It’s been a long time since music videos have aired on television, but as the popularity of YouTube soars among a generation who doesn’t even remember what MTV used to be, artists are now approaching the medium with a new creative fervor. As you’ll note from this list, by and large we’re seeing women and people of color taking advantage of visuals set to their work as a means of bridging cultural gaps, making grand political statements, and finding more immediate ways to relate to their audiences. The following picks re-examine everything from female sexuality to black identity to gun violence, and while many of these songs stand on their own, it is the videos that take their messages to the next level, adding new layers of meaning and, in a time when we are seemingly inundated with media to consume, forcing viewers to truly pay attention.
Childish Gambino – “This Is America”
In an intense four minutes and a single long take, this eerie, graphic video sums up the atrocities of systemic racism and gun violence in American society. Donald Glover – who has made a name for himself as an actor as well as via his rap moniker Childish Gambino – weaves a narrative that’s hard to ignore, using traditional African dances and minstrel expressions meant to entertain and critique the viewer’s gaze all at once. This may have been the most important video of the year, forcing people to have hard-to-stomach conversations and analyze the subtext of the clip, all over a catchy trap-influenced song that hit the Billboard charts despite its radical content.
Tierra Whack – Whack World
Whack World is surely the best depiction of the millennial mind in motion. Tierra Whack was first recognized for her “Mumbo Jumbo” video, and immediately doubled down to create this fifteen-minute “visual album.” Her quirky aesthetic is set to an eclectic flow, and poignant lyrics make her a singular force in the hip-hop sphere and put her on the map. The video follows Whack through a variety of different worlds, each one surreal and bizarre, but simultaneously illuminating a feeling and emotional landscape the lyrics work to connect with. Mimicking the lightning pace of our scrolling, tumbling, social media comsumption, Whack World managed to get everyone’s attention, even in a time when attention spans seem to be growing smaller.
Janelle Monáe – “Django Jane”
Janelle Monáe had a phenomenal 2018. Coming out to her fans and community, releasing a major hit album, going on a global tour, and sharing vulnerable, introspective work that was followed by critical praise, Monáe has pretty much been living the dream. While all the videos from this year’s Dirty Computer album cycle are praiseworthy in their own right – we’ll never get the vagina pants from “PYNK” out of our minds – “Django Jane” is a nod to her hip-hop predecessors. Hearkening back to the heyday of Biggie Smalls and Lil’ Kim, the video has the feel of a ’90s-era rap video. This time around, it’s Monáe who sits squarely on the throne of her Queendom.
Blood Orange – “Charcoal Baby”
Five of the tracks on Blood Orange’s new album Negro Swan start off with the voice of writer and activist Janet Mock. Her voice weaves a line through the album that carries small doses of wisdom into the songs themselves, seeming spontaneous, but too polished to not have been chosen on purpose. “Charcoal Baby,” one of the first videos released from Dev Hynes’ phenomenal concept album, starts with Mock talking about the concept of family: “I think of family as community. Just show up as you are without judgement, without ridicule, without fear or violence… We get to choose our families, we are not limited by biology.” The words are a perfect segue into the video, a split-screen depiction of two different families mirroring very similar lives. It’s a thoughtful, positive meditation on black identity, and what it feels like to be at home and at peace with those you choose to surround yourself with.
Kendrick Lamar feat. SZA – “All The Stars”
Linked to one of this year’s most enthralling and groundbreaking films, Black Panther, the video for “All The Stars” creates an equally beautiful backdrop for the soundtrack’s lead single. Both Kendrick Lamar and SZA have proven to be unstoppable forces in the musical world, capping off a very successful 2017 with this early 2018 release. Cinematic in its own right, this video plays almost like a short film, its rich visual cues a nod to diasporic African culture, through a lens of cosmic chaos. The video was not released without controversy, though – British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor accused the Black Panther team of copyright infringement, claiming that the gold patternwork that appears roughly three minutes into the clip looks suspiciously like her Constellations paintings; the official lawsuit was settled just last week.
King Princess – “Pussy Is God”
King Princess is the queer idol we’ve all been waiting for, and if “Pussy is God,” then we can all thank pussy that she’s finally arrived. Though she released her five-song EP Make My Bed before she had even turned 20, Mikaela Straus has a top-notch team behind her insuring her success, including producer Mark Ronson, who signed her his Zelig Records imprint, and her creative director, Clare Gillen, who has consistently done a fantastic job styling the up-and-coming artist’s cheeky, ironic, and stylistically iconic videos. “Pussy Is God” is a fun ’90s throwback to what any of us might have done in our bedrooms as adolescents had we been given green screen technology, but it is Straus’s dreamy stare and unabashed celebration of her queerness that makes it so essential.
Sudan Archives – “Nont For Sale”
Watching a Sudan Archives video is often times like falling into another world – and make no mistake, that world that belongs to the Los Angeles-based violinist/vocalist at the helm of this project, Brittney Parks. Self-directed with help from Ross Harris, Parks put out Sink, her second EP for Stones Throw, this year, and its lead single is an ode to unapologetic existence: “This is my light, don’t block the sun/This is my seat, can’t you tell?/This is my time don’t waste it up/This is my land, not for sale.” Still, the video is a welcoming melange of vivid hues and surrealistic impressions of Black culture, always portrayed with parks at the center of the narrative – just where she wants to be. Luckily, she’s invited us along for the ride.
Nao – “Make It Out Alive”
Nao’s latest album Saturn is all about the Saturn return – that period in a person’s late twenties that signifies astrologically-driven upheaval. “Make It Out Alive” is a song geared towards the strength and conviction it takes to steer through this tumultuous time and find yourself on the other side, for better or worse, and begin to rebuild everything from the rubble. That bleakness is reflected in the song’s video, with its desolate landscapes, dilapidated lots, and the anxiety and anticipation of being stuck in a nondescript waiting room. But the song’s lyrics – and Nao’s lilting falsetto – are bracing. The singer takes stock of her preparedness for the fight, and her resolve is her best weapon. If there’s ever a time we needed a song that helps us keep going when the going is tough, 2018 was it.
Okay Kaya – “IUD”
Singer-songwriter Kaya Wilkins created an ongoing narrative in a series of videos she released earlier this year with filmmaker Adinah Dancyger. Both “IUD” and “Dance Like U” tell the story of a woman who has created an alter ego out of her trauma. While the latter sees her come to a resolution with the doppelgänger, “IUD” hinges on tensions – Kaya either ignores the alter ego or engages with it in a kind of defenseless way – watching it from a distance, dragging it around in her wake. These videos were a perfect introduction to the Norwegian-born artists, whose brand of pop favors both minimalism and biting wit on her debut album Both.
Alice Phoebe Lou – “Something Holy”
Berlin street musician turned independent European musical sensation recently released her first single “Something Holy” from her upcoming album, Paper Castles. The frayed edges of her busker’s past have been cleaned up as she polishes her sound, and allows her lyrics to shine through like never before. “Something Holy” is a song about feminine sexuality, and being treated like a holy being – a theme we saw cropping up this year in the mainstream thanks to artists like Ariana Grande. But these lyrics speak to her desire to be held, not lusted over, the sumptuous visuals bursting with random blips of animation, pastoral vignettes, romantic candlelight and often Phoebe Alice Lou’s challenging gaze, daring us to follow her on her sensual journey.