Music video commentaries (8): Solange, Earl Sweatshirt, Tierra Whack

Solange, When I Get Home (Solange, 2019)

This extended video, or short film, accompanies Solange’s album of the same title. The music can perhaps be described as jazz-inflected soul; it is unusually fragmentary for a major album release, with bits and pieces of songs, riffs, samples, and bass lines weaving in and out. The music, and especially the lyrics, work to portray African American life and culture in Solange’s home town of Houston, Texas.

The video includes most of the music from the album, and inherits the music’s fragmentary structure. Solange is the overall director, but she also credits a number of co-directors: Terence Nance (director of the film An Overestimation of Her Beauty, and co-creator of the TV series Random Acts of Flyness), Alan Ferguson (Solange’s ex-husband; we have already seen some of his videos for Janelle Monáe and for Beyoncé), Jacolby Satterwhite (a multimedia visual artist who did the animated sequence of When I Get Home), Ray Tintori (who has directed music videos for MGMT, Arcade Fire, and other bands), Autumn Knight (a multimedia performance artist), and Robert Pruitt (a visual artist based in Houston). As this list indicates, Solange works with an eclectic group of collaborators, including people from the art world as well as from music and film.

All in all, this video is a lot more abstract – and therefore harder to talk about – than most of what we have seen over the course of the semester. Solange is more interested in moods and patterns than she is in telling a story. We do see some fascinating iconography in the course of the video: I am thinking especially of the African American cowboys, people who really existed and still exist, but have been largely written out of history and of such contemporary manifestations as the rodeo. One of Solange’s goals is clearly to rescue this forgotten history, and to show the role of black people in Texas (especially Houston) in all areas of history and culture. The video is shot at locations ranging from the downtown Houston skyscrapers to the homes of the Third Ward, the mostly African American neighborhood in Houston where Solange and her sister Beyoncé grew up, to rural settings,including that circular arena where a lot of the dancing takes place.

Although there are lots of shots of Solange by herself, much of the dancing is ensemble-oriented. There are many groups of dancers executing repeated patterns. Moving around in a circle is an especially prominent motif; lines of people moving in opposite directions is another. The film, like the album, is intercut with casual scenes from everyday life. There are also a lot of still shots, both of Solange, and of the dancers and of other Houstonians.

Solange, Cranes in the Sky and Don’t Touch My Hair, (both Solange and Alan Ferguson, 2016)

These two videos are both from Solange’s previous album, A Seat at the Table. Cranes in the Sky is a melancholy song about loss and trying to dull the pain. The video is an extraordinary series of shots of Solange in striking architectural or landscape settings. Sometimes she is alone, at other times she is with one or a number of other black women dancers. These figures in their surroundings almost form tableaus; the movement of the dancing is subtle and restrained, and nearly always in place.

Don’t Touch My Hair is similarly musically gentle and restrained in its dance movements. But it is fuller (less minimal) than Cranes in the Sky, and restricted to architectural settings. Sometimes Solange is close to the camera, but other times we see her from a good distance, and sometimes from above. In the chorus, Solange duets (in both singing and dancing) with Sampha, an interesting singer/performer/composer in his own right. You can also check out Sampha’s beautiful video for his own song (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano (Jamie-James Medina, 2017).

Solange, Sandcastle Disco (Solange, 2008)

This is a much earlier song and video by Solange. It isn’t as artistically nuanced as her later work, but I love it for its evocation of Motown, and its playful, ultra-low-budget special effects (Solange on the turntable and on the various instruments, and with the Warhol soup cans; the multiplication of her figure; the rainbows and stars and notes and balloons; and especially, for some reason, the elephant in the background at the end).

Earl Sweatshirt, Chum (Hiro Murai, 2013) and Grief (Hiro Murai, 2015

Earl Sweatshirt (legal name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile) was originally part of the Odd Future crew, which also included such subsequently successful artists as Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, and Syd the Kid.

Chum is a bleak and negative song, with its autobiographical details and its recurring refrain “Something sinister to it.” The video matches this bleakness; it is shot at night, and everything is dark. There are lots of closeups of Earl as he raps; often he is just backlit so we can’t see his face very clearly despite how close we are. There are also times when the camera tilts, and sequence where the street behind Earl is upside down (actually, according to an interview with Murai, the sequence was shot with Earl himself hanging upside down, and then the image was inverted). Sometimes Earl’s face briefly transforms into a skeleton mask; we also see shots of the drummer, from behind, wearing an inverted skeleton suit. The shots of the nighttime street are sometimes surreal, as when a grocery cart in flames passes by. There are also images of a frog croaking (including one where it seems to be enormous, and fillng the street). Murai says, in the interview already cited, that “my least favorite thing on the planet is when we release a video and blogs have a synopsis of what happens, because to me what happens in the video isn’t really the point. It’s more of a tone thing, or you should just experience it in conjunction with the music.” So we shouldn’t think that the frog, or the sight of Earl floating, means something specific; for Murai, “yes, that happens in the video, but it isn’t what it’s about.” To my mind, the point is always to figure out the rhythms and the emotions of the video; that is what I am trying to do here.

Grief is another downbeat song, in which Earl raps about his difficulties (with alcohol and drug addiction among other things), and his efforts to escape them. Earl raps over a grinding, sludgy, repetitive riff. “I just want my time and my mind intact/ When they both gone, you can’t buy ’em back.” The video is shot with a thermal imaging (infrared) camera; images from such devices are usually converted to false color, but Murai renders it all in black and white. The result is to give everything a murky and unreal air, as if we were in a ghost world. We see Earl sitting on a couch and smoking a blunt, sometimes in extreme closeup, and other times from far away so that he seems isolated in the darkness. We also see other people looming like ghosts in the distance, and a woman who dives into a pool and then emerges with water dripping down her face. There are also images of a snake (Earl raps at one point, “all I see is snakes in the eyes of these n****s”), and flashes of heat from the flames of a stove or of Earl’s lighter. Murai gives some details on the making of the video here: “I wanted the whole video to feel like you’re wading through black oil… The song has a thick, mucky production, so a lot of the specifics of the video derived from that.”

Earl Sweatshirt, Nowhere Nobody (Naima Ramos-Chapman and Terence Nance, 2019)

This is an experimental short film, built around fragments of songs from Earl Sweatshirt’s album Some Rap Songs. Ramos-Chapman and Nance are the creators of the amazing Afrocentric TV series Random Acts of Flyness (originally on HBO; also viewable on Amazon, Apple and other streaming services; it is definitely worth checking out). The video is enigmatic, though Ramos-Chapman gives some indications about what it is doing here. I notice the contrasts between motion and stillness, as well as between documentary footage and fiction (including surreal images of blood leaking from the ceiling), and between life (people, plants) and art (the statues). We see Earl coaching a teenaged basketball team; we see him sitting in his bathtub; though most of the sound is asynchronous, we see him lip-syncing a bit as well. There are references to his late father (a South African poet and anti-apartheid activist), and appearances by his mother (Cheryl Harris, a law professor). The video is also filled with shots of white plaster(or ceramic? I’m not sure) statues, mostly busts and hands (the busts are of black people; the contrast of white and black is another one of the film’s dualities). At one point, we see a black man with white painted over much of his body so that he resembles a statue. At another point, we see a casket entirely filled with statue hands. Earl and others perform tasks (like clearing vegetation off the statues) with white plaster hands that they hold in their own hands. There is also a strange mirror scene, in which Earl is doubled and mimicked by a female lookalike, LaDiamond Blue. All in all, the images are both quite definite and sparse; the video is composed of contrasts, but there is no single key to what it all means.

Tierra Whack, Mumbo Jumbo (Marco Prestini, 2017) and Unemployed (Cat Solen, 2019)

Tierra Whack is a young rapper from Philadelphia. Both of these videos offer us horror movie themes: grotesque to the point of queasiness, but also kind of funny. Mumbo Jumbo contains very few words; for the most part, Whack is just rapping nonsense phrases over the slow, hypnotic riff that grounds the song. The song has been taken as a parody of so-called “mumble rap,” though Whack has denied this. The video portrays a visit to the dentist, which was perhaps suggested by the song’s non-words (when the dentist is doing things in your mouth, you cannot really speak articulately). The video works by means of the tension between how creepy everything is, and yet how formally static (and even stilted) its look is. Everything is symmetrical, and there is a careful minimalistic color scheme (mostly white, with contrasting red). The dentist and assistant, the receptionist, and the waiting patients, are either slow-moving or entirely motionless. Even the grossest details (the drippling blood, the gigantic cockroach) look carefully designed, and carefully placed in the frame. The result of the dentistry – the impossibly broad smile – is almost nauseating to look at; and this is only accentuated at the end of the video, when Whack emerges into a post-apocalyptic landscape in which all the derelicts and sick people have the exact same hyper-smile. The video is reminiscent of some of the earlier films of David Cronenberg (and even more of teh 2012 film Viral by Cronenberg’s son Brandon Cronenberg).

If Mumbo Jumbo makes you never want to go back to the dentist, Unemployed may make you hesitate before you eat a potato ever again. How do you feel, as a chef or a server, already trapped in a position of servitude, when the food talks back to you? Low-budget animations are enough to make this creepily hilarious.

Tierra Whack also recently released a self-made coronavirus quarantine video, #STUCK, based on a song by Alanis Morrisette, but with Whack’s new lyrics. It is quite charming and you can find it here.

Tierra Whack, Whack World (Thibaut Duverneix, 2018)

This is Tierra Whack’s first album: 15 songs, each a minute long, and each with its own video. The individual songs and videos are this length because that is the time limit for videos posted on Instagram; but in addition to placing each of the separately on Instagram, Whack posted the entire album as a suite on YouTube and other platforms. The whole set makes for a dazzling experience; it hangs together, even though each song displays a different mood, and features Tierra Whack in different clothes and hairstyles. All in all, it is a kind of virtuoso display, ranging from depression to exultation, and from segments where we only see her fashion nails, or her face swollen by her allergic reaction to insect bites, to a mini-exercise video and one where she stares at the camera through a complicated apparatus of distorting lenses. I will not say more here, because I wrote and published an entire essay on Whack World, which is open access and downloadable here.