to mix ideas.
Watch Moonlight Short Film
To top all that off, Jay-Z released a footnote video for many of the short films that was styled as a series of artsy mini-documentaries, each touching a relevant topic in the lives of men of color in America – from childhood, to relationships with fathers, to communication with significant others, to personal growth. This also puts Jay-Z’s album, a complete piece on it’s own, side by side with his wife’s earlier release ‘Lemonade’ as a complete statement about the state of African American culture from both the male and female point of view.
Kendrick Lamar’s way of collaborating
On his album ‘Damn.’ as well on his live performances, Kendrick Lamar uses collaborations with other artists from multiple disciplines to form one cohesive idea, and the video for ‘Element’ is the epitome of that. Whether it’s collaboration with his Top Dawg Entertainment crew or director Jonas Lindstroem, Kendrick’s choice of collaborations resonates as something bigger than just a song. It dives into Kendrick’s life, starting with the violence he endured as part of his upbringing as a child. The choice to collaborate with Lindstroem, a fashion photographer and filmmaker from Berlin, is another example of how the visual concept turns the song into a new type of creation. On ‘Element’, Lindstrom recreated images from the short film he directed, ‘Truth or Dare’, which was shown first as an installation at the Johann König Galerie in Berlin.
Watch Truth or Dare
“Truth or Dare is an elevated version of the content found on mobile phones”, Lindstroem explained in an interview. “The project serves as a subjective commentary on the now” and his slow-moving style of creation captures a moment in the context of its environment. In ‘Element’ it’s translated to the violent environment Kendrick is referring to in the song by capturing images of violence in slow motion: a group fight shot on a phone, a man being drowned, a child practicing a fight with his father. All of these moments are edited in a fast pace leaving us, the viewers, to truly feel that violent cycle and the conflicted emotions that follow.
Watch the video for Element
Within these moments in the video lies a nod to another multidisciplinary artist, the late photographer, musician, writer and filmmaker, Gordon Parks, who became prominent documenting the civil rights movement while shining a light on the lives of the people involved. In the video, Kendrick is directly referencing the shots taken by Parks, making him another collaborator on this project.
The references of Gordon Parks in Element
Childish Gambino’s multidisciplinary artistry
In the case of Donald Glover A.K.A, Childish Gambino, his artistry as a whole – on TV and in music – demonstrates multidisciplinary thinking, creating and existing. The way he actively (and inactively) shatters stereotypical expectations of what a rapper should sound like or what a TV show should look like is as itself a 101 course on creative thinking. His album, Awaken, My Love!, showcases the art of mixing, paying tribute, referencing, collaborating and eventually, changing the game. His tribute to Funkadelic, starting with the cover art reference and ending with his embrace of the 70’s funk, soul, R&B and rock, turned the album into a new standalone piece of art.
Childish Gambino’s live performance of Redbone
The hip hop way of creating
All three artists live, breathe and create with hip hop on their DNA. Their music never stands alone but accompanied, sometimes becoming completed by visuals, ideas, movement and knowledge. Their holisticness can be transformed into a set of values that might serve as guidelines while approaching any creative process. The art of mixing, for example, doesn’t have to stop with two turntables. Collecting references is an important part of the creative process and mixing it with your own perspective or with several ideas at once, often generates a fresh take. References don’t have to exist in your field of work, and just like Kendrick’s relationship with photography or Jay-Z’s cinematic flare, your reference could come from any media or field.
Collaborating is a core value in hip hop, where no artist creates on his own. There’s always the producer, the director, or even the tour manager to inspire and teach. Learning from your environment is one thing, but forcing yourself to collaborate on your own project will expose you to someone else’s methods, thoughts and ideas. Sometime it’ll force you to create in response, rather to start from scratch. Other times it might just force you to bring your A game to the craft table. Honoring someone else’s work might make you invest more in details; taking your creation to the social arena might also compliment your intent. A project without a social presence isn’t complete nowadays, but switching back and forth from URL to IRL might shine differently on your work.
The most important thing about the three artists above, is the extreme levels of authenticity they demonstrate in everything they do, but in particular, the work on their latest albums. Jay-Z’s 4:44 is an exposed nerve, aching with honesty and truthfulness. It’s probably one of the most real albums he’s ever created. Kendrick’s Damn. is so straightforward in its depiction yet remains symbolic at the same time, and for Gambino, Awaken, My Love! was as personal as it gets. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is good advice in life, but even better in your work. Put some of yourself in the work that you do and make it your own, in ownership and in the stamp that you leave on it. In a culture that celebrates ‘keepin’ it real’, it might be a good place to start.