By drawing from a tradition of outrageous videos that includes Ludacris and Missy Elliott, Kanye West is trying to tell a different story about himself
Last Friday, while serving as creative director at the debut Pornhub Awards, Kanye West premiered the music video for “I Love It,” a collaboration with rapper Lil Pump that also features comedian Adele Givens.
The bizarre visual became an instant meme: The images of West and Lil Pump in oversized, blocky bodysuits, made to look like blown-up and stretched-out versions of their respective wardrobes, drew comparisons to the Lego-like character designs in the online RPG Roblox. (West himself later acknowledged the resemblance on Twitter.) To call this video the next “APESHIT” or “This Is America” would be laughable. But when it comes to music videos based around this breed of doofy, surrealist comedy, it’s clear from social-media chatter that “I Love It” struck a Twitter nerve way more than, say, Migos and Drake’s recent disco spoof “Walk It Talk It.”
Spike Jonze is credited as an executive producer on “I Love It,” his fourth video project with West after “Flashing Lights,” “Otis,” and “Only One.” (West and Amanda Adelson, who has produced shorts for Jonze in the past, are listed as co-directors.) Yet it’s a notable departure from their previous work together: “Only One” is a stripped-down, tender ode to West’s daughter; “Otis” is pure stunting, a Maybach filled with models and the grinning mugs of West and JAY-Z; and “Flashing Lights” is grim murder fantasy in which you can practically smell the leather and gasoline. On the other hand, “I Love It” is just two guys in marshmallow suits tiptoeing after Givens like stray, horny puppies. And if it evokes any past work in Jonze’s catalog, it’s not one of his West collaborations -- it’s Jonze’s classic 2004 video for Ludacris’ “Get Back.”
For those who haven’t watched the video in, say, 14 years, here’s a brief refresher: Luda enters a public restroom, his hands and forearms swollen to such a cartoonish degree that he looks like Popeye. He goes up to pee, then gets cornered at the urinal by the rapper Fatlip from The Pharcyde, who tries to pitch various business ventures to him. Eventually Luda snaps, starts beating Fatlip up with his gargantuan fists and then bounces around the latrine to the song, with all the fire and energy of a WWE promo. He then leaves the restroom and marches through the streets, accompanied by what appears to be an all-women biker gang, decked out in pink-checkered skirts with matching blazers and newsboy caps.
So why would Kanye West invoke this Ludacris video in 2018? (Or for that matter, why would Lil Pump, who was only four years old the year “Get Back” premiered and The College Dropout was released?) Consider that “Get Back,” though an instantly iconic piece of art, was just one in a wave of videos in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that featured, among other qualities, larger-than-life setpieces and boisterous absurdity. Ludacris was central to the movement, as was Missy Elliott. During the same era, West began to make a name for himself as a producer and, eventually, a rapper and lyricist. Looking at what these videos accomplished and said about the artists who made them offers insight into West’s latest creative vision -- especially because his ties to these videos go as far back as when they were first premiering on MTV.
A year before “Get Back,” Ludacris released “Stand Up,” whose video was directed by Dave Meyers and features a cameo from West, who also co-produced the track. In “Stand Up,” there’s a recurring motif of comically oversized objects: a giant beer bottle, a giant shoe that Luda stomps to amp up the crowd, a giant chicken drumstick, a giant afro atop Luda’s head. In other moments, video extras randomly fly into the air as though lifted up by a wire, a trick that Luda would later reuse in “Get Back.”
These goofy laws of physics are some of the stranger and more mesmerizing aspects of Ludacris’s output in the early 2000s, but the mix of dumb comedy and visual spectacle was an effective way for Luda to establish his creative identity early on in his career. At a time when artists like The Clipse and 50 Cent were reinventing the gangsta rap subgenre, Ludacris was making explicit party music. His videos reflected that message, but they added another layer to Luda’s persona: As much as they were about getting rowdy and having a good time, the over-the-top visual gags were purposely confrontational. They were bizarre and challenging and made you wonder what the hell Ludacris was getting at, all while the beats and Luda’s vocals encouraged you to hit the club.
And then, of course, there’s Missy Elliott. One look at Elliott’s trash-bag suit from 1997’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” and you can immediately draw a direct line to Kanye and Pump’s outlandishly boxy button-ups. But just as crucial as the trash bag, the highlighter-bright outfits and the stilted dance moves of Elliott and her friends was the unconventional way that legendary director Hype Williams chose to shoot them: through a highly exaggerated fish-eye lens that became his trademark for several years afterward. It literally bended the reality of the video to make what could’ve been slightly quirky, relatively straightforward physical comedy into something far more enigmatic -- and more engaging. In “I Love It,” the endless hallway of naked mannequin dolls serves a similar purpose; there’s no point in trying to force real-world logic onto the video when it’s presented in such a setting that has no real-world equivalent.
It wouldn’t be a stretch, given Kanye’s recent artistic outputs ("Lift Yourself") and MAGA-fueled rhetoric about how slavery was a choice (which he later apologized for), among other things, to label “I Love It” and its video as “trolling.” As Sheldon Pearce noted in his Pitchfork review of “I Love It,” the song’s lyrics contain the same “pervy energy” as Kanye’s earlier single “XTCY,” in which he expressed horniness for all four of his Kardashian sisters-in-law.
But there’s reason to believe that “I Love It” is more than just an attempt at shock value. West addresses the song’s subject as a “fucking hoe,” but in the video, as Givens towers over a shrunk-down West and Pump and shoots scalding glances in their direction, the epithet-laden refrain comes across as more self-effacing for the two men than denigrating to her. And when West later declares, “I’m a sick fuck, I like a quick fuck,” amid a lot of sheepish mugging for the camera, he’s making himself the target of sexual shame, the butt of the joke.
The pairing of the song and its exaggerated, over-the-top video gives the whole project a “Why so serious?” posture, harkening back to a time when West videos aimed to be funny -- or at least when the thought of him going on another tweet storm didn’t inspire such dread. There’s still a hint of darkness underneath all that silliness: As he twirls around the room, professing his love for blowjobs and boob jobs, a gold chain bearing the name of his late mother bounces against his blown-up shirt buttons. It's a valid, albeit clumsy, attempt to show that the morbid details of his life can coincide with the humor. By drawing from a tradition that has direct ties to The Old Kanye, the one who showed up in a Ludacris video wearing a Louis Vuitton backpack, West offers a nostalgic call for goodwill or a sly play for sympathy -- if not both.
“I Love It” feels less like poking a bear, and more like someone trying desperately to not appear like they’re trying too hard. That is, of course, the strategy behind his visuals of late: The cover art for ye, his bleak, dashed-together album from earlier this year, was an iPhone photograph of a Wyoming landscape that Kanye took on his way to the now-infamous listening party. (It also features the words, in comically scribbled text, “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.”) On the single art for “XTCY,” the painter Shadi Al-Atallah transformed an already gaudy photo of the Kardashian sisters at Kylie Jenner’s 21st birthday party, rendering the women as scratchy, beady-eyed caricatures of themselves. Going back even further, to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West chose to design its lurid artwork with George Condo, a master at combining the cartoonish and the grotesque.
In the same way, he’s taking the Ludacris and Missy template of being both lighthearted and confrontational and using it for his own subtle rebrand: You can never be rid of the New Kanye, but you can still have fun with him regardless. Or so Kanye thinks.