In recent years, Kendrick Lamar has revived the music video as a powerful form of social commentary. His unforgettable 2015 video for "Alright" had him taking flight through the city before being shot down by a white cop. That stark black-and-white scene became a powerful image during a summer defined by racial strife throughout the country. His videos became more ambitious, evolving into short films—heavy, cinematic experiences that visually influenced young, thoughtful, and ambitious rappers like Vince Staples.
On Thursday evening, Lamar released "Humble," a new video and song from his much-anticipated upcoming album and follow-up to his excellent "The Heart Part 4." I can safely say I've never seen anything like it—not in a hip-hop video. Not in film.
It begins with Lamar standing in an empty cathedral dressed as the pope before going into a series of exhaustively produced set pieces. One that I can't get out of my head is of Lamar under a bridge looking directly at the camera, which abruptly moves—keeping him in focus—to settle briefly at a different angle. His eyes follow the camera the entire time. It's almost like he's inspecting the camera and the camera is inspecting him, as if he's directing it with his eyes.
The scenes are stunning, powerful and full of allusion, some more obvious (Lamar creating The Last Supper with all black men) and some are more obscure (Lamar passing the Grey Poupon out of the back of a car in homage to the original advertisement). There are other camera tricks on display, too.—like the scene with him on his bike riding on what looks like a warped, spherical view of a city street, and when the camera shakes back and forth but keeps his face focused in the center.
This all takes place over a sparse, heavy Mike WiLL Made-It beat that calls back to the Good Kid, M.A.A.D City-era Lamar. At one point he raps, "I'm so fuckin' sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin' natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin' natural like ass with some stretchmarks / Still will take you down right on your mama's couch in Polo socks, ayy." Then Lamar cuts the screen in half to show him next to a woman wearing no makeup, which many have already applauded as another rare sight in music videos.
"Humble" was directed by music video master Dave Meyers and The Little Homies, the later of which have produced several Top Dawg Entertainment videos, including "Alright." And this one plays to some of Lamar's biggest strengths—it's smart, it's funny, it's inventive. While the tone here isn't as weighty as his best-known video, he still uses his own brilliantly twisted take on the classic hip-hop video formula. The only thing comparable in recent years is Beyonce's Lemonade, but that visual album doesn't seem like a good comparison to a single video. As with anything he does, it takes a while to dissect the symbolism. In the meantime, let's sit down and listen to Young Pope Lamar preach about being humble.