Hype Williams: Defining a Genre
The term ‘hype ’ can be defined as a verb meaning “to stimulate…to create interest in by flamboyant or dramatic methods…to intensify by ingenious or questionable claims,”(Dictionary.com). Hype Williams defined an era of pop culture, if you turned on MTV, BET, or VH1 during the 90s and early 2000s you were likely to see his work as he embodied the visual tropes fitting of the new millenium. Hype got his start as a graffiti writer in Queens, New York, using the tag name ‘Hype’ citing colorful painters Basquiat and Keith Haring as influences. A true auteur, Williams’ work is recognized by his trademark avant garde style, often utilizing “fish eye lenses, wide ratio shots, tracking shots, and starkly contrasting color palettes,” and most importantly, the ring light that reflects in the irises of his subjects (Victus).
As the culture of R&B and Hip Hop saturated the mainstream, Williams’ work with artists like Missy Elliot (The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) and Sock it 2 Me), Aaliyah (Rock the Boat), The Notorious B.I.G (Big Poppa, etc.) provided sleek, often afro-futuristic and often beautifully cinematic and stylized visuals that defined an era of pop culture.
It is worth noting that Williams’ work catapulted black artists to the forefront, a key contributor to the “Bling Bling” era post Biggie and Tupac’s “gangsta rap” full of superficiality, style, and hyper sexuality. While this era is often criticized for is departure from lyricism, it’s superficiality, and issues with gender portrayal, Williams played with commentary on race, sexuality, and utilized the spectacle of the fantastic and the ostentatious. His work included themes of self confidence and self worth on a grandiose scale. His use of the spectacle and the fish-eye lens often mace his subjects look larger than life. Williams’ auteur style music videos challenged and expanded the genre, forming a cornerstone of the modern music visual, as we know it. His film Belly (1998) is the culmination of that style, rooted deeply in Hip Hop and a rich visual aesthetic. The roots of Belly are planted firmly in Williams’ visual style, his hip-hop cultural influence.
Belly is cited as a “hood classic” and elements of mise en scene, dialogue, use of lighting, and score are all elements that are demonstrative of the style of an auteur. Williams’ casting of rappers Nas as Sincere and DMX as Tommy Bunds as principles simply removes his typical players from the stage of the small screen and lets them run wild at feature length. Nas’ even keel and introspection as Sincere, serves well as narrator while DMX’s trademark bark serves well in the role of power hungry and violent Tommy Bunds. The characters of Sincere and Tommy foil one another and Williams plays upon color and lighting more to emphasize that contrast in characterization. Tommy, a hip hop caricature whose larger than life power hungry characterization is centered around money and violence, is often portrayed in stark reds, vivid greens and blues. Sincere who dreams of moving to Africa, is introspective and family minded, often portrayed in neutral tones, and grounded in shades of brown. With his girlfriend, Tionne and their baby Kenya, the camera lingers in tight shots on faces, bathed in warmth, evoking a sense of full contentment. Both Sincere and Tommy find separate forms of enlightenment and understanding by the final act.
Belly is hardboiled crime story, not without narrative and practical issues, turns into a gaudy gangster film that could be described by some as an overgrown music video. However, it is Williams’ visual genius and work with cinematographer Malik Sayeed that makes Belly worth delving deeply to analyze. Placing what most would consider ugly and harsh subject matter into vivid color challenged the boundaries of urban storytelling in the same way Williams has done with R&B and Hip Hop music videos.
Hype Williams’ music video background is present from the opening sequence as Soul II Soul’s Back to Life plays during the title sequence. Plunged in vivid blue ultraviolet, Tommy Bunds (DMX) and Sincere (Nas), rob a dance club as their eyes glow eerily.
The camera follows their movements in slow motion, lingering on figures, and the bodies of women dancing in tune with the beat, speeding up to real time as the action begins. We are drawn into reality as Bunds and Sincere make their getaway, to Bundy’s home, which contrasts in stark black and white.
We see the synthesis of music and visual once more during a sequence during which Tommy and Sincere engage in the heroin trade as D’Angelo’s Devil’s Pie plays:
Drugs and thugs, women wine/ Three or four, at a time/ Watch them all, stand in line/For a slice of the devil’s pie/ Main ingredients 2 this dish/ Goes like this, here’s the list/ Materialistic, greed and lust, jealousy, envious/Bread and dough,cheddar cheese,/flash and stash, cash and cream
Here, Williams utilizes music as commentary as Tommy charges full-speed into the underworld. The camera cuts between close shots of him handling drugs and shots of Sincere with his baby Kenya, and another character with a woman in his lap, three very different motivations for their involvement with drugs.
Williams’ portrayal of women is complex both in Belly and his work in music videos. As a founding father of the ‘bling’ era Williams has a hand in the creation of the Video Vixen. The figure of the Video Vixen is often a polarizing one, and rightly so, for the elements of misogyny that come with the portrayal of hyper sexualized women whose main role was to gratify the largely androcentric spectacle.
The women who played them were often iconic within the hip-hop world, celebrating black female beauty, but often under the terms of the male gaze. Williams embodies this complex figure in the form of Keisha (Taral Hicks), the long-suffering girlfriend of Tommy Bunds whose quiet strength is optimistic. She is foiled by Tionne (T-Boz), the strong and smart girlfriend and mother of Sincere’s child Kenya. When we first encounter her, Keisha is bathed in blue; the camera finds her in her bedroom in a tracking shot.
She is scantily clothed and her skin shines as she argues on the phone with Tommy’s underage “side chick” who is, by contrast swathed in the color pink. The camera cuts to a familial scene With Sincere and his girlfriend, who are wrapped in a conversation about their future, wrapped in warm hues of brown and earthy tones in their family home. Williams follows these portrayals with two very different sex scenes, a commentary on the two very different relationships, depicting Tommy and Keisha’s as violent and domineering and Sincere and Tionne’s as loving and equal. The foiled women meet in daylight, removing Keisha from the blue of Tommy’s criminal world as Tionne gives Keisha advice about self worth and relationships.
While Williams certainly contributed to the male gaze in hip hop, to his credit his work with female artists such as Beyoncé, TLC, Missy Elliot and more was refreshingly empowering. With lyrics outlining consent, courtship, and pleasure such as “you can look at it, as long as you don’t grab it,” of Beyoncé’s Check On it and the female agency anthem No Scrubs, Williams’ visuals for both videos reflect his sense of style as well as provide female artists and female fans a visually intriguing space to explore themes of feminism, afro-futurism, and sexuality.
Williams’ visual imagination, combines the tropes and stylistic elements of an era he himself laid the foundation for. Belly and his music video work is highly focused on the connection between sound and visual. His impact on visual artistry and filmmaking in the modern era is clear. We see this in his more recent work as artists tailor visual experiences to reach greater heights. Williams’ influence and evolution is clear in Beyoncé’s Blow, a roller disco ode female pleasure, a far cry from the treatment of Keisha in Belly. The video is awash in ultraviolet tones of blue, pink, and purple reminiscent of Belly. In this instance the female vixen is one of her own making, whose sexuality is in her own hands, reclaiming it from the previous influence of androcentric rap videos. Here we, see an 180 degree evolution in which Williams’ cornerstone visual tropes and figures have taken on new life and work for a more positive means.
Travis Scott’s stop-motion action figure adventure 90210 is awash in tones of blue and red, reminiscent of Tommy’s deep blue criminal underground. Scott’s character is less caught up in crime and instead explores an existential surreal world of his own making. The ‘gaudy gangster’ film devices Williams used in Belly align more closely with his music video spirit and explore deeper themes of self and a wandering listlessness.
The influence of Hype Williams as a director is clear in his body of work with musical artists. Not only did he define an era for R&B and Hip Hop into the new millenium but he has grown with the times. Belly, it seems, was an exercise in creative license on a feature length scale, breathing life into the grittiness of Hip Hop. His use of contrast, play on color and shape challenged the parameters for the depiction of people of color on the small and large screen. Furthermore, his growth as a male director in terms of portrayals of women and sexuality is a major source of influence for modern audiences and artists.
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Donalson, Melvin. Black Directors in Hollywood, University of Texas Press, 2003, pp. 66–77,Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
“Hype.” Def. 1. Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Klady, Leonard. “Belly.” Variety Movie Reviews 204 (1998): 1. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Pinkerton, Nick. “Bombast: Belly.” Film Comment. Film Society of Lincoln Center, 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Victus, Vyce. “In Defense Of ‘Belly’” Birth.Movies.Death. BMD, 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.