“Music videos aren’t what they use to be,” my friend said as B.E.T premiered the latest French Montana visual. We didn't have to even see the video to know what it contained: plenty of homies, women, bottles, expensive cars, all the elements that should be packaged as a “flossy” music video starter kit. But while French might be generic enough to validate his statement, my friend was far from right. I’ve been writing about music videos all year, highlighting the creative contributions from Childish Gambino and surreal visuals from Flying Lotus, acknowledging powerful efforts from Vince Staples and breaking down Kendrick Lamar's efforts, and I haven’t even gotten around to the zany Tyler The Creator and the hilarious Action Bronson. But before I could even bring any of those artists up in conversation B.E.T. moved onto premiering Big Sean's video for “Play No Games” and we were both left wide eyed, open-mouthed and completely dumbstruck.
It wasn’t a music video but a remake of a '90s sitcom classic. Big Sean doesn’t simply pay homage but transforms into Martin Payne. The resemblance is uncanny, he replicates the style, sports the fade, even his ears look slightly enlarged. Execution is phenomenal, the intro theme is done flawlessly and almost all the classic characters are resurrected by doppelgangers. Chris Brown is Cole Brown, Tommy and his coke bottled glasses, Pam and her beady beads, a gorgeous Gina, even the original Bruh Man came through the window from the fif floor. Martin Lawrence's cameo is the cherry on top, kicking everyone out his crib like it's 1994 all over again. A well placed, “You go boy” was the only thing missing. Sean hit a homerun, the kind of video we will be talking about for years. Before “Alright” I was ready to crown “Play No Games” as the best video of 2015. Now I'm not so sure; it's almost impossible to directly compare Kendrick’s moving message and great detailed symbolism with Sean's ingenious comedic nostalgia.
Even if he doesn't win that imaginary trophy for Best Video of the Year, Big Sean deserves an award and recognition for his consistency. You might not realize it, but Sean has released high quality videos in large quantities this year. It’s only fitting that his best videos go along with his best album. “Paradise” is visually stunning, the red Lamborghini Countach is reason enough to watch. “Blessed” has an interesting look, as if it was dipped in the darkest ink with a touch of white lighting and hyper realism which glosses Sean, Drake and Kanye nicely. I wish that he would have centered the entire video on the sinner and saint in the confessional that is shown briefly during his verse. My favorite Sean videos are the ones he approaches with a narrative style, making the music videos play as mini movies. I was very impressed by “IDFWU” especially since he worked with a fairly unknown director, Lawrence Lamont. He was able to capture the anger and angst of the song on a college football field, with Kanye as the coach, Sean the star quarterback dealing with the woes of a cheating ex and 40 Water holding down the announcer duties. This is how I imagine Remember the Titans would play out if handled by Roc-A-Fella Films.
Lawrence also directed the incredible “I Know.” Instead of shooting in the present, we look at an elder Big Sean and Jhene Aiko in what appears to be their late sixties. The two escape their boring lives in a retirement home, hitting the town, acting their shoe size and not their age, reclaiming their youth until they’re literally young again. “One Man Can Change The World” is shot entirely in black and white, it’s fitting for a song with a more serious but hopeful tone. It follows a young man living in Detroit, his surroundings look bleak, attending funerals, a drug dealing brother, and police on every corner. It pays homage to his late grandmother, Mildred V. Leonard an incredible woman. Heavy imagery with a hopeful message.
"One Man Can Change the World" serves as a homage to my late grandmother Mildred V. Leonard who went on to break through the ceilings of poverty, racism and sexism to become one of the first female Black Captains in WWII, before becoming one of the first Black female Police Officers in Detroit and serving an illustrious 30-year career with the Detroit Public School System as a teacher and counselor. I credits my grandmother for showing me that through hard work, commitment, perseverance and faith that anything is possible" – Big Sean
I feel like I’ve watched his visuals evolve over the years. When “Directed by Mike Carson” appeared on the screen at the beginning of “Play No Games” it took me back to 2010 when I would spend hours downloading mixtapes and scrolling through illroots. The first time I saw Sean was in the video “Too Fake” from Finally Famous 3. It’s the first video Mike Carson, Mike Waxx and Sean collaborated on. Shot on a friend’s rooftop, the sharp quality, gorgeous scenery and the eye-catching effects made a simple video look unique. Their imagination in post-production made up for the lack of budget. Effects became a signature of theirs, the video for “Do It” is another that’s fairly simplistic but engaging. Carson shoots Sean completely zoomed in, there isn’t a single scene where he’s in full frame. It’s almost entirely focused on the rapper’s eyes and lips. He fits an array of images (snapbacks, pinky rings, cardiac shades, Jesus piece) that are described lyrics into the same zoomed in perspective with a mix of swift transitions and various FX (the enlarging eyes and jewelry). I like it, the kind of video you make with minimum resources but still desiring to be outside the box.
I wasn’t very fond of the videos that came out during his second album, Hall Of Fame. “Beware” overwhelms with color overlaying and “Fire” is painfully dramatic - Miley Cyrus as the lead didn’t do much for me. Yet I found “Ashley” to be special. It’s the first video that shows Sean stepping into a more cinematic direction. I don’t recall any visual before this having an actual narrative. It’s a violent kidnapping storyline that feels like writer and director Ellis Bahl tapped into his inner Quentin Tarantino. The lighting is immaculate in most scenes, and it’s well written, despite never explaining why Sean was kidnapped. Likely because by this point in his career he’s actually finally famous and famous people are always one car garage away from being kidnapped by the deranged. This is a must watch if you want to see jeep sex, a fist fight, Sean being belted by a bat, and ultimately watching Sean get killed like Chris Brown in Stomp The Yard. You can say “Ashley” is where his visuals stepped up to the next level.
It doesn’t feel like five years have gone by since Finally Famous 3. In that timeframe Sean has grown immensely, from his style of rapping to visual arts. He went from Chicago rooftops to a set designed like Martin’s apartment. Working with young creative directors with little experience, believing in their vision when he had very little money and still working with those same visionaries now that they're all seasoned veterans is a testament to building from the bottom to the top. I started to write about music videos because I began to realize how powerful they can be, sometimes more powerful than just the music in your headphones. When you realize that there are artists that still care deeply about their visual presentation, it makes you wish MTV and B.E.T. were still stations that upheld and acknowledged the visual arts. Big Sean is one of those artists, make sure you keep an eye on him.
[By Yoh, aka Play Yoh Games, aka @Yoh31]