Believe the Hype.
You're a hip-hop crew
The director dude
Facts of the Case
Hype Williams is, indeed, the man to call for state-of-the-art music video. With more than 170 videos and a feature film (the urban gangster drama Belly) to his credit, Hype has earned his recognition as one of the most innovative and sought-after directors in the music video business. He's more or less single-handedly defined the on-camera visual style of an entire generation of rappers, hip-hop musicians, and MTV viewers. You name the artist; if they've enjoyed any success, Hype Williams has probably directed at least one video for them. In this slick DVD package from Palm Pictures, the auteur compiles ten of his seminal creations for your booty-shaking pleasure.
I approached Hype Williams: The Videos, Vol. 1 with a significant level of trepidation. My musical tastes, though eclectic—I embrace the spectrum from Al Green and Barry White to Jackson Browne and Blue Öyster Cult—don't extend very deep into the hip-hop/rap genre. My likes and dislikes developed well before the new urban music came to fruition. And I'll confess: I pretty much quit watching MTV around the time of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." (That would be the freaky Michael Jackson, not the esteemed Chief Justice of this honorable court. Just so we're clear.) So I wasn't at all sure what I'd get out of my extended submersion in the Hype Williams oeuvre.
What I got was a few smiles, a light bulb or two popping on over my head, and far less agony than I anticipated. The music aside—preferences in that regard are to a degree more personal and subjective than preferences in film, and are impossible either to justify or even debate—taken for what they are, the short films in which Hype Williams specializes are splendidly crafted and are actually quite engaging and entertaining.
I was especially surprised to observe that, contrary to my preconceptions of the vast wasteland of the music video format and the cacophonic sameness of hip-hop, Hype manages to diversify his approach to an admirable extent. The ten videos in this collection display a striking eye, inventive imagination, and an inerrant sense of what will catch the attention of and appeal to a predominantly male teenage audience. Yet Williams doesn't condescend to his viewers. He's not afraid to challenge their expectations and expose them to influences they might run screaming from if they knew what he was doing.
Witness, for example:
• Hype's Kubrick references in TLC's "No Scrubs": the impulsive energy of a sleek dance groove set against the cold sterility of a knockoff of the Discovery set from 2001.
• His deft pastiche of Citizen Kane in R. Kelly's "Half on a Baby," in which Williams, like Welles before him, employs distorted scale to emphasize the emotional isolation of a man who owns everything in the world but love.
• His riff on Scorsese's Casino in Nas's "Sweet Dreams," right down to the famous shot of money being gleefully tossed from a gaming table toward an overhead camera.
• Even, in Busta Rhymes's "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See," where Williams blatantly cops from Coming to America—Eddie Murphy and John Landis fans will immediately recognize the tribal wedding dance and stick-fighting sequences—and Quest for Fire, with its Day-Glo body-painted primitives.
Of course, the kids don't get any of this, but that isn't the point. The point is that Hype himself gets it, and that even though his medium amounts to little more than big-budget commercials for CDs, he's stretching the boundaries of that medium and salting it with the craft and vision of legitimate film. Is he always successful? Well, no. Sometimes the results are pretentious, other times they're just silly. Hype relies too heavily on hyperkinetic editing and such stale devices as the fisheye lens. Occasionally (maybe more than occasionally), his shot selection borders on pandering. But he clearly has talent, and best of all he's pushing that talent to its logical ends. I grant the man mad props for that.
I was even more startled to discover the degree to which I at last stopped listening to the music—or at least caring about whether I liked it or not—because Williams drew me so effectively into his varied visual environments. I was touched by the vibrant images of urban ghetto life in "Can It Be All So Simple," as poetic, and to similar effect, as Spike Lee's modern classic, Do the Right Thing. I felt sucker-punched by the aggressive tug-of-war between comic mugging and raw anger in the stark black-and-white, in-your-face cinematography of Craig Mack's "Flava in Ya Ear" (which opens with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs clicking bottles together and calling "Come out to pla-a-a-a-y" in the manner of David Patrick Kelly's villainous gang-banger in Walter Hill's The Warriors). And I laughed out loud at the audacious, over-the-top adolescent male fantasies "Big Pimpin'" by Jay-Z (no white fedoras or jaguar-upholstered Coupe de Villes, just a bunch of fun-loving guys ogling bikini-clad rump-wiggling models on a titanic—ahem—yacht in Trinidad during Carnival) and Ja Rule's "Holla Holla" (basically, just a bunch of fun-loving guys ogling bikini-clad rump-wiggling models on a beach in Rio).
Palm Pictures presents this video collection in fine DVD style. The full-screen transfer (some of the videos are framed in letterbox) is crisp and clean, worthy of a major studio film. Colors leap off the glass—sometimes they leap too far, resulting in breakup and bleed here and there. But for music videos, these look spectacular. As might be expected given the youth audience for this package, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix rocks like the Incredible Hulk got loose at the control board. At low gain levels that would render many DVDs inaudible on my surround system, this disc pumped out fat, booming sound. You want bass? I got your bass right here. In fact, I guarantee you can crank this bad boy up and make your subwoofer cavort like an elephant on amphetamines. If the phone rings while you're watching it, it's probably the U.S. Geological Survey reporting seismic activity in your vicinity.
Each of the ten videos can be viewed with or without audio commentary by Hype Williams. You won't learn much about making music videos; most of Hype's comments are innocuous and uninsightful scrapbook stuff ("this was a fun video to make" or "this happened at a great time in my life"), but occasionally he'll offer an interesting tidbit about the various performers with whom he works. And as noted earlier, he works with everyone who's anyone in the hip-hop scene—even actors such as Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) and Tracey Bingham (Baywatch) turn up as bit players in Hype Williams clips. Everybody wants to be close to the magic.
An interview section serves up six brief snippets of Hype chatting; together these total about eight minutes. Hype talks about: his first project, a video made under the auspices of rap impresario Russell Simmons (Def Comedy Jam) featuring one of Williams's childhood friends ("It was a disaster, actually," Hype admits with a sheepish chuckle); his musical and cinematic influences; his creative process ("It's weird—there is no process"); his impact on hip-hop culture ("I gave rap music size"); and what he enjoys most about his work ("I get to be part of something that moves the masses visually"). Although not an especially dynamic speaker, Williams comes off as likeable and remarkably self-effacing about his talents and accomplishments.
As an additional bonus, Palm tosses in three trailers for their other DVD product: Scratch, Sound and Motion, Volume One, and the anime feature Blood: The Last Vampire. The Hype Williams disc ships in a Super Jewel case, about which I'll say this: I like this packaging option and wish more studios would experiment with it. Durability's a foreseeable problem—drop it or give it a solid whack and you'll crack or even shatter it—but it's attractive, easy to handle, and best of all takes up less room on your DVD rack, a boon for those of us whose collections threaten to outgrow their lebensraum. I still much prefer the Amaray-style keep case as the ultimate storage unit currently available, but the Super Jewel is a worthwhile and underutilized alternative in my opinion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hype: lose the fisheye lens, man. Tired, tired, tired.
For the specific audience toward whom it's aimed, Hype Williams: The Videos, Vol. 1 delivers. If you're not into rap music and/or the flash and dash of MTV-caliber videos, you'll probably want to pass. On the other hand, the video industry continues to emerge as a fertile ground for directing talent, with people such as McG, Antoine Fuqua, and Hype Williams himself among numerous others moving onward and upward into feature film work. [Editor's Note: Not to mention David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Michael Bay.] If you're curious to see where one of these rising talents honed his skills, maybe give this a one-shot rental.
I almost—almost, mind you—believe the Hype. The Court finds Mr. Williams guilty of gratuitous displays of fisheye cinematography and nubile young women in glossy string bikinis. We find him innocent on the charge of squandering his considerable ability. He's free to go with time served. Court is in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Director's Audio Commentaries
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