Jay Z’s new music video opens on a very familiar set…“Friends”? But where’s the music? Where’s Jay Z?
This might be what you’re thinking as you watch the short film “Moonlight,” part of a series of new music videos for Jay Z’s most recent album, “4:44.” In them, Jay Z diverges from the usual music video style, doing more than just lip syncing to the song. In fact, Jay Z himself doesn’t appear in a number of them.
With some creativity and poignant storytelling, each video is memorable in its own way. “4:44” itself is a deeply personal album exploring themes of marriage, infidelity, and race, and the music videos expand on these ideas through the specific images and stories Jay Z chooses to tell.
In the album, Jay Z exposes a very real, vulnerable side of himself to the public, as Beyoncé had done with the drop of “Lemonade,” and the music videos perpetuate that quality. “Lemonade” made waves by exposing Jay Z’s infidelity and being very public with such a private matter. “4:44” has been hailed as his response to this album, and in it, Jay Z apologizes for his actions, revealing new details such as Beyoncé’s miscarriages and his rough childhood in which he shot his own brother.
What stands out about the videos is that they could work as stand-alone pieces—not just as supplements to the songs.
In fact, the video for “Moonlight” only plays part of the actual song, with most of the time being filled by a reenactment of a “Friends” episode with an all black cast and a commentary on diversity in media and cultural appropriation. Suddenly, a phone rings and someone asks, “Hey, can we take five?” The bubble is burst as the camera pans behind the scenes of the set. Ross, played by Jerrod Carmichael, goes offstage and asks his friend, Hannibal Buress, who is watching the filming, what he thinks of the concept. He gets the reply, “Trash.”
After this comment, Carmichael goes back to filming and becomes distracted, staring off into space. Carmichael tells Buress that he feels what he is doing is subverting mainstream media and making a positive statement, when in reality the concept of a black “Friends” is just imitating Caucasian media, not subverting anything. As the show continues, he is led offstage by Rachel, played by Issa Rae, to a bench. The video ends with Carmichael staring up at the Moonlight.
Additionally, the song lyrics speak about the infamous accident at the 2017 Oscars when “La La Land” was announced as the Best Film winner, even though Moonlight actually won, saying “We stuck in ‘La La Land,’ even when we win we gon’ lose.” Jay Z is commenting on Caucasian, mainstream media overshadowing the success of African Americans in media. If you look closely at the cover art for the video, typed backward and upside down, it says, “Success is never enough.”
The most popular music video, “The Story of O.J.,” plays on historical, racist Disney cartoon depictions of African Americans from the mid-20th century. Jay Z also plays on the stereotypes about black culture, including an image of him as a made-up character, Jaybo, eating a large slice of watermelon. He depicts lines of Ku Klux Klan members coming off a factory conveyor belt and even a scene of slaves being auctioned off. These images and the cartoon style reference the country’s troubled past and even the present.
In statements about financial success as an African American, he advises listeners, “You [want to] know what’s more important than throwing away money at a strip club? Credit.” Later, he adds, “Financial freedom [is] my only hope.”
Despite this advice, the hook of the song seems to send the message that in America, no matter your status, you will still be regarded as the same: “still n***a.”
Tying together all these small references to America’s past and the plight of African Americans is not unlike Beyoncé’s use of images of black women throughout history in “Lemonade.”
In “Bam,” Jay Z and his collaborator Damian Marley walk around Trenchtown, Jamaica. Trenchtown is the iconic birthplace of reggae and was home to many of the genre’s most important artists, including Marley’s father, Bob Marley. Marley and Jay Z’s narration cut into the song here and there to drop notes of wisdom about music and the rich history of reggae. In the beginning, Jay Z says, “The prophets in the beginning were musicians, the poets, the writers, and that’s what we’ve been tasked with in this life.”
As the video plays, it pans to aerial views of the town, kids playing in the streets, mothers and their children, Marley and Hov in the studio, street artists making their own reggae music, and even a feature by Sister Nancy. The artist responsible for the iconic song “Bam Bam” shows up in the studio freestyling a version of the song and speaking to its timeless legacy.
These intimate moments relate to one theme of the video: people. Jay Z comments, “I feel like when I go to Africa, I’m with my people. I love people. Period.” These shots, transitions or cuts are perfectly timed to the music and beat. The video makes the audience really appreciate small cinematic details, such as when Jay Z says, “We’re all vessels, right? We’re whistles; the wind goes through us and we make the noise,” followed by a shot of trees with the subtle sound of wind rushing through.
Watching artists of different generations sitting around and discussing their music as it relates to their culture, family, and ancestry conveys a message about the power and importance of music.
Not the usual flashy music videos, these videos embody a recent trend for artists to take music videos as a real opportunity for compelling, cinematic storytelling. Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE” and Beyoncé’s entire film “Lemonade” are just a few examples in the recent past of the use of a music video as a visual medium not just to accompany a song, but to enhance its meaning and to make its own statement.