Episode 1: Don't Believe the Hype

Hi all. This is my first newsletter, but rather than doing a lengthy introduction (yet), we’re just gonna jump right into the ~amateur video analysis~

If you’ve watched music videos at any point since 1991, especially R&B or hip-hop videos, you’re almost guaranteed to have seen a Hype Williams project. “Can It Be All So Simple.” “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” “Gold Digger.” “Drunk in Love.” He directed all of these and more–literally hundreds more. When it comes to music videos, he’s the GOAT. Except when he isn’t, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Hype’s videos carry a bold style that also rarely takes itself too seriously. (Except occasionally in that R&B-crooner-slightly-creepy-“oh-please-will-you-get-on-dis-dick” type of way.) While his stylistic identity may appear contradictory–a visual artiste who casually compares his film shoots to Hearts of Darkness, and a shrewd marketer for some of the most famous people in the world–the duality works in his favor. He’s neither a surrealist like Michel Gondry, nor as conceptually inventive as Spike Jonze, but he’s also not as commercially raunchy as Dave Meyers, the only other major-label video director who’s managed to stick it out for 25+ years. Rather, the best Hype productions are slick machines that roughly mimic whatever substance or emotion best suits the music: alcohol, joy, weed, horniness, molly, heartbreak.

You could call his style “flamboyant,” as many have, full of manic energy and a propensity for avant-garde weirdness that won’t spoil a party atmosphere. (Consider that he was hired to direct the film adaptation of Speed Racer, until he left the project and the Wachowskis took over.) But this is why Hype was such a good match for people like Missy Elliott and Timbaland in the late ‘90s: Like every iconic music video, a good Hype Williams project enhances the song with its visuals, attentively crafting its own one-of-a-kind look that somehow perfectly fits the song’s existing mood, too, whether that be playful, sensual, meditative, or just plain goofy.

But whereas many of Hype’s contemporaries–say, Dave Meyers–achieve this mainly through video content (raunchy humor and shenanigans, or just all-caps ENERGY), Hype has made a name for himself through aesthetics, tinkering with a wide variety of signature styles, gimmicks, and visual tricks over his career. During the height of his career, if he found a particular camera filter or post-production effect that he enjoyed, he’d apply it to a dozen videos–several years’ worth of shoots–until he got bored with it or recognized that video aesthetics are evolving. Then he’d move onto a new style, leaving a once-definitive characteristic of his oeuvre in the past. Think Picasso, but for fisheye lenses and dissolves.

Around 2005, Hype began experimenting with what I jokingly (sorry) refer to as (sorry) “the Bar Method.” In these videos, he’ll place “master” shots in a widescreen ratio at the center of the frame, while secondary shots are “split” between the upper and lower letterbox bars onscreen. It turns a widescreen-ratio video into a 4:3 “square”/Academy ratio one, and also makes for one jarring split screen effect: one moving image, split into top and bottom halves, borders a second moving image in the middle of the screen.

At first, Hype kept this effect sleek and modest; his black-and-white video for Queen Latifah’s “Simply Beautiful,” featuring Al Green, made mirrors out of the letterbox bars, evoking the reflections on the surface of a grand piano. That later turned into this, and this, and this, and even this, a video that becomes only slightly less (more?) insane when you learn that it was originally made to promote The Pink Panther. In the Bar Method’s later iterations, t.A.T.u. rips off “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Ne-Yo weeps at a ski resort. LL Cool J is surrounded by fire and repeatedly sings “freeze” and, as if by biblical design, the video freezes. The possibilities are endless–or at least they were endless until the end of 2006.

But in that gloriously fruitful two-year span, Hype directed over a dozen videos with variations on this one effect. Some of them are messy; the cuts that existed in the bordering bars didn’t always sync up properly with the ones in the central bar, sometimes not even falling on the beat. (In all other instances, the editing in Hype’s videos is impeccably precise, not just where he cuts but how he chooses to make either a hard cut or a dissolve.) This sometimes makes watching them a disorienting, unpleasant experience. But especially in “So Sick,” “Check On It,” and this delightful video for Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers” (a prototype for Hype’s seizure-inducing “All of the Lights”), the top and bottom bars accessorize the action in the center frame without pulling viewers’ attention. It feels like Hype is engulfing you in the song’s very essence, which is all you can really ask for from a decadent pop vid.

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All of this is to say that the latest Hype video, for Nicki Minaj, is hot garbage.

When I first saw the video for “Bed,” which features Ariana Grande, I immediately assumed it was a Hype Williams wannabe who directed it, not the man himself. Part of the reason why I felt the need to contextualize so much of Hype’s career before bringing up this video is so you can see just how phoned in it is.

These thirst trap shots on the beach? Phoned in!

These “Bar Method” shots that not only look dated as hell, but don’t really say anything besides “hey look, both Nicki AND Ariana are here”? Phoned in!

These Beats and Lyft product placements, smacked onto the video like a Soundcloud rapper’s promo sticker in a dive bar bathroom? Phoned in!

This knockoff Justin Bieber? Phoned in! (Also, seriously, Nicki, you can do better. Ariana….don’t get me started.)

These night shots in the waves? Done before (by Hype!), and phoned in! “Bed” has all the artistic innovation of a horny Sandals ad, and is only a fraction as entertaining. “Chicken of the sea,” indeed.

Now, this isn’t Hype’s only return to the format, post 2006. He’s been a little inactive the past few years (read: directing 2-3 vids a year, instead of 8 or 10 or 20), but the two videos he directed in 2017, Tyga and Desiigner’s “Gucci Snakes” and Dice Soho’s “Giraffe,” both make use of the letterbox bars. But unlike “Bed,” the use of the effect in the two other videos doesn’t suggest Hype trying to cover up mistakes, i.e. “Oh, I don’t have enough shots of the two singers together, so I’m just going to splitscreen them in.” “Gucci Snakes” and “Giraffe” utilize the effect to envelop the viewer in each video’s world–its strobe-lit, oversaturated, neon ecstacy-laden, zoological world. The splitscreen is not the world itself, but merely a vessel, a vehicle, for….shots like...this.

And...this.

[deep sigh] But hey! It’s not boring.

The final point I’ll make is that my heavy interest in Hype Williams’ career, and specifically in this one technique, stems from my fascination with how music videos reflect visual culture at large. Whether this was intentional on his part or not, Hype’s original use of the bar method back in ‘05-’06 bears some resemblance to the early layouts of YouTube: disparate, horizontal elements starkly laid out in an aggressively monotone design, with widescreen video formats having to be squeezed into what was, at the time, a 4:3 ratio video player. Notably, the “related videos” column on the side of the page guaranteed that as you were watching one video, there was always another that you’d be seeing out of the corner of your eye. Music videos wouldn’t become commonplace on YouTube until 2008-2009 (shouts to Vevo), but with the rapid decline of videos being played on television in the early-mid 2000s, producers and record labels were looking for new distribution methods for their work at the same time that Hype was directing these seemingly web-inspired clips.

In ⅔ of Hype’s latest returns to this aesthetic, the result has been twice as fast-paced, twice as energetic, twice as oversaturated, which to me is telling given how the speed of the internet (literally and figuratively) has increased over the past decade. When Hype’s bar method works, it accurately mimics the online visual culture that we’re living in and how it’s evolved. To attempt to make it slower, as “Bed” does, would only be turning back time.

P.S. If anyone knows why there are two separate edits of “Bed” (???) involving two different directors (???) and only one of them has been released (???), then drop me a line.

Videos to share:

Since this is the first newsletter, you’re getting A LOT of links from videos that have dropped within the past couple of months. I’m also going to try and include 1 or 2 “classic” videos with each newsletter.

Mitski, “Nobody” (dir. Christopher Good): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qooWnw5rEcI

Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse” (dir. Hannah Lux Davis): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbNDJRwXKGc

Lizzo, “Boys” (dir. Quinn Wilson and Andy Madeleine): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQliEKPg1Qk

Kamasi Washington, “Street Fighter Mas” (dir. AG Rojas): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdyabrdFMC8

Young Thug ft. Lil Uzi Vert, “Up” (dir. Millicent Hailes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSAAGrnZt8Q

Awkwafina, “Pockiez” (dir. Kris Merc): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsSre22qito

Snail Mail, “Heat Wave” (dir. Brandon Herman): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d91Qn8QUks

Bad Bunny, “Estamos Bien” (dir. Bad Bunny, Tainy & Young Paci): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcHTl9h7TWI

Classic video: MC 900ft Jesus, “If I Only Had a Brain” (dir. Spike Jonze, 1994): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA-AvBjBm5k

Links to share:

a Pitchfork interview with the choreographer of “APESHIT”

if you’d like to hear more from Hype Williams about his career and his influences, he did an hour-long interview with Red Bull Academy last month

That’s all for now! If you have feedback, questions, comments, tips, etc., please direct them ClaireShafferVevo at gmail dot com. And feel free to forward this email, share on social media, and encourage your friends to subscribe! We’ll be back next week with more vids. •