Kanye West has drawn so much attention lately that it’s almost easy to forget he actually released a record, Graduation, in September of last year. There was the Grammy ceremony — awards shows having always been one of the prime spotting grounds for his sizeable real-life ego — wherein he performed a tribute to his recently deceased mother with “MAMA” shaved ominously into the back of his head. There’s word of an all-star summer tour with Lupe Fiasco, Rihanna and N.E.R.D., boasting a Star Wars-inspired poster that looks like one of the most expensive pieces of paper ever designed. And then there’s the new video for Graduation’s fourth and arguably best single, ‘Flashing Lights’. Like lots of rap videos, it’s visceral, shocking and a little obscene, but it manages to be so in a way completely unlike any other.
I’ll offer a brief summary (spoilers aplenty): In unwavering slo-mo, a sports car parks on a desert road around dusk. A tall woman in a fur coat climbs out of the driver’s seat, struts toward the camera, takes off most of her clothes and lights them on fire. She walks back to the car (lots more strutting) and opens the trunk to reveal Kanye, lying face-up and gagged, so obscured by the glare from the taillight that for a second it looks as though it might not even be him. She pulls out a shovel, leans back, and drives it into his body six times, the contents of the trunk now totally blocked from view. She stands and stares for a few seconds, then it’s over.
Co-directed by Spike Jonze, the video’s immediately notable for its absurdity. There’s a moment of shock when she reveals the body in the trunk, then another when she thrusts the point of the shovel at it. It’s strikingly minimal — a lot happens, but you can still explain it in a few short sentences. It’s set in an ambiguous bleak space, features one lone pair of characters, and avoids lip synching and dancing, despite the song being Kanye’s most club-ready to date. In short, it turns a “flashy” song — and as a result, the rap video genre itself — on its head. Hip-hop videos are typically known for glamour, excess and, lately, T-Pain’s hilarious arm-cranking dance, all of which are elements Kanye’s bought into in the recent past. In ‘Flashing Lights’, the clothes, the cars, even Kanye himself are all present, but very much sidelined. Vegas is in the frame, but even it’s way off in the background.
Kanye’s wearing an expensive suit in his few seconds on screen, of course, but it presumably gets ruined when he’s bludgeoned by a shovel. It’s a little grotesque, but it’s also funny — he’s literally taking jabs at his own image. The woman doing the dirty work is more than just his cruel murderer: she, not he, is the main character, and she takes a shovel not just to his torso, but to the very idea of the “video ho” and all of the term’s reductive implications. It’s one of the unfortunate trademarks of the average rap video that women are treated as eye candy, always dressed in beachwear even when they’re indoors, always dancing in the background while the men rapping take up most of the frame. Here, our leading lady is still dressed in practically nothing, but it only ups the shock value of her death blow. If she were clad in slacks and one of Kanye’s favorite sweater/scarf combos, it probably wouldn’t seem so meaningful, or quite so subversive, and we probably wouldn’t be rooting so hard for her by the end.
Which begs the question: Why are we rooting for her in the first place? If we’re watching this video, we presumably like Kanye West, and would therefore rather he not be brutally murdered and buried somewhere in the Nevada desert. But at the video’s abrupt end, she’s obviously the favored party. It’s still unclear who the song is being directed at and how the back-story might read, but there are clues in the second verse, and it’s clear there’s an apology there. There’s definitely a shaky relationship at play, and we assume it’s gone sour because of Kanye’s well-documented cockiness, about which he occasionally reveals his guilt. “As you recall, you know I love to show off,” he says, and if we take this as a message to us, his audience, and not to some nameless girl, the song and video look more like a defeated, rather than boastful, self-reflection. He not only knows he’s got an ego — he’s always known, and he’s worked it to death — but he knows it can hurt people, too. This is his concession to us: he’s saying, “I know there’s a totally despicable side of me that you’d probably like to see less of, so here, enjoy this video of me getting beaten to death.”
Of course, it could be speculated that this is just another tactical move as Kanye meticulously sculpts his public image. His mom died in November, hence all the tributes at the Grammys and in the tabloids, and it’s clear he’s been a little more vulnerable lately than he usually puts on. Could throwing a death wish out there just be a pity play, a way to affect the underdog role again, ridiculous as that might be? After all, he started out as a producer with friends in high places but a questionable level of sheer talent. Three albums later, devout hip-hop heads still question whether he’s that good a writer.
But what the ‘Flashing Lights’ video makes clear is that Graduation, through means beyond the album itself, is the culmination of all the early-career promises Kanye made. College Dropout and Late Registration were both great, revered albums, but there was this buzz that Kanye was going to somehow make hip-hop into something bigger than it was, to get things back on course. Those two albums didn’t do it: both were sprawling, overstuffed with skits and shaky lyrics, and clearly assembled by someone unsure to what extent he wanted to buy into rap stereotypes when he was simultaneously supposed to be destined for something greater. But with Graduation, the scattered visual distractions have rightfully taken the attention off his writing and his rapping. The ‘Flashing Lights’ video is the ultimate punchline, just the best in a long line of clever moves around a record that have all focused not on rapping but on perfectly orchestrated shock value, albeit a particular type of shock value achieved not actually through a violent murder scene — violence hasn’t been shocking in decades, really, and especially not in hip-hop — but through what the scene represents: the knowledge that humility is a virtue, or that women should be empowered, or that there’s no shame in being remorseful. Or, in short, common decency.
One of the earliest bits of Graduation that leaked was the cover: a neon cartoon by the Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami. (Murakami also animated a video for ‘Good Morning’ that hasn’t been officially released, though it’s touring with his exhibition, which is coming to the Brooklyn Museum in April.) The cover itself is ludicrous, but the partnership is brilliant. Hip-hop and pop art have basically the same core aesthetic principle — to use existing popular culture as material for reflection on, well, existing popular culture. The off-kilter but adept choice of much of Graduation’s source material, and now the ‘Flashing Lights’ video, are all further means to this ultimate self-reflection. Graduation has become, in the months since its release, much more than just a rap album. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take a shovel to that idea too.