This week, Vulture is looking back at the best releases so far in 2017.
2017 has been a sparse year for quality music videos. The medium’s still operating at top speed: DJ Khaled released three videos just this week, and the threat of a star-studded Jay-Z visual album looms but, for the most part, we’re left with a glut of uninspired visuals. If the good videos we’ve already seen this year are any indication, though, it’s no longer the fault of the format, but the artists using it — there are, of course, always exceptions, as you’ll see below. As it stands, Kendrick Lamar is in serious play for another year potentially topping this list at 2017’s end.
Brendan Maclean, “House of Air” (extremely NSFW)
I cannot stress enough that, for now, this video should not be viewed in any public setting unless maybe you’re at a sex party or just really don’t give a fuck about making other people uncomfortable. Brendan Maclean’s “anthropological study of gay semiotics, taxonomies, and sexual behaviors” — a.k.a. his video for “House of Air” — sure doesn’t. This video got banned from YouTube and Facebook for its explicit depiction of the history of gay men initiating and having sex, which includes all the things you think it does, plus probably some stuff you’ve never thought of at all. (Unless you watch a lot of gay porn, in which case, you might recognize some of this video’s stars.) It’s educational, sometimes voyeuristic, and absolutely engrossing. May they show it in sex-ed classes someday.
Cupcakke, “Biggie Smalls”
Chicago rapper Cupcakke’s Tumblr stock increases with every raunchy innuendo-heavy video she uploads, but she’s not one-note. The sex might seem gratuitous, but there’s an intention to normalize taboos at each video’s heart. Seeing Cupcakke simulate fellatio with an ear of corn shouldn’t be shocking, and that’s her point. She makes a similar point with “Biggie Smalls,” in far less NSFW ways. The concept is simple: Encourage body positivity by showing diverse bodies in a positive light, celebrating rolls, stretch marks, and flat stomachs alike by painting them with her words. But the highlight comes in a collage of submissions from everyday women in their underwear (smiling faces included), wearing their own skin with pride.
DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller, “Wild Thoughts”
Behold Rihanna’s shoulder shimmy, along with the greatest GIF in creation, and tell me this isn’t one of the best videos 2017 has to offer.
Francis and the Lights ft. Chance the Rapper, “May I Have This Dance” and Haim, “Want You Back”
If you’d have told me even a year ago that Francis Farewell Starlite would one day choreograph little routines in his head and have Chance the Rapper and the Haim sisters perform them, I … well, honestly, I would have believed it. He’s a well-connected man of many quirks and has no qualms with showing them off. “May I Have This Dance” and “Want You Back” are two jolts of energy needed in these weary times.
Grimes and Janelle Monáe, “Venus Fly”
Tidal threw its coins at Grimes so she could make her wildest artistic vision a reality and the payoff is mighty. Her self-directed “Venus Fly” video looks like a graphic novel come to life about two superheroes who double as queens of some futuristic universe. Don’t try to follow the plot (there’s some Beauty and the Beast parallel going on, I think?), just marvel at every single slo-mo shot.
Kendrick Lamar, “D.N.A.”
Don Cheadle had two days to memorize and prep his delivery of Kendrick’s lyrics, so he could mime them back to Kendrick’s face in an interrogation room. In those two days, Cheadle also invented his own meaning for D.N.A. —“Dead Nigger Association” — which then made it into the dialogue of the bad-cop routine that opens the video. Tie in the Rush Hour 2 inspiration that completely went over Cheadle’s head, and you’ve got a Kendrick Lamar visual classic. Come for all those things, stay for Schoolboy Q’s parting gift to the viewers at the end (yet another Beyoncé allusion in Kendrick’s recent visual work).
Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”
It’s not an exaggeration to consider “Humble” the most visually superior music video since “Formation.” Nothing had come even close, or attempted to, really. But it takes an artist with kindred ambition, influence, and assigned cultural duty to pull off such a feat. Without “Formation” (and “99 Problems” before it), “Humble” is probably a treatment few directors would’ve touched. The legendary Dave Meyers and Kendrick’s own “little homies” crew, however, met the challenge. “Humble” presents Kendrick in Young Pope garb, then, for some historical revision, seated at the head of the table of a Last Supper surrounded by the black and brown disciples that da Vinci’s re-creation of the moment denied. Every surreal shot is a GIF, boosted by all the fancy technology — GoPros, 360 rigs, camera robots — used to achieve so many of them (this videos owes a lot to Missy Elliott, too). Every striking frame is a portrait of Kendrick at his most masterful yet. Who knew it could get better than “Alright”?
When M.I.A. spends months, or even a year, working on a music video, she’s not being pretentious. She treats each one like a cinematic experience, which explains why “P.O.W.A.” has the scale and cinematography of a feature film. It’s not busy — just M.I.A. draped in a neon sari, lying in a flower bed surrounded by picturesque mountains, and a synchronized chain of men in front of a wall achieving moves unlike anything you’ve ever seen, providing some of the year’s most visually arresting imagery.
What if three black men from Atlanta adorned head to toe in furs had starred in The Revenant instead of Leo? Thus is the premise of one of many great Migos videos this year, but undoubtedly the greatest: “T-Shirt.” Historical accuracy be damned, this video has snowmobiles, ski lodges, and Instagram models because the Migos have clearly always been from the future.
Young Thug, “Wyclef Jean”
The best music video Young Thug has ever done barely features the rapper and looks like it was sponsored by music-annotations mecca Genius. That’s because, as the video’s director Ryan Staake explains in sarcastic detailed captions throughout, Thugger bailed on most of the filming. Staake’s plan-B concept: a fantastically funny behind-the-scenes of a shoot gone awry that makes a strong case for a revival of MTV’s Making the Video.
Honorable mentions: Perfume Genius, “Die 4 U; Buddy, “World of Wonders; PWR BTTM, “Answer My Text”; Blood Orange, “With You / Best to You / Better Numb”; Gorillaz, “Saturnz Barz”; Aminé, “Redmercedes”; Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”; Dirty Projectors, “Little Bubble.”