We’re excited to publish our analyses of “APES**T” (16 June 2018), a music video featuring Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and dancers in the Louvre.1 For us this video’s issues are timely. Thank you to the JPMS editors, especially Robin James, for so swiftly bringing our work to press.
Beyoncé is part of our cultural imagery, partly thanks to her music videos. Music video remains undertheorized even though some clips reach a kind of mathematical-sublime hit count: Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” ft. Daddy Yankee, for example, has 5.5 billion views. Music videos on YouTube are how young people most commonly consume popular music.2 The genre’s aesthetics are shared with many other forms of moving media, including commercials, YouTube videos, trailers, political ads, and audiovisually intensified segments of post-classical cinema. Beyoncé is important to us for many reasons, including how her work speaks about performance, race, gender, sexuality, autonomy, politics, and ways of being in the world. But studies devoted to her are only now getting started.
This colloquy may be the first multi-perspective, in-depth look at a music video. We can imagine why there’s been such a paucity of music-video scholarship. It’s not only due to, as Ann Kaplan has observed, that music videos straddle a border between advertising and art, but that the analyst must also feel comfortable with addressing the music, the image (including the moving bodies, cinematography and editing), the lyrics, and the relation among them.3 (This might include looking at a dance gesture against a harmonic shift and an edit, and asking how these might relate to one another.) A collective approach is probably the best way to understand a clip and the genre, and also adds some benefits. Music videos are open forms, and as each analyst charts his or her path through the video, we can get a sense of a personal perspective (and readers can then more carefully track their own trajectories as well).
Each of us takes on a different facet: Dani Oore writes on the song’s rhythm arrangement, Eric Lyon attends to rhythm and the song’s production features, Gabriel Ellis attends to the song’s multiply-stylized vocal performances, Maeve Sterbenz considers harmony and gesture; Gabrielle Lochard looks closely at race and the background figures; Dale Chapman attends to “APESH**T” in relation to other African American, opulent, art-inspired videos as well as their bonds to neoliberalism; Jason King considers larger contemporary phenomena, including other films, that turn to the museum as a historical repository that might help us solve what feels like humanity under threat; Kyra Gaunt describes how The Carters confront exclusionary regimes of power and other “ape-shit” through a mosaic of art, music, and media; and I offer an overview of music-video aesthetics, and some possible ways of finding a path through the video.
We hope our tack will inspire a confederated approach, where art historians, dance scholars, media experts, and those who work on poetry and rap lyrics, costuming and architecture would write alongside us.
Our pieces reflect both support for and discomfort with “APES**T.” Some of us worry that The Carters and the Louvre might first be promoting one another’s prestige. “APESH**T” might be most like a Tarantino project, an imaginative game (like Django Unchained or Inglorious Bastards) that deliberately confuses our notions of history. Others among us experience the video in a more positive light: the video helps broaden our sense of what counts as art and shifts our anchor points for what matters most. We now can experience art as more inclusive, with special place of pride for people of color and others who have been marginalized. The museum may now feel more for us. Is it possible, we wonder, that all these aspects might be true simultaneously? Our questions include: can mass art can be radical? Both the Louvre and The Carters, at different moments, celebrate wealth and commodities—is there something special about The Carters’ relationship to wealth? How does race overlap with economic justice? If we could see wealth would this change our relationship to it? Will we then ask that the 1% share more of their resources with the rest of us, or will we feel the present distribution is fine? And how might artists from other races, gender affiliations and sexualities work against a dominant art practice? How might “APES**T” have been realized differently?
Some readers may wonder whether this much attention to a brief clip is productive. But today’s audiovisually rich content seems to wield great influence—from sequences in tent pole-blockbuster films, YouTube clips and music videos, commercials, political advertising, and broadcast news clips (for Fox and MSNBC are highly aestheticized). Together, watching/listening closely, we may learn more how these works speak to us. From here there might be possibilities for opening the discussion, for sharing experiences of our world. (A chance to consider, for example, a discussion of the Uber ads, like Khalid on the way to the Grammys against the recent New York Times piece, “Uber and the False Hopes of the Sharing Economy.”)
Some of us feel more aligned with Beyoncé and Jay-Z and their work than others. Why? Is this connected to our core identity, values, and beliefs? This may sound a bit starry-eyed, but we hope that if we can get in touch with, come to understand, and then share with one another our perspectives of the media objects we care about (music, film, literature), perhaps we’ll be able to open a conversation and more fully understand our world.
Stuck In A Time Loop: Notes On APES**T
In her thought-provoking 2017 book Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War, German visual artist Hito Steyerl considers the role museums and art institutions play in a perplexing era defined by emergent threats, such as “Uber-militias, bank-sponsored bot armies, and Kickstarter-funded toy drones.”4 Museums have always endeavored to archive and curate the human past. But for Steyerl, the enduring problem is that “history invades the hypercontemporary:” we seem to be stuck in a time loop, haunted by the retrograde past (not only the enduring effects of colonialism, racism, Orientalism, sexism, etc. but also the repurposing of historical relics and art objects for malevolent purposes) in ways that prevent us from moving toward a progressive future.
Duty Free Art kicks off with an unexpected analogy: the 2014 Doug Liman-directed sci-fi feature film Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. A savvy reworking of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill, the film imagines that Earth is invaded by a hostile alien race called Mimics that kill Tom Cruise’s character, Major William Cage. But he wakes up, trapped on the same battlefield, and is killed again and again. It seems Cage is stuck in an endless time loop. But how did he get there? Spoiler alert: the only way out of this brutal temporal conundrum is to work with Blunt’s character to locate a weapon that is hidden, of all places, in the basement of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Edge of Tomorrow suggests that to produce the future—for the human race to jump off its teetering edge into a generative tomorrow—we have to go deep inside the museum, the institution that retains relics of the cultural past and vanquishes our enemies from within.
Directed by Supreme streetwear designer Ricky Saiz, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s avant-garde 2018 music video “APESHIT!” is also a disquisition on temporality and the deployment of the historical past. Not unlike Edge of Tomorrow, the video presupposes that our progressive future depends on an intervention that takes place at the Louvre. The debut song/video from Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s inaugural joint album as a married couple, Everything is Love, as well as a promotion tool for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II world tour, “APESHIT!” is surely the first trap sung-rapped anthem by a married couple. In fact, it may be most provocative and radical at the level of gender: it’s easily the most accomplished music video ever by an African-American husband and wife duo (contenders include work by recording duo spouses Ashford & Simpson, Womack & Womack, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, and Kindred the Family Soul). Some critics praise the video’s presentation of relationship mutuality between Jay-Z and Beyoncé, while others argue that the couple has chosen to resolve their highly publicized infidelity issues toward mostly conservative ends5. You decide.
Emerging from the genealogy of reparations-themed tracks as varied as Rihanna’s 2015 “Bitch Better Have My Money” and Cardi B’s 2017 “Bodak Yellow,” “APESHIT!” features Beyoncé and Jay-Z toasting and boasting, delivering self-aggrandizing, imperial lyrics that thematically confirm their newly acquired billionaire status (In its July 2018 issue, Forbes confirmed the duo’s combined $1.255 billion bank account6). The satisfaction of extreme wealth underwrites Beyoncé sing/trap-rap in “APESHIT!”—“Put some respect on my check/or pay me in equity/Watch me reverse out of debt (skrt!)”—just as it gives dimension to Jay’s clapback bars to the exclusionary Grammys and to the NFL (“I said no to the Superbowl, you need me, I don’t need you/Every night we in the endzone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too”).
Expensively produced by Iconoclast, lavishly lensed by Benoit Debie, and gorgeously color-graded by Tom Poole, “APESHIT!” the video is a surfeit of Euro-formal, stoic-funky, Afropunk-era Instagrammable negritude fabulosity. It’s so extra. Debie’s brazen camera angles glide through the halls of the Louvre, capturing Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and a host of “melanated” dancers (choreographed by Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) posing and moving through space, intercut by a number of ‘black love’ and ‘black self-care’ themed scenes featuring singles and couples praying, holding, caring and combing each other’s hair, all of it edited seamlessly by Sam Ostrove and Taylor Ward. In keeping with the radical cinematography of classic music video and film directors, such as Arthur Jafa, Malik Hassan Sayeed, Hype Williams and Andrew Dosumnu, “APESHIT!” the video is invested in the radical aesthetic potential of how black bodies hold power by sumptuously moving through space and time.
Director Saiz (working with British-Nigerian second-unit director Jenn Nkiru) makes palpable how those color-ful bodies look and feel in rarefied physical places like the Louvre that were never necessarily designed for them or to include them in the first place7. Crafted by a multiracial, transcontinental crew, the music video brims with gorgeous, moody imagery that effectively manages to visualize blackness as surplus, blackness that exceeds and spills over into spaces/places that have traditionally absented or neglected (images of) people of color. “APESHIT!”’s intoxicating blend of Euro-formalist containment and Afro-diasporic flow-as-surplus has long roots, however; even Black and Blue, Hector Orezzoli and Claudio Segovia’s 1989 Broadway blues/tap dance visual super-spectacle, comes to mind as a kind of stylistic predecessor.
“APESHIT!” arrived at an especially tense 2018 post-post-race political moment in the United States, marked by increased attention to the sustained institutional abjection of black and brown bodies (rampant police shootings of unarmed black subjects, NFL’s repression of its police-brutality-protesting players, the Trump Administration’s ungainly rejection of migrants and refugees etc.) and the concomitant rise of neo-Black power imagery across the visual spectrum (including, but not limited to, Beyonce’s 2016 Lemonade, Jay-Z’s 4.44, Donald Glover’s “This is America,” Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars,” Boots Riley’s 2018 feature film Sorry to Bother You, and Spike Lee’s ‘comeback’ film BlacKkKlansman). When we first lay eyes on the Carter-Knowles duo in “APESHIT!”, they’re ostentatiously sporting pink and green suits styled by Zerina Akers and June Ambrose, and they’re staring at the camera, posing in front of the Mona Lisa, arguably the world’s most famous painting. In the video’s final image, they turn away from us to face the portrait. How and why, in 2018, is the image of superstar power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé standing in front of a five centuries-plus old Italian Renaissance painting meant to be meaningful, or even provocative, or even radical, in 2018? Is this the very definition of time stuck in a loop? How did we get here, exactly?
“APESHIT!” is art made by self-aware celebrities who’ve amassed enough collective income to have, in their words, “made it” (see the song’s pre-hook chant “I can’t believe we made it,” connected to adjacent lyrics like “We livin’ lavish, lavish/I got expensive fabrics/I got expensive habits;” and talk about shutting down French fashion store Colette, not to mention references to Phillippe Patek and other brands). “APESHIT!,” the song and the video, revolve around the celebrity duo’s unchecked obsession with wealth and status—one that’s gone far beyond the early naïvete of Destiny’s Child 1999 “Bills, Bills, Bills” or Jay-Z’s muscle-flexing “Big Pimpin’” that same year. (Other Everything is Love album cuts like “BOSS” and “Black Effect” in some ways counterbalance “APESHIT!”’s predilection for conspicuous consumption.) As newly arrived billionaires, Beyoncé and Jay-Z seem to have become more politicized and semi-publicly compassionate in both their personal lives and in their professional releases, from their ‘anonymous’ bailing out of Black Lives Matter protestors in Baltimore and Ferguson, to their wide array of philanthropic endeavors, and their increasing willingness to speak up and produce art about various forms of racial and gender injustice (Jay-Z’s 2018 Trayvon Martin documentary, for instance)8.
Released nearly two weeks before their June 2018 Olympiastadion Berlin live tour concert (that exclusionary 1936 Olympics venue where Jesse Owens claimed iconic victory), and some seven years after Jay-Z’s own controversial “Niggas in Paris” moment (a trio with Frank Ocean and MAGA-identified Kanye West), “APESHIT!” also happens to be smartly conceived African-American counterpublicity on European xenophobia and anti-Blackness. Its potent polycultural visuals ring loud and clear during a reactionary moment marked by continental border closures, and growing moral panic over migrants and refugees in nation states, such as Denmark, France, Austria and Germany9. In its critique of the twenty-first century European condition, “APESHIT!” ends up in dialogue with cultural texts and initiatives as varied as “Frenchising Mona Lisa” (2011), in which Iranian-Canadian multi-media artist Amir Baradaran draws on augmented reality to allow visitors to the Louvre to raise their smartphones and superimpose a hijab on the Mona Lisa; scholar-curator Awam Amkpa’s ongoing ReSignifications conversations/exhibits on the submerged history of blackamoors in European high art; the inaugural Killmonger scene in Ryan Coogler’s 2018 sci-fi blockbuster Black Panther in which the film’s ostensible ‘villain’ (played by Michael B. Jordan) steals back a vibranium weapon on display in the British Museum and then repurposes it for more nefarious ends.
Part of the ambiguity that makes “APESHIT!” either a profoundly generative or frustrating text (or both) is that it finds valence in two super-rich black celebrities—firmly positioned in many ways at the establishment center of global pop culture—deploying and flaunting their immense financial and cultural capital to critique establishment exclusion of the marginalized and disenfranchised. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s personal and artistic political maturation happens to have coincided with their ascendancy into the billionaires club, on the same trajectory as other entrepreneurial hip-hop stars of the 1990s turned magnates like Dr. Dre and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs.
Flashback to 1999: nearly nineteen years ago, I wrote about black celebrity power and the staging of elitism in the avant-garde music videos of Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson10. I argued then that the technically accomplished videos for Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s 1996 “Scream” (from the former’s aptly titled HIStory double album) and Janet Jackson and Q-Tip’s “Got ‘til It’s Gone (from her aptly titled Velvet Rope album) masked some rather spuriously classist ideas about black superstar difference: they were only able to manage a trenchant critique of racial exclusion while insisting on staging celebrity elite status in opposition to everyday masses. Like those earlier pricey videos, “APESHIT!” the video stages a critique of racial exclusion through choreographed celebrity elitism. It’s black billionaires, operators at the most insider levels of the media industrial complex, offering commentary about the racial exclusion that late-stage capitalism itself occasions and exacerbates.
“APESHIT!” is not the first time we’ve seen people go buckwild at the Musée du Louvre. Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 French New Wave classic Bande à Part, for example, features a now-legendary scene in which the three main characters, Franz, Arthur and Odile, run full speed ahead in the grand gallery of the Louvre trying to break a speed record. That French film, made at a very different historical moment, was in its own way about outsiderness. In 2004, director Bernardo Bertolucci remixes Godard’s classic scene for The Dreamers, his risqué coming of age film about a three-way-love triangle between an American expat teenager and a pair of mixed gender French twins in late 1960s Paris. Bertolucci’s Dreamers characters are obsessed with classic films to the degree that they recreate iconic scenes at home and live their lives vicariously through them. The trio, fascinated with Bande à Part, recreates the Louvre scene, going to the museum and running amok through its halls to the horror of security guards. Stuck in a kind of time loop that is arrested development, the threesome eventually has to figure out how to break out of their slavish subjection to cinematic spectacle, out of cinema’s past, to mature and create a new, more progressive future for themselves. Spoiler alert: The Dreamers ends with the young, romantic teenagers making their way into a riot on the street, bursting out of their bubble of self-regard and naivete, to become politicized in Paris’s May 1968 student occupation protests.
The “APESHIT!” video, on the other hand, amounts to politicized black superstars doing needed damage to structural racism and sexism while insisting on the structural stability of their elitist-class filter bubble. In Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s vision of the progressive future, you performatively take your blackness with you as you ascend into megawealth: this concept is at best a spin on revolutionary conservatism, something like a stalemate between warring ideals of race and class. “APESHIT!” demonstrates that in 2018, the super-wealthy can indeed stage a meaningful critique of social exclusion, even if their self-aggrandizing insistence on class privilege ultimately suspends the necessary redistribution of wealth that has to happen before we can realize a genuinely democratic, inclusionary future.
At the end of the day, “APESHIT!” is a kind of black noblesse oblige version/remix on the problematic Bill Gates’s formulation of compassionate capitalism, his questionable concept of corporate good “where governments, businesses and non-profits work together to stretch the reach of market forces, so that more people can make a profit or gain recognition doing work that eases the world’s inequities.11” Perhaps our collective inability to contend with increasingly entrenched divisions around class (and status) in global culture— the fact that a tiny handful of elites controls the vast majority of the world’s financial resources—keeps us from teetering off the edge into a more generative tomorrow.
As “APESHIT!” comes to a close, Jay-Z and Beyoncé turn to face the Mona Lisa, creating a radically interventionist image of black billionaires facing down centuries of the European/white/colonialist past. But you can’t help but notice that the married duo is also turning their backs on the rest of us.
Ambiguity in “APES**T”
Much of the foregoing discourse on The Carters’ “APES**T” music video weighs its antiracist political potential against its commercialism.12 Beyoncé and Jay-Z shine formidably in front of some of the Louvre’s most famous artworks, defying the historical assumption that white people claim exclusive belonging to and ownership of the Western canon. Many writers celebrate this feat, observing the symbolic significance of specific artworks and their placement in the video to a narrative that centers black people in the field of power. Critics of the video point to its glorification of wealth and commodity fetishization, as well as to the Carters’ hauteur and to their superficial and profitable engagement with progressive politics in the past.13 Other writers in the present essay collection contribute insightful perspectives on this debate. Is it possible for the video to be both politically powerful and mercenary at once? For me, this kind of ambiguity runs through the video in many different dimensions, from meaning, to harmony, to rhythm, to movement, to clothing and imagery. Here, rather than attempting to untangle, I would like to draw attention to two aspects of the video—harmony and movement—in which contrast or mixed signals create interpretive ambiguity, especially regarding the Carters’ proximity to public audiences. In so doing, I suggest that ambiguity might characterize the video’s overall aesthetic just as much as its political value.
Harmonically, “APES**T” maintains ambiguity between two keys. The song’s melodies live mostly in the realm of G major, hovering around members of the tonic triad. The instrumental track, however, gives a pretty strong sense of E minor, and I find that both key areas are successfully kept in suspense as possibilities for the “real” tonic. There are pointers in both directions. We never get a D<sharp> to confirm E minor, and the melody places a fair amount of emphasis on D<natural>, which usually occurs as part of an arpeggiated G major triad. Strong minor-mode leading tones are not something we would necessarily expect from the style, though, and at around 4:26, Beyoncé’s rap emphatically takes up fast triplets on E in a low register. The effect is to rejoin the darker quality of the instrumental track. Even the G-major-triad melody occasionally dips down to E, reframing G and B as scale degrees 3 and 5. It’s possible to hear the song as modal—that is, based on an E tonic but lacking a leading tone. The recurring ad-lib “skoo skoo skoo,” which frames E with two neighbor tones (F<sharp>-D-E), certainly supports such a hearing. Alternately, it is possible to reduce the competing keys to G major with a heavy emphasis on scale degree 6. To me, though, the harmonic ambiguity remains in play, and the song feels pulled in two directions, one bright and celebratory and the other dark and formidable. While the nods to G major feel warm and affable, the cooler E minor seems to push others out of the Carters’ impressive orbit. The lyrics tend to amplify ambiguity, as we hear things like, “Cant be toppin’ my reign,” and “you need me, I don’t need you,” against more humble and inclusive lyrics, such as “I can’t believe we made it,” and “All of my people, I free ‘em all.” The most emphatic lyric in the song, “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?,” tips the scales neither way especially, nor does it provide any clarity about key area, hanging out around B.
Dance and movement create another type of ambiguity. It has been widely observed that stillness features centrally in the video and that Beyoncé’s movement is, on the whole, rather more subdued than her usual energetic performances.14 Despite the many references to going apeshit, it is rare that we see such a state embodied by the Carters, who instead apparently induce it. Certain moments in the video, however, feature Beyoncé breaking out into very animated movement styles. The divergence between the two modes—restraint and exuberance—place the Carters in an ambiguous relationship to other people who appear in the video, to viewers, and to the crowds referred to in the song. In tandem with the song’s lyrics, the couple’s detached stillness conveys a sense of distance, implacability, even superiority over the implied excitable masses who “go apeshit” in their presence. By contrast, the moments in which Beyoncé gets moving have a humanizing effect. A few times, she dissolves into free or wild motion that is characterized either by loose muscle tension and fluidity (e.g. 5:08), or by forceful, expansive gestures (e.g. 2:11). In these moments, she includes herself in her audience’s roistering. We are not granted the same degree of access to Jay-Z, who never deviates very far from the statue-like posture he assumes in the video’s opening. It is as though Beyoncé’s femininity ensures her corporality and sexuality, despite the Carters’ distance and loftiness. A range of relationships between Beyoncé and the backup dancers is also on display in the video; sometimes she lords over their prone bodies (e.g. 0:58), and other times she holds their hands and joins their irregular, sensuous hip movements (e.g. 1:37). When we return to the Winged Victory of Samothrace statue to find Beyoncé performing slack movements from the floor (e.g. 1:50) or thrashing vibrantly (5:30), it is a striking contrast to her former stoicism in the same context. Actors in the video, who tend to depict pedestrian or domestic aspects of black life, largely take up the more subdued movement style. If the Carters’ lack of movement distances them from the apeshit public, then these everyday characters, almost as motionless, exuding nobility, and co-inhabiting the Louvre, close the gap.
This web of competing signals across the video blurs our sense of the Carters’ self-positioning in relation to “ordinary” people and, as a result, our sense of the video’s meaning. If the elevation and liberation of black people is a central theme of ‘APES**T!,’ then we would surely expect the inclusion of a wide range of socio-economic classes in the Carters’ victory. Such an inclusion is ambiguously conveyed by the video’s audiovisual character. Rather than blending together, signifiers of E minor and G major remain intact as distinct competing forces, so that the sense of triumph expressed in the song comes across as alternately intimidating and joyful. Similarly, the Carters’ disparate styles of movement express varying attitudes, ranging from haughty to allied, especially with respect to the video’s actors and dancers. While I have considered only harmony and movement in the present essay, I believe that conflicting meanings of this type permeate many aspects of the video. At times, it seems the Carters’ empowerment belongs only to them, on the basis of their wealth and status, but at others, a wider antiracist message comes blaring out of the screen.
On APESHIT’s “Trapness”
“If you ever longed to hear what Beyoncé might sound like making a trap track,” says The Guardian, you’ll love APESHIT.15 But whence comes the song’s “trapness,” and why? The style is largely new for Beyoncé and JAY-Z, both of whom have made their names in other genres and have recently released their most sonically experimental solo albums yet. But while cynics online have suggested that their adoption of a trap aesthetic represents a classic case of “jumping on the bandwagon,” to stop there would be to consider the track without reference to its music video or overall narrative. As the other analyses in this collection point out, APESHIT is neither just a song nor even primarily a song—and if we regard the music as only one part of a multivalent audiovisual spectacle, we begin to see both trap’s appeal and the ways in which it allows The Carters to construct musical images of Black success, collectivity, and solidarity.
For APESHIT to succeed as a celebration of The Carters’ financial and cultural success that resonates on visual, narrative, and musical levels, the artists needed a sonic architecture that was as grandiose as the visual architecture of the Louvre. And right now, there is no sound in hip-hop that is more lavish than trap. Although the subgenre emerged in Atlanta during the 1990s, it has only recently entered the mainstream. And there, it has undergone a topical transformation: whereas trap lyrics were once about making it, they are now largely about havingmade it—consider, for example, recent chart-toppers like Migos’s “Bad and Boujee,” Ray Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.”
Largely responsible for this lyrical shift is Georgia-based trap trio Migos, which has been a major architect in the subgenre’s renaissance and whose members Quavo and Offset are listed as co-writers on APESHIT. The group has often described its wealth using a less-is-more lyrical minimalism: the hook on their 2013 debut single comprised a solid eight measures of repetitions of the single word “Versace.” But their tracks can still be lavish musically, not because of expansive reverb, soaring vocals, or recognizable samples, but because of their pervasive vocal ad-libs. In these shouted or sung interjections, keywords from a song’s lyrics are layered to create huge vocal percussion sections. As Quavo once said in an interview, “I feel like my voice is a snare. I feel like my voice is a drum. And most important, I feel like my voice is a bass.”16
Ad-libs like these permeate APESHIT, and they are only one of many sonic fingerprints that Quavo, Offset, and Pharell have left on the song. Note not only the sparse production, featuring booming bass synths and stuttering, machine-gun snares and hi-hats, but also the rapped lyrics delivered in a rapid triplet flow. This is not surprising because, as a recently leaked demo version of the song has made clear, it was a near-finished Migos track before it was given to The Carters.17 A brief comparison of this demo and the final song gives us the rare chance to glance into the black box of the studio and see how the hit evolved in real time.
Most of APESHIT’s architecture was already in place in the demo: Pharell’s beat and the original intro and outro are preserved almost exactly in the final track. The pre-chorus and choruses are altered slightly more: Quavo’s vocals are re-recorded by Beyoncé, who makes some changes to his lyrics and vocal intonation. Her two verses are also adapted from Quavo’s, with varying degrees of creativity. Many lines having to do with wealth are left unaltered, even those that are off-brand for Beyoncé, such as the reference to Migos’s favorite Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe. Some of the demo’s rhetoric is toned down, including much of the drug and gun language (“I’m taking a down on the Adderall/I’m serving the purp with the Tylenol” becomes “Sipping my favorite alcohol/got me so lit I need Tylenol”). But when Beyoncé intensifies the original lyrics, she does so to emphasize The Carters’ unique degree of wealth. Her reference to “G8 planes” instead of Quavo’s “G5 planes,” for instance, is an upgrade that comes with a price tag bump of tens of millions of dollars.
The Carters are also responsible for many of the song’s most memorable and provocative lyrics. Beyoncé’s “get off my dick” does not appear at all in the demo, and only once, buried in a pre-chorus, does “have you ever seen the stage go apeshit?” This line’s prominent place at the end of each chorus is arguably part of the final version’s magic—and is clearly what JAY-Z was responding to when he penned the barrage of zoological puns in his own verse.
The finished track is a sonic palimpsest, then, replete with surprises about authorship, precedence, and adaptation. Most notably, although the song’s ad-libs seem to respond to Beyoncé’s lyrics, they were recorded mostly chronologically before her performance. Almost all of the ad-libs during the pre-choruses, choruses, and her first verse are Quavo’s and Offset’s from the demo; whenever a line was changed such that the ad-lib that followed would make no sense, it was either cut or replaced by Beyoncé or JAY-Z.
I have suggested that these ad-libs are one way of constructing a grandiose, “expensive” sonic texture. But they also fulfill another function that is central to APESHIT’s musical and visual rhetoric. Even when they seem to be in the background, they carry markers of identity, often consisting of signature phrases or vocalizations that identify the rapper delivering them.18 And precisely because they are not anonymous, they also contribute to the definition of specific collectivities: when Beyoncé is rapping and JAY-Z, Quavo, and Offset are responding to her lyrics, they are endorsing her message and affirming a shared identity. Like the expressions of “floating” toward home and family that Dani Oore describes, they function as a musical way of constructing or affirming membership in a community.
In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy wrote about the way in which antiphony functions in Black musical modes of expression as a way of affirming both individuality and collectivity, allowing “lines between self and other [to be] blurred.”19 APESHIT makes a powerful case for the idea that ad-libs, like the call-and-response vocalizations or moments of jazz improvisation that Gilroy discusses, can blur those same lines. In the song’s final “shout” chorus, JAY-Z and Beyoncé overlay their own ad-libs on those retained from Migos’s original demo, creating the most complex and layered musical texture yet. Even if it is not clear who is speaking for and through whom in the resulting whirlwind of voices, it is clear that everybody is speaking together. On a song that is about Black solidarity at least as much as it is about The Carters’ prosperity, what could make more sense?
Tracing the Carters Through the Galleries
This reading provides a sequential analysis and a brief description of music video’s unusual features (and subsequently, some of “APES**T”‘s surprising features as well). I’ll show how “APES**T” makes political claims, though its codes are most accessible upon repeat viewings. Music videos are multi-layered and open to many readings. As we cathect to sonic and visual moments, we cut paths through them. I’m in the Beyhive, a booster for music video, and a lover of museums, so my reading’s positioned, but I also embrace our colloquium’s analyses. Almost entirely, “APES**T”‘s artwork is ethnically white, and its performers, ethnically black (for brevity, I won’t identify each appearance, but rather mention race when it’s most useful for my argument) (Figure 1).20
THE SILENCE OF ARTWORKS AND A RAP VIDEO
John Berger said paintings convey a quality of silence. They project an aura: the painter’s brushstrokes and the paint’s materiality bring the viewer back to an originary moment. When reproduced, however, paintings become indistinguishable from advertisements, stripped of their political content and immediacy.21 One might thus expect that Beyoncé’s “APES**T” would denature the Louvre’s artworks. This is especially so because the paintings often function as backdrops for performers, or appear in partial views—for Berger, fragments of paintings become no more than simple statements, like “a woman with her hands over her head” or “the eye of a horse.”22
But I’ll take a more optimistic view. With its sharp gestures, rhythmic and timbral vibrancy, and varied voices, the song awakens the paintings; they appear to vibrate. At some level, audiovisual aesthetics are about relations between the image and the soundtrack; “APES**T”‘s relations, though often kept at a distance, still project contentious, high stakes. These relations reflect this song’s attributes. (Some YouTube experiments make this clear. Play “APESH**T,” and then some others, some soporific—like Yanni—against the Louvre visitors’ slideshows of the galleries, documented through still images or shaky footage.) “APESH**T” snaps the artworks into life, almost as if their figures might emerge from their contexts—as if their faces begin to move. If we crystallize these relations into one moment, we might judge that “APESH**T” shares qualities with Delacroix’s painting, Tiger and Snake (Figure 2).
In “APES**T” the paintings become animate, and the totemic figures take on the residual stillness. It seems as if the two might be trying to talk to one another, but we can’t quite determine what they’re saying. Images cluster into suggestive groups, but we can’t be sure how. “APES**T”—like other music videos—may leave us with a vague sense of something ephemeral, a haunting, a museum tinged with a new resonance.
The video’s force and vibrancy derive partly from its instrumentation. Its high-hat could be considered a horizontal reconfiguration of cymbals. Like “APESH**T”’s snare, cymbals have a long history in military music (cymbals became prominent in eighteenth century Turkish marches, during the same period as “APES**T”‘s Jacques-Louis David paintings). The berimbau, an Afro-Brazilian instrument, is traditionally used in capoeira, where it can be understood as a weapon disguised as an instrument (Figure 3).23 The song’s high-pitched reiterating tone might be imagined as a targeting device, like an infrared scope. Along with this instrumentation the song’s many voices—Beyoncé’s, Jay-Z’s, Migos’s, perhaps Pharrell’s, and other males’ exuberant shouts—seem to press into the Louvre’s galleries, skimming past paintings to seek out depths. The camera sometimes comes in on a diagonal (as with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and the Mona Lisa), as if to veil the music’s force.
The video could also be seen as haunted. Some examples include 1) the angel on the museum’s steps; 2) the shifting lights passing over the ceiling; 3) the fragmentary images of the Madonna and an elderly man oriented toward supplication and beseechment but not meeting; 4) the whooshes and roars that seem to wake the dead; 5) the camera’s heading alone down a hallway; 6) the slave ship bathed in red light; 7) the unseen male voices, and images of the middle passage (and perhaps the youths dancing with Beyoncé by the Great Sphinx); 8) Beyoncé and Jay-Z with their various statues, especially before the Venus de Milo;24 9) the song’s sudden starts and stops, with music’s indeterminate causal role; 10) the figures on pedestals in the darkness who slowly become animate; 11) Beyoncé and Jay-Z before the sphinx as a summons; 12) Beyoncé’s and her dancers’ pause before the Coronation of Napoleon, as if their animacy is not yet decided; 13) Beyoncé looking a bit ghostly when her skin is fairer and her hair is blonder; 14) the montage sequences, like the narration of a black male’s death as well as the composite of male and female dancers, sculptures, and paintings that together break free from the fetters of ropes; and 15) the poured wine (or blood) that calls forth figures in the painting and reminiscent marks on the basement ceiling.
Music videos can help us understand “APESH**T”’s sense of hauntedness. The first writers on music video argued for the genre’s uncanny qualities—they saw elements of dreams and schizophrenia—and later scholarship bears this out.25 I’ve argued that this uncanniness is mostly a function of heightened audiovisual relations.26 In our world, sounds trail objects, but in music video’s metaphysics it’s the other way around. With music playback on set, sound puts everything into motion: physical gestures, the camera, and material and immaterial elements such as props, wind, and light. Pop songs structure time in a way that densifies it and seems to turn it into a grid; with software like Logic, Pro Tools, and Ableton Live, this spatialization of sound is reflected in the interface. Music-video image can intensify this sense of space and time: the distance between figures can feel palpable, like an ether. Our visual fields encourage us to seek a focal point, while sound and music envelop us. But the image in music video often mimics sounds’ attributes in an attempt to draw our attention to the music. At the same time, music-video image can have a “mute” quality because of the genre’s brevity and lack of dialogue. The terms I’ll be using throughout this analysis—multi-temporality, heterogeneity, undetermined cause and effects, animation, and haunting—are linked phenomena that derive from these uncanny audiovisual relations.
“APESH**T” is so rich with overlaps, cross-fades, processes, and hierarchies that it can be hard to parse. The visual, musical, and lyrical threads encourage the viewer to adopt different modes of attention. When might we experience “APES**T” linearly, in segments, teleologically, or as isolated instances? Let me provide a sequential reading, and then turn briefly to others that present equal validity, including those that embrace attention to instances, continuities, and sections.
A SEQUENTIAL READING OF “APES**T”
Music videos keep options open; no audiovisual moment annihilates the others.27 Videos can open themselves to multiple paths and a variety of readings. “APES**T,” however, is unusual in that it could be said to commit to a forward-driving story. This is partly because the music can be experienced as continuous. (Harmonically, the song lingers on an incomplete minor tonic chord, momentarily shifting to a bII or bVII.)28 Its media are also atypical. The Louvre’s paintings can project the times when they were painted; if they were staged reenactments, we might not be able to leap centuries, since the image would be infused with a sense of now-ness.29
The video opens with a contrast between the celestial/spiritual (the angel-boy crouched on the museum steps) and the haunted/supernatural (unattributable colored lights seep across the painted ceiling alongside ethereal held tones and acousmatic footsteps). Next, fragments from paintings suggest a contrast between supplication and beseeching—the figures’ gazes and hands don’t meet (Figure 4). (These are emergent motifs.) This opening raises questions about authority and gender: whose footsteps echo? Are they Beyoncé’s heels? Why would she inhabit this space while Jay-Z explores the museum proper?
A whoosh—we shift to a different time.
The berimbau, exclamations of “yeh yeh yeh,” and the trailing male voices in the hall of the Mona Lisa suggest a testing and claiming of space (Figure 5).30 The sounds might connect to a viewer’s phantom image of a shaman’s feet, bent knees, and stick tapping the floor for treasure—water, blood or oil—and with other haunting touches, like an earlier painted image of a limb swaddled in fiery red and orange cloth. Why does the camera track towards Jay-Z and Beyoncé on an angle? (To cloak the music’s assertiveness?) Jay-Z’s white sneakers pop from a distance. As the video unfolds, this patch of whiteness rises through the frame, emerging as a thread. The harmony brightens as it switches to a major chord (bVII).31 This accentuates Jay-Z’s, Beyoncé’s, and the Mona Lisa’s regal air as the camera tracks back.
Another heightening: the imperial Beyoncé and Jay-Z stand at the top of the staircase before Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Then a third intensification. The song’s suddenly thicker arrangement—snare, bass, and high-pitched tone—animates inert bodies. (And there are other mysterious forces: who beckoned their pure barre “V” roll-ups?) Standing on pedestals along the gallery’s walls, shadowy figures make tiny stomps; later they flutter their fingertips. In another emergent thread, these bodies and others may be released from their bonds (Figure 6).
The camera arcs past David’s The Oath of the Horatii (Figure 7). Who has the highest authority here? The camera? The couple? The music? Our eye may light on the painted figures’ outstretched arms and a sword. (These, as well as Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s subjects, with their spiked arms and legs, may form another thread, culminating in the swords near the video’s end.)
Seated with Jay-Z on the divan, Beyoncé seems aware of their vibrancy as a couple (singing “I can’t believe we made it”). But they haven’t yet pierced the museum’s space. There’s room for progression—camera, music, and lighting will more fully inhabit the galleries by the end of the clip. Through a subtle audiovisual transfer, the ring of tiny lights at the base of the divan relate to the song’s reiterating high-pitched tones. These lights become a node in an emergent thread leading us to Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une Négresse and beyond.32 I take seriously the song’s repeated allusions to building a spaceship. The divan is part of this construction (why else those lights?), and a future, potential escape.
Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and the Great Sphinx in front of a large, illuminated arch heighten the hallway’s yonic qualities. Beyoncé wears the uniform of a colonizer, a World War II beret and cloak, but with a leopard pattern. Must the video’s protagonists adopt colonizers’ roles if they are to return to and claim what belongs to a people and a culture? Beyoncé’s outfit has touches that extend images of emancipation: here, her boots are crossed with shiny, black strips and tiny wattles dangle from her cloak (to help carry forward her flapping wings?) (Figure 9).
The staircase with recumbent figures appears again, but this time its sides are bathed in red light. Might this be a slave ship (Figure 10)? (Red and the history of oppression become threads too.)
Beyoncé before the Nike. A striking image: its sculpture features a ship’s prow with a headless maiden for its mast, yet Beyoncé is our maiden-queen, seated below. She and the statue might yet shift roles; folds of fabric merge with the statue’s attributes (Figure 11). Beyoncé’s hand’s and forearm’s sharp gestures and her rhythmically tighter exclamations (like “pay me in equity”) feel summary, though we’re not yet sure of their context. The sculpture’s base, a boat’s prow, will be carried forth thematically. We’ll see kneeling NFL players, the I.M. Pei pyramid, and Jay-Z approaching and receding from the camera on a diagonal, and then inhabiting the foreground with his hands steepled in prayer. This moment feels potent.
Beyoncé and her dancers, in formation before David’s The Coronation of Napoleon, valorize the couple (Figure 12). Beyoncé, with her hair in a bun, has been crowned before Josephine. The song thickens with Beyoncé’s voice, autotuned and multi-tracked against the full rhythm arrangement. One might guess that this sonic configuration will repeat, but it doesn’t, giving this moment, in retrospect, a special prominence. To Beyoncé’s left there are the painting’s folds of white fabric (a node in a thread contributing to the headdress of the woman in Portrait d’une Négresse). The dancers’ line, fluid with serpentine-like motions (like the z-access phalanx of dancers’ dropping heads and torsos before the Nike) seems nearly effortless but for their sharp chin-tucks and turns. Also, a summoning of stillness before the movement starts.34
David’s painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women chronicles the tale of women who, to end a war, intercede with their men and prevent them from murdering their rapists. “APES**T” takes the painting’s formal properties rather than its message: one woman’s bent arms is doubled by Beyoncé’s, and another kneeling woman’s and child’s golden hair is echoed by Beyoncé’s headdress (another node in the video’s gold-white thread). Beyoncé refuses TheSabine Women’s ameliorative stance, gesturing wildly while throwing off her cap (Figure 13). (Her “Get off my dick” seconds her refusal.)
The dancers’ rippling wave of falling heads and torsos suggests both flow and stasis. The rhythm arrangement, too, changes tack—dropping out to leave spongy synths and Beyoncé’s singing, increasingly fuller. The synths and Beyoncé’s autotuned voice can be aligned with the mechanical, and perhaps the regularization of the dancers’ gestures also suggests a machine (might we be building the spaceship?) (Figure 14).35 This section feels somewhat apart from the video’s texture.
The museum gains authority. Two women seated in front of David’s Portrait of de Madame Recamier suggest an additional piece of furniture, or the Madame’s slaves. The musical arrangement reduces to bare, held tones. The bells seem to weigh on the shadowy dancers.36 But the museum’s sonic and visual control will not hold. In the basement, a worker (or athlete) with blood-red shoes stomps angrily; a skull dangles from a colleague’s necklace. We hear the berimbau and voices through the ceiling (as if the youths are also in the slave ship’s hold). A whoosh transports us to a historical painting of a wounded man embraced by a female lover; we cut next to a couple in a similar embrace. (Has something happened to the young man with the red shoes? The subsequent painting with the black-face Jesus figure might suggest so.) Two boys seem to bless the couples. The sequence ends, maintaining its silver-colored thread as a means to bind it together. A lost moment (Figure 15).
“Roar!” “Stack my money fast.” The literal repetition of a strong opening suggests a new trial. Beyoncé, on Jay-Z’s arm, appears as someone who might present herself as mixed race (her hair and skin have become lightened). The white thread continues with a close-up on an African man’s raised hand holding a handkerchief, a fragment drawn from near the top Gericault’s Raft of Medusa (Figure 16). The painting narrates a terrible story (the French allowed 140 people to die).37 Then there’s a white flash-frame. The video’s engagement with whiteness comes briefly to a halt, as if rescue and passing are no longer options. The video turns to poorly illuminated images. Perhaps Jay-Z’s gesture, which breaks the frame as if to say, “What a painting,” really asks, “What the hell?”
The protagonists adopt more self-determined and militant approaches. The video draws on Eisensteinian montage: a collision between shots edited together produces a new concept. (Film director Sergei Eisenstein believed this technique most effectively mobilized the proletariat.).38 We might instead chart its origins from what Tricia Rose calls “the cut” in rap.39 This sequence begins with a partial view of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana (of party-goers and waiters with hats), and then the sword and horse’s eye from Gericault’s The Charging Chasseur, the man standing on the horse, and then a motorcade. At this last instant the bass kicks in. Together these elements suggest gathering forces to be reckoned with (Figure 17). (To strengthen these claims, Jay-Z’s rapping intensifies, adopting a rising, quickening arpeggio.)
Jay-Z’s rapping is fast and aggressive, emphasizing plosives. A triangular formation of kneeling men, perhaps of the NFL, now, in formation, appears most likely to spring. The right approach is “You need me/I don’t need you (Figure 18).”40
“Stack my money fast, fast.” For the third time a long section with the song’s most characteristic materials reappears. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stand before the Venus de Milo, the setting tinted dark blue. Beyoncé’s bodysuit, shadowed with darker areas (note her hips and breasts), links her to the earliest, voluptuous Venus figurines (marking art’s beginnings 40,000 years ago, rather than with Greek sculpture). From this first start (with support from “APESH**T”‘s earlier yonic imagery) the video develops a new line, a new way of going forward (Figure 19).
Alongside Beyoncé’s rapping, “APESH**T”‘s second Eisensteinian montage is grander: an armless sculpture; a Venus sculpture with shortened upper arms; a black male dancer with arms behind his back; a gorgeous image of Beyoncé with arms overhead; perhaps black male and female dancers’ hands in ropes; fragments from Gericault’s Raft of Medusa with ropes, and the cross-cut breaking free of ropes; a black female dancer vigorously dancing; the same dancer in full flexion with her hair thrown back (Figure 20).
Jay-Z’s rap set-piece is virtuosic, but something about Beyoncé’s takes one’s breath away—she’s remarkably stern, fleet, and low-pitched.41 Her narration focuses on a party with wine and drugs; but again, we might take her narration as a call for political action. Images, sounds and lyrics start swirling and becoming compressed. Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana suggests partying with the poured wines, but quickly we shift to imprisoned black figures. (We also see rave-like dancing around the sphinx, and hear the reiterating high-pitched tone and various pulses.) Beyoncé references wealth, perhaps obscenely so (“250 for the Richard Mille”), but the lyrics also tie to negative depictions of African Americans (jigga, gorilla, coupe). Might her rap be an attempt to mix everything up, so perceptions of race lose their fixed positions? Jay-Z’s rapping connects to the rimshot (like sabre-rattling) and becomes machine-gun volleys. Nodding, Beyoncé counts off her subjects. We’ll take those swords (including a fragment from The Intervention of the Sabine Women, the NFL team with arms raised, and a sudden brightening to the bVII). Beyoncé cradles her hand to her chin, forming a sword. Beyoncé raps, “Wanna see the stars,” and “I’m a Martian, they wishin’ they equal.” A profusion of small visual details such as spots of light, pearls, and painted circles alongside larger, more slow-moving shapes (the performers’ stilled bodies) direct our attention to the song’s multiple tempi. A wider range of imagery re-occurs near the joins of song sections (Beyoncé and Jay-Z before the Mona Lisa, the Pei pyramid, and the blue-scaped Venus de Milo, alongside Beyoncé ’s quickened rapping; shorter bridge-like material of the spongy synths and “take a top shift;” and the predominant section, “stack my money fast and go”). This gives the illusion that we traverse song sections. A detail stands out, connecting with the space-ship theme: in a blue-tinted scape, behind Beyoncé, are is her entourage of women, wearing metallic-shoulder-padded 70s-like costumes—imagery associated with Afrocentric sci-fi.42 A warrior, perhaps released from a painting, cuts through the dancing crowds (Figure 21).
The video closes with more inclusive gestures. With each reappearance, the single line of dancers before the Nike have comes closer to the camera. The video culminates in a close-up of a black woman grooming a black man’s hair. We also see the couple before the Mona Lisa, and we might imagine an exit (the spaceship). There’s a sequence of gentle, loving and quiet hands, with a variety of skin-tones; their gestures recall the Mona Lisa’s hands (Figure 22).
“APES**T”‘s ending might work as a spell, deploying technologies for magical purposes.43 One could use Pei’s pyramid to gather light, sounds, the camera’s drive, and the gestures of the figures, and direct them past the embracing, waltzing couple (as if through a prism); Benoist’s Portrait d’une Négresse; the camera arc over to the ceiling; Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s tilt; and the Mona Lisa; to where we might want to go (Figure 23).
MUSIC VIDEO’S PECULIARITIES AS A GENRE AND “APES**T”’S POSSIBILITIES FOR POLITICAL CHANGE
“APES**T” supports three modes of attention. The video’s multiplicity supports a variety of interpretations.
First, listening as a line: in some ways the song seems to glide forward, unchanging. The harmony hovers around a tonic-minor stasis. “APES**T” could be said to reflect neoliberal experience—we never get the relief that earlier song-structures can provide.44 The music’s constant drive seems to fit well with the Louvre’s long, narrow galleries (substitute shallow ones against this song instead). Since the song, at one level, embodies continuity (as if spanning a long, flat horizon or desert), details across distances may link more easily (the sword-inspired shapes and Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s regal appearances as bookends, for example).
But the song can also be experienced as highly segmented. Each set of four- or eight- bar measures showcases a new effect: the high hat, the spongy synthesizers, and the moments when the arrangement foregrounds an addition, subtraction, or oscillation of material, like the reiterated high-pitched tones. There’s also Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s flow and the men’s responses. With this kind of listening, sharp visual contrasts become more apparent, such as the Eisensteinian montages, and the “militant” section juxtaposed with more peaceful imagery toward the end.
And third, the song and the video seem to brighten and intensify overall, thereby suggesting a teleology. The deployment of the Louvre’s artworks appears to support this, because while there’s back-and-forth among the sculptures, the paintings progress historically, and finally give way to Pei’s modernist pyramid. Jay-Z’s and Beyoncé’s late-appearing, virtuosic rap set-pieces can be experienced as a heightening. The high-pitched tones start oscillating. Jay-Z’s rap traces a rising arpeggio. Production touches strengthen a sense of teleology. Beyoncé’s “I can’t believe we made it” takes its most ebullient turn, and then gets reiterated on the vocoder (an instrument associated with Afrofuturism). The signoff rapping is not “yeh yeh yeh” but “yip yip yip,” a brighter vowel (and there’s also “honky honky honky”).
Complicating all of this are the visual, musical, and lyrical threads that cross and encourage viewers to shift their modes of attention. One can trace the unfoldings of the white, the red, the green, the swords, the hands, the fabric, the sculptural forms, the paintings, the imagery tied to slavery, the Afro-futurist imagery, the dance gestures, and so on. One might be following the snare, and then suddenly Beyoncé’s rap takes on a heightened character. (Why now? Has she been listening to the rhythm arrangement all along?) Throughout the video, we’re encouraged not to engage in Mickey-Mouse listening, but at the end we suddenly have several opportunities. The dancer’s body and hair unfurl against a “roar;” Beyoncé faces the camera, and exclaims, “Uh;” Jay-Z pantomimes advancing machine gun fire against sonic sabre-rattling; and a blown-bottle sound pairs with a dancing male figure. What kind of weight might we give these moments of sync? Is it only through political action that we can really be-in-time? Are the tiny white lights and the oscillating high pitch a linear or rising function?
Perhaps “APES**T”‘s audiovisual relations feel difficult to determine, and its threads more interwoven than many music videos, because the video must somehow span the distance between paintings, sculptures, and live figures. It’s common for music videos to distort a figure’s identity, offering doppelgangers, replacements, substitutions, models, mannequins, statuary and appendages instead. This device reflects popular music’s heterogeneity and promiscuity: musical motifs, timbres, and rhythms often adopt one another’s characteristics. The moving image, too, can reflect music’s varied speeds, from slowest to fastest. “APES**T” does all these things in a slightly different way. Is the entranceway angel the same as the lover on the bed, or the blonde boy, or one of the dancers who unfetters his hands?
“Who are “APES**T”‘s background figures, and how much should they matter to us?” might be our question. Music videos tend to work in the service of a song, showing off its most attractive features; only one or two characters get to sing, and everyone else becomes relegated to the background. Bodies are deployed in the service of form. In “APESH**T” the dark-green scapes with shadowy figures are used near the ends of sections to help slow them down. Techniques like this raise questions about how viewers should feel about such audiovisual relations. These question have haunted the genre since its inception, and they contribute to our diverging views of “APES**T.”
The claim that Beyoncé’s, Jay-Z’s, and the Louvre’s collaboration stems from an attempt to enhance one another’s prestige and capital has grip. Many of the 18th-eighteenth century paintings celebrate plunder, and were gathered through colonization. And the lyrics for “APES**T” play with something similar, with over-the-top descriptions of commodities. But the video and the collaboration have progressive aspects. Encountering a museum, “APES**T”‘s viewers might be able to more deeply inhabit its space. I might adopt “APES**T”‘s approach, choosing a few paintings I felt affinity for, seeking out isolated elements within these, and then moving out from there.
But of course this isn’t enough for anyone who’s desperate for something better—when the corporations and the rich seize most of our wealth, with Trump and other despots, and the earth’s precarity. The video’s progressive nature is hard to claim, in part, because a music video’s experiences can be so fleeting. But perhaps “APES**T”’s intensity derives from the video’s awareness of this fact. The makers pitch their hopes on our ability to access the past and present as we face our uncertain future (Figure 24).
Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s new collaborative video “APES**T” presents a problem: while the bricolage of images suggests some new statement about black self-definition, the reality is that it presents blackness as defined against whiteness. The Carters set themselves and a host of black avatars in relief against the white cultural space of the Louvre, confirming the logic of blackness as a form of alterity. Fanon might suggest that instead of articulating a personhood which strives to understand itself without compulsory reference to imperialist racial tropes, this is a vision of black success that takes whiteness, made manifest in the Louvre, as a point of reference. Even when they stand in front of the Sphinx, the logic is an imperialist one. Here they are invoking a “kings-and-queens” narrative, bolstering the central belief system of this video: to be greater-than is to be free.
Elsewhere, blackness is much more literally construed as silhouette and shadow, both inverses of light and body. Beyoncé’s sculptural corps of black back-up dancers is a study in abstracted forms. In his solo, Jay-Z is mirrored by his own dramatic shadow, as well as a triangle formation of kneeling black men outside of the museum. In both cases, the visual logic is one of echo, both in visual shape and, when Beyoncé and the dancers form lines that crest and curve, in motion. The Carters have constructed themselves as demi-gods, lording over cavernous spaces, echoed in form through an implied and faceless mass of black humanity. And all of this because they are rich.
Echo is also central to the sonic fiber of the song. Because Beyoncé and Jay-Z are working with trap conventions, lines and fragments are often echoed quickly. Beyond this, the song’s energetic climax emerges from an extended stretch of reverberating church bells, which haunt alienating close-ups of larger artworks. The large bell, signifying the uneasy familiarity of the old-world and unsettling fragmentation of the new, renders the classical modern.
Echo is ultimately a medium for modernist aesthetics in this video. The sculptural forms of the back-up dancers recall Ann Cheng’s discussion of Josephine Baker. Cheng argues that Baker exemplified the deep ties between European modernism and primitivism, resisting the trope of primitive bareness in photographs by representing herself as a radiant sculpture of unbroken line, cast in bronze. The video’s back-up dancers are exercises in beautifully minimalist form, almost made of movable stone. They resist the idea of primitive nakedness, which we can certainly imply is a force in the collection at the Louvre, but unlike Baker, they are not allowed personality. Instead, they serve to create something more like the impersonal masses of echoing shapes that preoccupied Kracauer in “The Mass Ornament.”
The woman-as-shape paradigm extends to Beyoncé when she is alongside Jay-Z. When he is in the frame, she is often acting as his “video girl” or as paragon of ornamental feminine contour. The gender dynamics recall some of their earlier collaborations, including the collaborative videos for B-Day and “Drunk in Love.” What has changed over time is more aesthetic than political (“Upgrade You” communicates strikingly similar values). “APES**T” is openly beautiful in the modern sense: minimalist, abstract, and impersonal.
The detachment of visual minimalism does allow “APES**T” to confront the ambiguity of relating to the art of imperialism. As a black woman who has made my life classical music, I firmly believe that it is important to come face-to-face with the ambivalence of this encounter. But this video does make me wonder whether we can accept this truth and articulate a more radical form of self-love. What would be its language? How could we give it shape?
APES**T: HEAVEN & EARTH
Mythic Structures in Time and Space: What mythic structures and stories are invoked in APES**T? How are these structures and stories invoked through temporal interactions among the music video’s auditory, visual, and kinesthetic elements?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless … darkness … and the Spirit … hovering … And God said “Let there be light.”
The screen is black.
Hear the clashing timing of the classic French police sirens and church bells. Feel the tension in their asynchrony (128 bpm against 22 bpm shifting to 32 bpm, all with different start points).
Who plays who —the good or the bad, the sacred or the corrupt— in this temporal symbol of the endless chase between chaos and order?
Now the sound of footsteps walking in yet another tempo.
A bell tolls and there is light; a winged angel appears, squatting: heaven-sent to this apeshit earth.
A thunderous chime interrupts this tempo tail-chasing. The video cuts to a vast mural of Apollo slaying Python, serpent of earthly chaos, ouroboros of time. The mural is lit by reds, magentas, and blues, whose flickering recalls the police siren and its wailing tempo. A montage cuts from one painting close-up to the next, in synch with bell tolls whose reverberating sustain stretches moments in time, out like canvas.45
Whose heel steps now reverberate across the floor as I stare up to the stretching Galerie d’Apollon ceiling? To where do they now hasten me (36 bpm)? Linear time surges forward with anticipation … and I find myself in a room where Beyoncé and Jay-Z dare stand alone with their backs to the Mona Lisa. The southern Afrological twang of a synthesized berimbau pulsates (at 79.75 bpm) —more than double the tempo of my now vanished footsteps; am I floating in the presence of the Carters?46
Trap loves twang … the stuttering broken boing in Beyoncé’s Formation, swangin’ n’ bangin’ tape delays, and now the gliding overtones of a berimbau in APES**T.47 Twang evokes elasticity of time and space. The overtones of this APES**T twang are so rich they elicit multiple interpretations of pitch: is the berimbau alternating from E down to D (characteristic of shifting tonic levels in axial African bow music)?48 Or from low E up to high E, or … ?49 The twang is counterpointed by Quavo’s rhythmic “Ye[ah], Ye, Ye, Ye, Ye” incantation.50
Are the Carters embodying art or flaunting it? Are they positioning their Blackness, or Beyoncé’s Creoleness in relation to the Western (and specifically French) institution? Is the ambiguity of these social relationships consistent with the multistability of the pitch or temporal relationships?
When the bass drops —on top of the berimbau and incantation— we dance. We become the art, living and dying, again and again with each breath. Mythic, cyclic time dominates.
Feel the multiplicity of rhythmic cycles:
The berimbau strikes every four hi-hat ticks, and the alternating (e.g. low-high) pattern of the berimbau takes eight beats to cycle, but Quavo’s incantation spans across the end and beginning of two eight-beat groups, fusing them into a longer sixteen-beat cycle. The snare mostly synchronizes with the berimbau. Whether one perceives the hi-hat tick as the salient beat or as a subdivision of the larger “tactus” pulse of the berimbau, such a relational, multistable engagement is characteristic of Afrological temporal play. Temporality is spatial too: witness the rhythmic tricksterism in Beyoncé’s dancing, where she shifts her motions to emphasize different temporal cycles (e.g. her slow pulse at 5:08 suddenly changes to emphasize a rapid pulse at 5:11).
Against these symmetrical and even-numbered cycle lengths of four, eight, and sixteen, the bass groove’s asymmetrical and odd three-beat groupings acquire a syncopated feeling. The asymmetry that begins on the third and fourth bass hits (on beat 7 and 8 of the hi-hat) might feel like an unexpected displacement of the strong beat location, by one beat (hi-hat tick). An alternate (multistable) perception is that the bass hits organize into four groups of three beats each, followed by two groups of two beats. This synergy of quadruple and triple beat groupings is characteristic of Afrological music-dance traditions; it finds further expression in Beyoncé’s triplet-grid rapping (see triplet grid in top three rows of Figure 1).
The interaction of duple and triple groupings within the bass rhythm generates a tresillo patterning (see bottom three rows of Figure 1). The tresillo is a rhythmic pattern found in movement and dance musics around the globe, including in traditions throughout the African diaspora … and Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer.51
The bass rhythm, like its tresillo substructure, is comparable to African rhythmic ostinati known as timelines, or bell-patterns because of the bell on which they are often played. The APES**T bass rhythm resembles a seven-stroke pattern found in sub-Saharan African music and dance, referred to as the standard bell pattern, which includes the strokes of even more widespread five-stroke patterns, known in Cuba, for example, as the son and rumba claves (Figure 2). The sequence of three pitches in the bass part, too, recalls those played on the double (or triple) belled gankogui or agogo. The bells that toll in APES**T signify layers and cycles of beginnings and endings.
Throughout APES**T, the regularity of these cycles forms a ground: the predictability of the beat is danceable, the mass of interlocking beats forms a groove, a pocket, that draws our feet and bodies into the earth below, over and over.
Above this spatiotemporal ground, APES**T delivers countless expressions of flying and floating: the unpredictable syncopations and multistable properties of the groove that engender ungrounded and shifting perceptions of time; the ungrounded asynchronous relationship among the bell, siren, and footstep tempos (0:00-0:16); the elimination of footstep sounds when the berimbau first enters (0:38); a recurring wing motif, however immobile, for example, in the sculpture of the Winged Victoryof Samothrace; lofty ceilings decorated with angel figures and images of heavens (0:17, 1:13); women lying on stairs gesturing upward in rhythmic contractions (Martha Graham, demanding grounding, would say “move from your vagina”52) … will this graceful labor set the women free to the heavens?;53 points of view repeatedly looking down to the grounded women (1:06, 1:23); lyrics signifyn’(g) on success through metaphors of flight and elevation, e.g. “planes too,” “stage divin’,” “jumpin’ off the stage,” “bought him a jet,” “spaceship,” “G8 planes,” “hop in … wanna’ see the stars … sendin’ the missiles off ”; lyrics delivered with a “floating” flow, where Beyoncé raps in triplets “over” the groove (top rows in Figure 1), and Jay-Z raps in a more complex and ambiguous rhythmic relationship that “flies” above the “underlying” groove (e.g. in a 7:6 or 7:8 ratio between the number of Jay-Z’s rapped syllables relative to the number of hi-hat ticks, usually beginning on the third of every group of eight hi-hat ticks, until 3:41 where he climactically extends this temporal flight “over” twenty-four ticks, or six berimbau twangs); and Beyoncé flapping her white dress beneath the winged Nike.
In Afro-diasporic traditions, flying and floating are recurring expressions of a transformative journey, or escape —“goin’ apeshit”— often back home and especially back to family: ancestors (their resilience and sacrifice “is what we’re thankful for”), community (“crowd goin’ apeshit,” “crowd better save her,” “call all my girls,” “my bitches,” and through call-and-response echoes54), and perhaps, as seems here, also a reunified marriage. “I can’t believe we made it,” Beyoncé admits gratefully.55
If flying is an expression both of ecstasy and of power, distinguishing its symbols —the revelry from the ascendency gained by those who control this revelry— helps to understand when each aspect is at play in APES**T. The winged Nike statue symbolizes the victory of this power, not the Dionysian power itself which the Carters (claim to) exert over their followers, through music, dance, and ritual “sippin’ my favorite alcohol.”56
The contrasting expressions of groundedness and flying-floating are, in fact, complementary. The receptive feminine earth, yin, and the creative masculine heaven, yang, form a whole. Yin and yang are often expressed as the two interlocking spirals of shadow and light in a taijitu. The rhythm of contrasting lighting in APES**T tells a story: the video begins with a black screen and ends with a white one, in between unfolds a dramatic play of shadows (some scenes barely visible, and always, it seems, artificial or the suggestion of moon light).57 The berimbau is a sonic prism, each of its twangs glides up through an overtone series, a spiral of pitches that simultaneously ascend and repeat as octaves.
APES**T choreography too, features significant spiraling motions that bridge heaven and earth and also unify cyclic and linear temporalities. A spiral combines circular and straight motions, and we repeatedly witness dancers rhythmically forming kinesthetic circles that coil, in serpentine motion, around an axis.58
Three times we see TheCoronation of Napoleon as a backdrop to such spiraling choreography, a line of dancers corkscrew their hips as well as torsos and limbs, along the axes of their spines. Their gyrations combine circular and linear motions. In front of this particular painting, the spiral choreography reconciles the repetition of coronations throughout history with the singularity of Queen Bey’s own position below the painted crown: “can’t be toppin’myreign.”
In another thrice-repeated spiral choreography, an undulating helix is formed by a line of dancers’ swaying heads, positioned from nearest to the camera moving back and up along a staircase toward the headless statue of the goddess Nike (Winged Victory of Samothrace). Nike is the personification of that “numinous moment” when the scales of victory sway to one or another side; frequently depicted with a lyre, Nike “makes all things obey her tune.”59 The swaying helix choreography reconciles the anonymous repetition of female and Black victory and loss throughout history, together with the singular embodiment of this mythic cycle in Nike. The diagonal orientation of the helix along the stairs bridges heaven and earth. Positioning the Nike sculpture at the top of the helix contrasts the enduring immobility of the white material past (essence of the Louvre) with the transitory dance of the Black living present. Whatever reconciliation it might achieve, it produces a spiraling “apeshit” trance.
The alternation of contrasts, such as between steady groove and ambiguous floating time, is as provocative as it is complementary.
The opening of the music video features thirty-eight seconds of unpredictable temporal interaction among bells, sirens, and footsteps, before delivering the grounded pulse of the berimbau. It takes twenty-five more seconds before the bass drops (at 1:03). But only seventy two seconds later (at 2:15), it’s floating again …
… the groove abruptly stops and we’re left watching a montage of shots sweeping across passive, motionless environments. Instead of groove we now hear an eerie collage of morphing sounds: unpredictably timed bell tolls with long reverberations are overlaid with their reversed audio (i.e. heard backwards, the sound of the bell increases in volume from silence into a bell tone, cf. “reversed out of debt”?) and subtle (Matrix-style) glitching, a muffled Métro train, a fragment of frequency-filtered berimbau groove, and sirens.
In these new correspondences between time and space, and between sound and image, the previously established temporal and spatial reality are questioned. The arrow of time seems to move in multiple directions now, and distinctions among past-present-future, between order and chaos, between here and there, between stillness and flux, and among myth, art, and reality, are all blurred. Can the Carters and their angels set the world straight for the apeshit? Will Jay-Z and Beyoncé bridge heaven and earth? Will they lord through sacred screens?
For the next minute and a half we cannot easily anticipate the rhythm of the sounds and visuals. But the chiming bells continue to mark divisions. A painting of White tears and suffering (Les ombres de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile) is accompanied by church bells, whereas video of Black love and prayer is accompanied by police sirens.
Has the dancing ended? Do we hear music in the urban soundscapes or see dance in the everyday movements? Do we experience divisions among reality, pop, art, and high art? Which of these serves as the other’s background? Do the different players recognize one another across their distinct spaces and temporalities? (It’s a natural development of Picasso Baby, where Jay-Z also questions and invites recognition across art-performance boundaries and spatio-temporalities.)
Then the groove drops, again.
And three minutes later the groove stops with the return of the pealing bell.
With their backs to the Mona Lisa, the power couple now enacts a transformation. The Carters turn to face one another, and the sound of the siren creeps back in.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z then continue turning inward, siren and bells continuing, until they both face the Mona Lisa.
In this turn, the Carters stage their vulnerability: two humans humbly facing artistic pursuit and achievement. And while they turn their backs on us viewers in this gesture,60 they simultaneously turn themselves toward those public and cultural institutions that look back at them from behind bulletproof glass, as faceless African Americans warranting police sirens.
One last bell toll.
The sacred screen turns white …
Let there be light.
And there shall be no night … for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.
“APES**T” by the Carters is rich in the trolling necessary for contemporary viral art (90,247,364 views on Vevo at the time of this writing [20 July 2018]). Trolling has two main definitions that are particularly pertinent to the pursuit of virality in a networked, social media environment: 1. make a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them; and 2. fish by trailing a baited line along behind a boat. In the context of virality, the successful work baits one or more hooks to reel in as many “hits” on social media (including YouTube) as possible. The offensive or provocative material is the bait that stimulates the conversations and controversies that help generate the viral number of hits. The video is a celebration of black cultural success, centered on the mega-success of both Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and posted against a backdrop of some of the most famous European art, housed in the Louvre.
Much of the song’s text is about the worldly success, wealth, and power attained by Beyoncé. Two lines: “can’t believe we made it,” and “have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” capture the text’s central theme. The video extends the text’s victory lap theme into the realm of competing art cultures. The video is a power play, underscored from the earliest appearance of the Carters with their backs turned disdainfully to the Mona Lisa. This establishing shot debases one of the most iconic European artworks, turning it from a transcendent object of aesthetic contemplation into a decorative backdrop for the Carters. This is the perfect launch point for the central conceit of the video—an imperious and playful trolling of historical European culture by contemporary black culture.
One of the most striking formal features of “APES**T” is its repeated genre-splicing between trap music and electroacoustic music, which is an early form of electronic music developed by European and North American avant-garde artists, during the 1940s and 1950s. Electroacoustic music passages are heard from 0:00 to 0:38, 2:15 to 2:50, and 5:50 to 6:05, comprising almost 25 percent of the song. To put this genre-splicing in context, we live in a genre-fluid world where different genres are often seen or heard to rub up against each other in contemporary popular artforms. In this context, the juxtaposition of trap and electroacoustic music still catches our attention as an unusual pairing. Juxtapositions of different genres of pop music are quite common; juxtapositions of classical or avant-garde genres into pop music are still relatively rare. The genre-splicing effect is intensified by two otherwise surprising aspects of “APES**T,” first the unusually conventional nature of its trap music, and second, the absence of instrumental escalation in either the trap or the electroacoustic segments. The adherence to genre conventions in the trap sections allows for easy identification of the song as trap, affording a clean distinction between the trap sections and the electroacoustic sections, which follow a very different set of musical conventions. The lack of escalation or other developmental trajectories in the two genre areas keeps the listener clearly situated within only one musical genre at a time, with no ambiguity or genre mixing. The clean opposition of two different genres, one European and the other African-American, is precisely the opposition that is developed in the visuals.
Putting aside the vocal performances, which exist in a different space, all instrumental elements are present in the trap music from the outset, and neither further elements are added, nor does the textural density increase as the song progresses. Both the rigid adherence to convention and the absence of internal development puts the two different genres into maximally stark contrast. Had the main style of “APES**T” been more eclectic, rather than conventional, the introduction of electroacoustic textures could be heard as just one more stylistic digression. Instead, maintaining a stark stylistic contrast with only two genres in play, effectively separates the two aspects of the song into two parallel universes. The universes don’t develop, but rather the viewer floats between them.
The lack of musical development suggests an ironic reading of the line, “have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” A literal reading of “apeshit” would demand building the texture to a frenzied climax. The nearly complete absence of an audience in the video or anything that could be interpreted as an observing crowd reinforces this sense of irony. There is just one enigmatic second in the video at 5:02-5:03 where a dancing crowd behind the Carters appears to be going apeshit. I read this as a carefully placed “unguarded” moment, like the moment of shared relaxation between the Carters at 5:33-5:35, suggesting an alternate world where they could safely relax and just be themselves, as opposed to maintaining the total discipline on display throughout the video, which is needed as a survival mechanism in a hostile world. I read these moments as outside the main argument of the video (unguarded moments are coded as not for consumption), perhaps complicating the sense of irony of an absent audience, but not undercutting it. This irony operationalizes a hierarchy between hip-hop culture and European culture, with hip-hop on top.
The following elements of the trap genre are faithfully presented: lack of harmonic progression, a static, repetitive bassline (in this case, an octave-displaced Phrygian neighbor motion around the tonal center “E”), a tight, mid-high EQ-ed 808 snare sample hot in the mix, autotune on the vocals (a shared convention with other hip-hop subgenres), and triplet sixteenth notes, heard both in the hi-hat, and increasingly in the vocal performances. The one sound icon present that is not a native element of trap music is a recurrent descending electro-tom tattoo, first heard at 1:08. Just as the European culture of the video is historical, the electro-tom tattoo is a historical call-out to 1980s Disco.
Core electroacoustic music elements present include lack of harmonic progression, backwards-enveloped sounds often deployed in “causal” fashion to initiate other events, large amounts of reverberation, sonic montage, and the absence of a regular beat. The omnipresence of a bell tone creates primal references to the iconic opening of pioneering electroacoustic work “Poème électronique” by Edgard Varèse, to the endless expanse of digitally synthesized FM bells following John Chowning’s seminal work on frequency modulation, and to any number of other bell-focused computer music works, such as Jonathan Harvey’s “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco.”
All of these elements taken together allow the video to hierarchically encode the electroacoustic segments as passive, and the trap segments as active. Internally within the trap music, there are two levels of activation—with and without the drum beats. Dropping the beat activates the dancers from static objects to moving subjects, first at 1:02 as an intensification of the already present trap music, and even more starkly at 2:50 when the electroacoustic passage repurposes a backwards-enveloped texture into roughly the functional equivalent of a snare rush, exploding into the actual trap beat.
In this musical Kulturkampf, electroacoustic music is the negative space to the positive action of the trap music. The irony is clear—the museum of European art is empty of audience, and electroacoustic musicians do not get to hear the crowd going apeshit, a perquisite now attained and reserved for the royal Carters.
Within this framework, both the Carters and the dancers fluctuate between subject and object; between frozen human art works presented for our gaze, and active creators of the audiovisual moment. These fluctuations add complexity but do not disturb the pro-hip-hop hierarchy. Whereas the art on the wall presents both white and black subjects, all physically present humans in the video are black.
A final twist occurs with the onset of the last electroacoustic segment. At 5:51, the Carters, having consistently disregarded all of the Louvre’s art throughout the video, finally deign to turn their gaze toward the Mona Lisa. In this moment, digitally simulated flaws nostalgic of analog film symbolically inscribe the Carters into art history, as the music reduces to a repetition of the iconic bell tone. Implicitly, all cultures and all postures are now available to the Carters, suggesting mastery.
“We Are No Longer Your Monkeys”
Exploring the Critical Techno-musicology of “APES**T”
Everything from the chance to stay alive during the first year after birth to the chance to view fine art. . . . These are among the chances that are crucially influenced by one’s position in the class structure of a modern society (On stratification from Horowitz 1967, 309)
Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like. Beyoncé, Vogue (September 2018)
TRAP AT THE LOUVRE
The stylized use of all caps in the title of The Carters’ “APES**T” release is presumably linked to a centuries-old practice used to connote “grandeur,” “pomposity,” or “aesthetic seriousness,”61 rather than conveying the internet code for shouting. “APES**T” is aesthetically serious. It functions as a contemporary blues-shout in G major/E minor as well as a trap banger reimagining an aesthetic space where black excellence can overshadow centuries of white curated privilege in visual art.
The video drew attention to multiple meanings of exclusivity with its psychological side piece that trains crowds to restrict their relations with those they perceive to be savage, bestial, or genetically different. Exclusivity stands for excluding or not admitting things, such as, “WHITES ONLY” entrances and drinking fountains. Their views justify restricting a person, group, or area from inclusion as well.
The simultaneous surprise release of the Carters’ lead single/music video “APES**T” on 16 June 2018 via the pay-walled TIDAL subscription service as well as uploading it to the public channel BeyoncéVEVO—YouTube is the “primary source for video search [where] music was the most frequently sought content category”—had fans as well as scholars go bananas.62 The recurring subject driving its exhibition confronts exclusivity and exclusion on multiple levels of aural and visual signification. The most provocative example is the juxtaposition of Southern hip-hop often found in the exclusive, sexualized spaces of the strip club and “high” Western European in the exclusive space of the Louvre in Paris. To date, their internet surprise garnered eight MTV video music award nominations, including Video of the Year, and more than 94 million views on YouTube a month after the release of the music video.
The invitation to contribute to this feature in The Journal for Popular Music Studies afforded me the space to center my thoughts at the intersections between music, technology and those marginalized by regimes of art and power. While composing this piece, I was a first-time volunteer for the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (WMRC). They offer a week-long summer day camp for girls (transgender and cisgender) and gender non-conforming youth ages eight to eighteen culminating in a showcase concert. At the end of Rock Camp, during a caucus held for volunteers of color, a black woman with several years of experience voiced what we all intuitively felt more or less, “We don’t have agency in predominantly white spaces.”
Whether Black or African-American people or musicians are occupying tangible spaces like a vacant Catholic high school for a summer music camp or are tethered by social network sites with invisible and often unintended audiences, the “ape” shit of being dis-liked or dehumanized by associations with monkeys follows us everywhere denying us voice and power.
This is an ideal opportunity to introduce what ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall characterizes as “technomusicology” to examine the “entanglements of music and technology” that evolved from his studies of DJs and their craft as well as his studies of black social dances prevalent in the early years of YouTube. Technomusicology “examines the interplay between music and technology since the dawn of sound reproduction and especially in the digital age” by becoming familiar with the history of music/sound media, its aesthetics and histories, and “exploring new modes of tech-assisted research and publication”.63 This article explores “WHITE” space, Beyoncé’s bars and Quavo’s ad-libs, as well as histories and biases that reflect the privileging of whiteness over black.
THE AUDIO & VISUAL: SOUNDING THE ALARM LYING IN WAKE
Forty-seven seconds into “APES**T,” director Ricky Said’s camera guides our gaze entering high above a parquet floor gliding in at an angle to an empty gallery space where the Mona Lisa lives behind a bulletproof glass.
Quavo’s quarter-note ad-libs cue listeners into the sounds of the trap genre of rap. They also mimic the hoots or vocalizations that monkeys and apes use to sound an alarm of distress or threat, after we enter the room.
After our first view of the Carters, there is a jump cut to the black couple draped all in white. We take them in—poised and stoic like statues at the top of a grand marble staircase. Behind them looms The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the artfully draped remains of a Hellenistic (Before Christ) sculpture. The headless torso is poised on the prow, the forward-most part of a ship’s bow that cuts through the seas, representing Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The scene foreshadows the upcoming chorus line: “This is how we made it (skrrt skrrt).”
On the steps below the stylized pair are 13 solemn bodies strewn intermittently down the entire staircase as if lying in wake. The choreography is by forty-two-year-old Flemish/Moroccan dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui under the mindful direction of Beyoncé’s main choreographer, JaQuel Knight.
As the beat drops its banging obstinate bass-line, dancers of various shades of blackness in leotards dyed to match each skin tone contract-and-return to a solemn state. As they contract they lift their torso and limbs toward heaven as if woken from the dead. Once still, under surveillance, they embody sensations that visually gasp aesthetically for life. Each shot of them is intercut by motionless art and tableaus of the couple throughout the provocative visual intro and opening chorus accompanied by the sounds of trap art. Cherkaoui choreographed this sensate ode to Martha Graham.64 The black women’s bodies against the white staircase functions as a mass death display; the kind of elegy to other kinds of graphic death the White audience tends to look away from; they only watch if black death is aestheticized for show or entertainment.
The jump cut to the chorus of dancers’ respirating limbs occurs four times. Their movements are edited to coincide with and frame the first statement of the chorus. The shot and the apex of their respiration are timed to trigger the downbeat of the first three lines, or the first articulations of the staged wealth by Beyoncé with Quavo on ad-libs:
The fourth time we see the respirating limbs again is on the downbeat of the last line of the chorus:
Then Beyoncé spits gold bars as if Nike-come-to-life in her first verse.
I wanted to tell stories and boast, to entertain and dazzle with creative rhymes, but everything I said had to be rooted in the truth of experience.—Jay-Z, Decoded65
Beyoncé, with Jay-Z at her side, blurs the roles and positions women occupy in nearly every aspect of the record and entertainment business, including the genre of rap with the track and video for “APES**T.”
That Beyoncé, a woman primarily associated with singing R&B/pop, renders a song from a reference track performed by Migos seems strategic, not a matter of biting Quavo’s rhymes or style. But boys will be boys and hegemonic masculinity and femininity will try to drag the Queen’s finesse.
The more audible women’s music becomes, materializing the processes of its becoming, the more it becomes the target for regulation and control.66
Despite rumors of theft surrounding the Migos reference track archived for haters on YouTube, composer credits on TIDAL cite Quavious Keyate Marshall as the lead composer followed by Beyoncé, S. Carter (Jay-Z), Pharrell Williams and Kiari Kendrell Cephus (aka Offset).
To spit a cover of a rap style of music commonly performed by black men in a primarily patriarchal genre is gold. It is a kind of display of wealth in the resources of hip-hop sampling aesthetics while challenging gender normativity and white wealth all at once.
In an email interview of my friend and fellow hip-hop scholar Joe Schloss, I invited his thoughts on “APES**T” from his perspective as a scholar, writer and lecturer who studies the way people use art—especially music—to develop new perspectives on social, cultural and political issues. His response was, as I expected, thought-provoking. He mentioned “the way the performance of their relationship connects to their display of power/wealth/access” as well as how “they are referencing the trope of hip-hop videos where the artists show off their cars, jewelry, mansions etc., except that the main ‘possessions’ Jay-Z and Beyoncé are showing off are their relationship itself and their VIP access to the world’s most famous art museum. So, they are kind of using the trope to subvert itself.” Arguably, he adds, the opposite may be true; “basically saying that their love and power are just a higher level of material possession.”67
In addition to the cover aspect, using this performance and video to signify on a black couple’s relationship and industry dominance and also pull it off as a trap banger is the crowning jewel of it all. In 2017, Forbes reported that hip-hop/R&B had finally “taken the crown” as the top genre of music consumption in the history of Nielsen ratings.68 That crown should be accessible to women as well as men.
After all the bad bitches and Queen bitches and those bitches who should “sit down” and who won’t “kill” your vibe, Beyoncé’s bars on “APES**T” fly in the face of any sexist notion that women from other genres should stay in their lane. Her performance disrupts the “audible genealogy” or gender performance (“Get off my dick!” reserved and attributed to male voices.69 Listening to the sexist lyrics throughout a three-minute compilation video “Tracing the Lineage of the Migos Flow” by David Drake of Complex is emblematic of how sexism and misogynoir (cf. Moya Bailey’s term for anti-black misogyny) contribute to the exclusion of women unless they “make it rain” when they “keep dat ass jumpin’” or dance on a pole. The act or art of rapping is not and never has been limited to men. Listen to Rapper Sha-Rock of the Zulu Nation and a member of Funky Four Plus 1 from the early 1980s. DMC of Run D.M.C. attributed the origin of the “echo chamber” style adopted in their classic rhyming, a technique that emulated reverb vocally.70 The finesse of trap’s hella, hemiola-defined flow, following Wayne Marshall’s insights about the Migos “8th note triplets,” has had a “consistent presence” not only in trap music’s cross-rhythms, but also in a number of dance-related styles of black music, in an early Public Enemy track, not to mention in ham-boning (hand-boning rhythms) and girls’ hand-clapping game-songs.71
GIFS WITH VITAMIN D! (DEFICIENCIES, DANCE, DISRUPTION)
Music has become a vehicle for many other aspects of the attention economy from video game play to quiz-game apps such as Kahoot!. Music is key in selling our attention as users to advertisers in sophisticated ways that make youth as well as adults vulnerable to surveillance by algorithms controlled and engineered by predominantly white tech guys or coders. So while the music video draws our attention to physical spaces, some attention to “APES**T” resonant as sounds in online spaces is enlightening, too.
A sampling of the derivative audio content circulating through the end of July includes more than 500 fifteen-second videos found on the Musical.ly app, “one of the most popular apps globally for tweens and young teenagers” where sounds are selected from the extensive music database.72 Musical.ly may be new to readers but since its launch in 2014, the Shanghai-based app has “racked up an impressive 215 million users—or “musers,” as they’re known.”73 The videos use the same clip from the middle of Beyoncé’s first verse that begins with “I get expensive fabrics” and ends with “He wanna give me that vitamin D (D!)”
A tweet that received a bit of attention with more than 36k views unpacked the disruption by Beyoncé and her dancers relative to certain paintings in the video. It was liked more than 1000 times and retweeted about 300 times in part due to its incorporation of a seven-second GIF that could be found in a lot of other trending content promoting the song. The GIF highlights the choreography of Cherkaoui, whose other work embraces various styles of contemporary dance, hip-hop motifs, martial arts, and even spoken word.74
While we hear Bey rapping “I got expensive habits,” we see Beyoncé flanked by a chorus line of eight diverse black dancers—gyrating circles in unison with their hips, popping their torsos and hips to reverse the direction of their evocative undulations, while simultaneously giving nods and turns from their chins to focus their gaze to and away from the camera.
To be oppressed is more than a feeling. The physical sensation of weight bearing down on bodies, and the sharp, staccato movements, postures, and gestures that are produced lead to nuanced understandings of how knowledges of macro level—structural injustices live and are animated in and through bodies.75
The chorus of dancers’ fluid and staccato gestures give testimony despite their stoic faces foregrounding the eroticism of their gestures, simultaneously turning the historic work of art into wallpaper. The bodies as well as the hard hittin’ bars Beyoncé drops with ad-libs by Quavo reframe the whole location and intention of the artwork to Beyoncé (Figure 1).
@TabloidArtHist: What I especially like about this part of the video is that the painting itself depicts a disruption, Napoleon taking the Pope’s role from him and crowning Josephine himself. Beyoncé further disrupts this by taking on Josephine’s role as the one being crowned.pic.twitter.com/Eu6Aq8yoC676
Each GIF or musical.ly video tends to end at or just after the line “He wanna give me that vitamin D (D!)” The double entendre of being sexually satisfied by the penetration of her lover/husband signifying on the viral “For the D” (or dick) video challenge in the fall of 2017 is intensified by her explosive ascending pitch as she punctuates the sound of the consonant. She could also be referring to the vitamin D of sunbathing in Jamaica or Antigua or conversely signify on location, given that darker people of African descent may suffer vitamin D deficiencies because they no longer reside in places where our bodies can absorb enough sun, given our forced migration out of Africa.
Exclusivity in the form of a hidden message that only a black woman might notice takes place in the chorus line of swiveling hips and head gestures under the Coronation painting. The hidden message (or “Easter egg”) arises in the apparel of the dancer to the left of Beyoncé. Her light-complexion should be matched by a similar-toned leotard, but there is a subtle difference that becomes apparent once you notice it. She seems to be wearing “nude” control-top pantyhose as opposed to a leotard dyed to match her skin tone.
The definition of “nude” in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary reveals how white supremacy works in subtle ways. The second meaning is “having a color (such as pale beige or tan) that matches the wearer’s skin tones. Examples offered include “nude pantyhose” or “nude lipstick” revealing how marketing brands practice exclusion with little concern for those whose flesh-tones lie outside the spectrum of whiteness. In this subtle event, the “signifying monkey” of blackness arises to comment on the invisible knapsack of white privilege. Institutions manufacture the elite-ness of European art. Manufacturers’ reproduce the exclusion of consumers who can try on “nude” or “flesh” pantyhose but they will always be dissimilar, incongruent. Blackness will never match up to the manufactured dominance that “wypipo”/white people have the privilege of occupying in purchasing power, such as in museum space.
Nude or flesh tones that signify whiteness through products are analogous to technological filters built into Kodak cameras calibrated using Shirley card models who were always white until recently. This technological phenomenon is a function of white biases built into visual reproductive tech and product manufacturing. It remains, more or less, in the tech of our webcams and film cameras.77 Whiteness is still lit more readily biasing the way we see ourselves toward white not black. Even in the screen capture of the GIF above it is harder to fully recognize and make out the distinct features of the darkest dancers on the line that are hidden by shadows.78
POLICING WHITENESS: “APE”-SHIT OVER RHYTHM AND BLUES
Unlike light, experiencing the kinetic orality or aurality of black music has always involved policing the “purity” or difference between white and black through the segregation of public and private spaces. Everything was done to encode the impossibility of mixing racialized gendered bodies and groups. Recalling the days of Jim Crow Segregation, black majority crowds flocked to local clubs and performance venues that comprised the “Chitlin Circuit” throughout the South. Blacks back then were unable to exclude white youth from their spaces not unlike today. The reverse—exclusion of blacks in white spaces—is practically a norm despite laws against such discrimination since the 1980s.
The “superior” psychological status of being a white in the 1950s allowed youth to cross the tracks and become “black on Saturday night” as articulated in the documentary That Rhythm, Those Blues, now out-of-print, as are many publications whose subject is black culture.79 Rhythm and blues singer Ruth Brown, whose big-beat vocals and shuffle-time tambourine built Atlantic Records’ reputation, recalled how police raided spaces and stopped live performances and social engagements “when a rope separating the black majority and white minority audiences fell.80 Touching, much less dancing between blacks and whites, even briefly, was forbidden.
Music became a way to reinforce the intangible divide stemming from “scientific” racism that lead to the ugly “ape”-shit stereotypes and the “sexist manifestation of simianization [that] was intimately intertwined with its racist dimension.81 White gatekeepers tried to ban black records from airplay and jukeboxes. They convinced themselves that prohibiting contact with these objects of art and technology kept their youth free and white, at least until they were twenty-one.82
Sociologist Philip Ennis captured the mindset of a white disc jockey from Louisville, Kentucky, who banned rhythm and blues records but not because of the color of our skin:
Not because the person is coloured, but it’s the rhythm and tone of the things. It’s not melodic. Our [emphasis added] audience doesn’t like this sort of thing. They would be ashamed if they thought their friends were listening to it. The quality of the music is poor … it brings out the—well—the savage in people.83
By juxtaposing trap music and its lyrical tropes with the high art, haute couture and dance, the Carters invite us to see and hear how music and visual culture have reinforced the segregation of public spaces and, in the case of the music video “APES**T,” how it can disrupt white domination of privatized spaces accessed by a non-Black public. What is often unspoken is the context of segregated public spaces that permitted these dehumanizing ideas and animalization of black people. Ideas, ideals, and norms about miscegenation in sex, love, or marriage between the sexes are not objects you just throw away to refuse.
The creative team led by Bey and Jay blend Graham technique and the erotic gestures of black hip movements and style while challenging the ways music has been used to reinforce the “ape” shit about Black people. The music video does not merely flip the script, it remixes at the grand and intangible scales of genre, aesthetics, and institutional space. Music, like ideas, is ingrained in our cognition, carried on soundwaves and in memories beyond our time and generation. This is one reason why crafting a critical message within music and a music video that is truly popular can push back against structural racism and sexism as “APES**T” seems to provocatively do.
CONCLUSION: RE-FRAMING ART AND SOME HIGHLY MUSICAL PEOPLE
The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
A widely circulated and yet apocryphal quote attributed to Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected prime minister following the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgium in 1960, encapsulates my takeaway from studying “APES**T” as a music video distributed across diverse channels shared by and among black and non-black peoples globally. Supposedly, Lumumba ad-libbed at the close of his 1960 Independence Day speech to the King of Belgium, “Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques! (We are no longer your monkeys).” This was a common slur used against Africans by Belgians. He was imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by Western forces soon after.84
The role of popular culture is often used as a theater, where (re)imagining and (re)performing acts of independence and sovereignty doesn’t ordinarily lead to assassination but may lead to an awakening for select consumers.
Beyoncé and Shawn Carter, as a couple and in their careers, continue to find sophisticated and lavish ways to reframe and resituate audio and visual narratives about occupation and exclusion relative to the fine and performing arts.
The intensified exaltation represented by the Louvre takeover is the flipside of the intensified devaluation of music that the Carters are pushing against; association with priceless art may be a way to make a case for music that has any price at all.85
It is amazing how well this music video performs its critical work of confronting the pricelessness and dehumanization of the bodies of black women and their lives.
Two grand artifacts from the Louvre lead into the finale of “APES**T.” Stoic and statuesque, the Carters pose once more with the ancient Egyptian sculpture of The Great Sphinx of Tanis (5:35”). Two seconds later, we cut full frame to the Portrait d’une négresse by Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist (1768-1826) painted in 1800 (5:37”).86 The painting appears cropped, without its ornate gold frame, as if it were only a headshot. Purposefully hidden in the depiction is the uncovered breast of a black servant employed to suckle a white woman’s child in revolutionary France unlike the full image depicted in the Louvre and on their website.87 Benoist’s painting remains (unless something has changed) the only work of art in the world’s most famous museum to center visitors’ attention on a non-white subject. The painting aestheticizes the inclusion of the servant’s racialized gendered body, while the exclusion of her name normalizes the treatment of a group of human beings as if objects. Objects cannot resist a visitor’s gaze (Figure 2).
The choice of reframing our attention in “APES**T” onto a woman’s face as well as her head wrap is intentionally symbolic. In some African contexts, her face and headwrap would identify her to her own people and other groups. Benoist’s work was not only feminist, according to professor and visual art historian James Smalls, it was intersectional as well:
Benoist’s portrait visualizes, through a black presence, the themes and issues of concern about, namely, class distinction among women, women’s status as the “slaves” of men in patriarchal society, and women’s abilities to act subversively within that societal structure.88
He noted that Benoist had led a typical life as a white woman of bourgeois society. Unlike most black women who for centuries did motherhood, work, and marriage simultaneously, and unlike Beyoncé who has maintained and continues to expand her career identities in music, fashion, entertainment, transmedia production and management, Benoist was dissuaded from pursuing a career as a painter. Only after marriage and children did she allow herself to join a “feminist” collective of aristocratic white female painters. Although her married name appears on all the Louvre’s displays of her artwork, she in fact signed Portrait d’une négresse using her maiden name, “Laville Leroulx.” She added “(épouse [spouse of]) Benoist” below it.89 Unlike the omission of Benoist’s maiden name by the Louvre, Beyoncé’s maiden name appears along with “Carter” on both the Forbes self-made millionaire list and their wealthiest female entertainer list.
The music video APESH**T mediates micro-politics of power and privilege to leverage the macro politics of institutionalized oppressions in a six- minute work of audio-visual art. Some critics may go “bananas” over the lavishness of the Carters’ expedition and production. But analysis and critique of the music video requires a complex and inter-disciplinary inquiry to get at all the “monkey” business that underpins its lavishness. The function of lavishness has always been a pre-occupation with white superiority in music and art whether acknowledged or not. That lavishness has a cost; ideological habits that turn women and black music into property, black people and their dance into savagery, all often at the expense of legacies that justified the sexual exploitation of women of color in the reproduction of enslavers’ wealth and the outsourced labor of motherhood.
These interpretations of “APES**T” affords us an opportunity to explore what a “critical technomusicology” could be. To begin to ask what kinds of writing and what kind of questions we could ask? What methods could we use, who should apply them; how do we approach the study of racialized and gendered spaces and sites for embodying music and art in an age of algorithms and big data? The tools needed to critically examine the scale of the reproduction of psychological occupations we have inherited as white superiority and hetero-patriarchy are as much human resources as they are intangibles (e.g., norms, values, biases, practices aimed at exclusion or inclusion at institutional levels).
We all must find ways to reframe flawed practices and stereotypical logic about the marginalized and about the music of the marginalized. We all must learn to confront the most privileged curators and their privatized spaces used to traffic in the colonializing ideas of art, music, and dance through exclusion. Without a critical technomusicology we are limited in our capacities to see and hear beyond the distorted “ape”-shit of our inherited status and ideology; otherwise, we are left with things that entertain but will never satisfy.
“APES**T”: Blackness, Allegory, Power
For all of its intensity, its superimposition of triplet flow and trap beats against gripping choreography, much of the aesthetic work accomplished by Ricky Saiz’s video for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “APES**T” collaboration takes place in moments of musical caesura, in the long pauses between sonic events. As Daniel Oore elegantly lays out in his own analysis here, the middle of the video sees the song’s music suspended for a period of forty seconds, as its steady groove is replaced by ambient sounds: bells tolling (along with their reversed envelope); the characteristic sound of Parisian sirens; muffled Metro trains; the berimbau from the song’s hook, filtered and distorted—these accumulated ambient components slow the flow of the video’s momentum, asking us to attend to its images.
What is particularly striking here, magnified in the suspended sonic flow of the song’s pause, is the video’s filmic superimpositions of different worlds: following a slow pan across the luminous ceiling of the Louvre, the video cuts to the cheap drop-ceiling of a dark, anonymous space, with young black men in street clothes; following two still shots in rapid succession, medium-length and in closeup, of the unceasing, eternal embrace at the center of Ary Scheffer’s Les ombres de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile (1855), we cut to a second embrace—similar composition, the positions of man and woman reversed—of an intimate black couple in a modest bedroom. The video’s grammar asks us to move seamlessly between the Louvre’s dramatic renderings of mythical splendor and contemporary scenes of black urban life, its protagonists’ quiet dignity reinforced by the metonymic links of the video’s superimpositions.
“APES**T’s” striking visual complement stands as one of the most visible iterations of a trend that has been pervasive in black cultural production in the past decade. This period has seen the production of a variety of works characterized by the formal superimposition of tropes from contemporary black culture on the one hand, and iconography and allegorical components drawn from the Western visual arts canon on the other. Like the sumptuous ceiling of the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre, which the camera pans across in an early sequence from “APES**T,” the ornate textures of baroque painting factor in heavily: Marco Bambrilla’s video for Kanye West’s 2010 track “Power,” for instance, places West at the still center of a slow zoom-out, a kind of “moving painting” in which figures in a variety of poses are situated around the artist like allegorical figures, the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. This apocalyptic (if campy) vision of West as embattled claimant to power, which accompanied his first single released following his unfortunate Taylor Swift imbroglio at the 2009 Video Music Awards, is framed among marble columns, ornate architectural detailing, and the kind of turbulent cloud formations that provide the dynamic context of mythological renderings in the works of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
In West’s “Power,” Bambrilla’s effort to use the stylistic vernacular of the old masters to reinforce themes of power serves as a playful nod to West’s provocative self-aggrandizement. These thematic approaches are also central to the work of the contemporary Brooklyn-based artist Kehinde Wiley, but their realization here takes on a weightier significance. In works such as his 2007 painting Triple Portrait of Charles I, or Napoleon Leading the Army Over The Alps from 2005, the formal language and expressive forms of the “old masters” from early modern European oil painting serve as the frame within which young black men, dressed in conventional hip-hop fashion, are placed in striking juxtaposition. Triple Portrait, for instance, locates its hoodie-clad male subjects within a kind of medieval triptych; Napoleon has its black male subject reproducing the posture of the French general astride his rearing steed in Jacques-Louis David’s painting Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. As Krista Thompson has noted, these interventions should be understood in light of Wiley’s efforts to “us[e] ‘bling’ as a conceptual framework to interrogate the performance and visual propagation of power.”90
Wiley’s portraiture, which frequently centers on anonymous figures, operates against the backdrop of a period in which the status of black men in American culture is held in a contradictory tension between tentative gains in status on the one hand, and tremendous social and economic precarity on the other: even as the late aughts and early 2010s saw the rise to office of the nation’s first black president, the lives of people of color in the U.S. continued to be subject to the violence of the carceral state.91 For Wiley, to inscribe the lives of ordinary African Americans within the charged field of hierarchical power yielded by the formal grammar of the old masters paintings is to pose uncomfortable questions about what we value in American culture: in their contemporary streetwear and “bling,” Wiley’s subjects refuse the respectability politics that has so often served as the condition through which blackness (provisionally) may attain access to legitimacy, even as they reside unapologetically in spaces saturated with markers of nobility. As with the similar juxtapositions from Ricky Saiz’s “APES**T” video—the intimacy of an ordinary black couple, juxtaposed against the similar intimacy of Ary Scheffer’s rendering of Dantean myth—Wiley’s representations collapse the space between the subjects we venerate and those we have historically vilified.
These interventions are at once a subversive commentary on the significance of black culture, situated provocatively in relation to Eurocentric tropes of greatness and grandeur, and at the same time (as is suggested by Kehinde Wiley’s own citation of “bling” as the subject of his paintings) manifest themselves as a complicated acknowledgement of the economic system in which these debates unfold.92 If I have spoken of value, these two opposing elements are elegantly reconciled by way of an adjacent discourse of valuation: black lives are shown to matter, but the manner in which they are shown to matter (insofar as prevailing ideological constructions are concerned) is wholly proximate to market logics, to present and historical concentrations of wealth (from the primitive accumulation of Western imperialism in the past, to the lucrative commodification of black culture in the neoliberal present), and here specifically, to the functioning of the art market as a distinctive corner of contemporary political economy.93 Nowhere has this last point of connection been more notoriously realized than in the Wu-Tang Clan’s 2015 double album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a lavishly packaged recording for which only a single copy was released, its sale overseen by the online art auction house Paddle8: the album was ultimately acquired by the notorious speculator Martin Shkreli, whose callous manipulation of pharmaceutical prices earned him the public’s hatred.94 Having sought to make a point about the commodification of music, its value undermined in an era of easy digital streaming, the Clan in turn saw its album refigured as little more than a financial asset, a status trophy in Shkreli’s collection.95
In each of these cases, in the winching together of conventionally separated worlds, these meditations on blackness set against fields of power, affluence, and nobility ask us to shift our field of vision, in the manner of Jay-Z and Beyoncé confidently bookending the Mona Lisa in the opening and closing moments of Saiz’s “APES**T” video. They play with power, inviting us to reside in the “what if” of a culture in which such superimpositions might be seen as normative; at the same time, in their various ways, and with varying degrees of self-consciousness, they enjoin us to attend to what is inscribed within the fields of power that they tentatively idealize—to interrogate the history of violent appropriation that tacitly underwrites their Baroque filigree and their speculative function as “stores of value.” This latter point is particularly salient in a political and economic context where blackness—located in intellectual property, in cultural representations, and ultimately in black bodies—has itself long operated as financial asset, as a store of wealth in its own right. In embodying these dynamics, the cultural interventions I have outlined here are singular representations of the complexities and ambiguities inherent in our historical moment.