Earlier this week, we learned that Kanye West would become the latest recipient of the MTV Video Vanguard Awards, the Video Music Awards’ basic equivalent of a lifetime achievement award and the highest honor that MTV knows how to give. It’s easy to quibble with that award. Kanye West has at least a few great videos to his credit, and, with the “Stronger” video, he introduced shutter shades to the general public, an increasingly rare example of a music video from this century having any impact on what people actually wear. (The shutter shades were and are fucking stupid, but they were everywhere for a minute there, and you can point to this video and cite it as the direct and obvious reason. How many videos have had that kind of power?) Still, the award, I think, is supposed to convey not just a record of music-video excellence but an indication that the music video is somehow central to that artist’s appeal. Past winners like Michael Jackson and Madonna are inextricable from their own videos; it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. West came up during a time when MTV had effectively stopped playing videos, so there’s no one iconic image of West in a music video. Instead, weirdly, the iconic images are of West at music-video awards shows, running up on Simian or Taylor Swift to inform them that they did not deserve the awards that they were clutching. That’s a strange legacy, but it’s better than shutter shades.
Actually, West’s legacy of awards-show interruptions is really the great thing about him winning the Vanguard Award. The only reason he keeps jumping up and interrupting people is that he really cares about who wins fucking MTV Video Music Awards. He takes those things more seriously than anyone else on the planet. He takes them infinity times more seriously than MTV does. The reason we don’t know MTV’s methodology for picking award winners is presumably that there is no methodology; it’s just some guy sitting in an office and saying, “Um, give it to Miley, whatever.” Why would MTV give a single fuck about the art of music videos? They might’ve cared in 1985, but at this point, the entire music-video apparatus just exists to give them an excuse to put a highly rated live event on TV once a year. They don’t care. But Kanye West cares. He’s scrapped multiple versions of videos because they didn’t closely enough match what he had in his head, even after he’d paid for them. He’s signed on to work with the greatest visionaries in the history of the form: Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, Michel Gondry. Years ago, I went to the premiere of the “Stronger” video, which West threw for himself in a downtown New York movie theater, and which he introduced by rambling excitedly for 10 minutes. “Stronger” is a cool video, but it probably didn’t deserve a fucking gala premiere. And yet West gave it one because he cares. He must be so fucking amped about winning that Vanguard Award. And if he’s happy, I’m happy. I want Kanye West to be happy.
But the obvious problem there is that the Video Vanguard award doesn’t matter. It can’t possibly matter. Its history is an absolute goddam mess. In a more innocent time, MTV really did seem invested in the idea of honoring the art form of the music video. During the first VMAs broadcast, they gave Vanguard Awards to the Beatles, David Bowie, and A Hard Day’s Night/Help! director Richard Lester, all of whom had big things to do with establishing the way pop artists can play with image, the ways in which it can be an essential part of their art. In the years that followed, they gave the award to inarguably important video-era stars whose videos were hugely important to their work: David Byrne, Madonna, Peter Gabriel. And they also gave the award to iconic early music-video directors (Russell Mulcahy, Godley & Creme) and to art-film types whose work helped make the music video possible (Zbigniew Rybczy?ski, Julien Temple). Later on, the award only went to big, famous artists who’d had deep music-video catalogs: Michael Jackson, George Michael, Bon Jovi, Tom Petty, Janet Jackson, R.E.M. That was fine, too. it still signified that important things were happening. But MTV spent years proving that they had no idea what to do with rap, and the Vanguard Award was part of that, too. No rapper won the award until LL Cool J got it in 1997, something you probably only remember if you remember Canibus threatening to stick him up for it on “2nd Round K.O.” Kanye West will become only the third rap artist to win the award, after LL and the Beasties. (Hype Williams also won a Vanguard Award, mostly for being the best rap video director ever, in 2006.) That’s pretty fucked up.
MTV doesn’t even give out the Vanguard Award every year anymore. The award takes year-long breaks. There was a three-year hiatus between 2003 and 2006, and then a five-year hiatus after 2006. These days, the award only exists as a prop to convince a really big star to show up and perform a triumphant medley, the way Justin Timberlake did two years ago and Beyoncé did last year. (The fact that Beyoncé won last year’s award and Kanye West is getting it this year means I would bet money on Taylor Swift winning one next year. Kanye will probably present it.) But if the award hadn’t ignored rap for so long, and then taken so many breaks, they could’ve been giving the award to so many rappers. Run-D.M.C. were the first rap artists to harness the full power of music videos and to use them to build an iconic image; they should have a Vanguard Award. Dr. Dre’s early-’90s videos presented the world with a magnetic image of West Coast rap iconography; he should have one. The Wu-Tang Clan quickly amassed videography of dark, flickering, absorbing shadow-life scenes; they should have one. Master P should have one; he turned the vulgar display of wealth into a surreal artform in all those late-’90s No Limit videos. People like DMX and the Diplomats may be relatively fringey for an award like this, but their videos mattered, nearly as much as their music. It seems absolutely strange that Diddy doesn’t have one; he basically invented and then perfected the form of rap-video flash that we still see today. Kanye West deserves the award, but all those people deserve it just as much. It’s just that MTV doesn’t deserve to be the entity in charge of handing it out.
1. Young Dro – “Ugh”
In the last decade, Young Dro scored a couple of huge hits, enjoyed an enviable position as T.I.’s most promising understudy, pioneered new ways for rappers to talk about the colors of their cars and jewelry, and stole a whole lot of remixes from more-famous rappers. He was on fire. Dro hasn’t been up to nearly as much in recent years, but he’s always kept that giddy, inventive ping-ponging energy. So it’s great to see that he’s suddenly got one of his biggest hits of his career with the underground burner “We In Da City.” And now he’s followed it the best possible way, slurring elastic Auto-Tune melodies over a beautifully chintzy Zaytoven beat. Out of nowhere, Dro sounds like the man of the moment again. (Fuck, I should’ve written this week’s column about Dro, huh?)
2. Dej Loaf – “You Don’t Know Me”
Male rappers are allowed to be tough and sexy and vulnerable, but too often, female rappers are railroaded into being one of the three, if that. But Dej Loaf is pulling off a miraculous combination of the three, switching focus from bar to bar. She’s hard as fuck, but she raps about crying and having a soft ass and coming from nothing: “Just last year, I was working in a hardhat.” The Detroit producer DDS has been with her since we met her, and the two have one hell of a working chemistry. And the little melodies she ad-libs over her own verses? Too good. She’s too good. If she’s not a huge star this time next year, someone at some label fucked up bad.
3. YG, Blanco & DB Tha General – “G Thang” (Feat. Fiend & A.V.)
Fluttery, winding summertime rap music, music that breathes. This is so soft and luxurious and downright pretty that I stop thinking about who’s rapping which verse or how I feel about a line like “two bitches with me and they dykes too.” I just dissolve into it.
4. Travis Porter – “Dream Team”
This Atlanta trio has been making amped-up strip-club rap music since 2008, which makes them crusty veterans in an ever-evolving Atlanta scene. It’s hard to picture groups like Rae Sremmurd or Migos existing without them. And the new #SAQ mixtape is the best thing they’ve done in years. All of the minimal, melodic beats come from producer 2-17, and the three members of the group are assured and insistent, turning almost everything they say into a hit. Call it a comeback?
5. Young Thug – “Again” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
How in the fuck are there still good unreleased Gucci Mane verses? And how does the stuff he recorded more than a year ago still fit so well with the gooey, codeine-blurry music that doesn’t have anything to do with what was happening in rap when he went to prison? I’m looking forward to Thug’s new Slime Season mixtape breathlessly, but I’m even more excited for Gucci to come home and for him and Thug to finally make some new songs together.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
DJ Esco and Future dancing to Cher. pic.twitter.com/Ifags2thSK
— Lighthouse Papi (@JustinWNS) August 21, 2015