If you like things that are safe and familiar, I have some bad news for you about the 2019 Grammy nominees for Best Music Video. Ranging from provocative to controversial to borderline offensive, the five contenders will make you uncomfortable. But they also may wow you. (Let's just say we've come a long way in the last four decades.)
Unfortunately, they can't all be winners. Here is the case for each video, ranked from the worst of the 2019 nominees to the best. (Be advised that the videos below contain strong language, graphic violence, and other suggestive imagery).
5. "I'm Not Racist" — Joyner Lucas
Directed by: Joyner Lucas and Ben Proulx
YouTube views: More than 104 million
Memorable moment: The controversial hug (see it here)
Why it should win: There is nothing more shocking than watching the music video for "I'm Not Racist" for the first time and hearing Joyner Lucas' voice come out of the mouth of a white man in a Make America Great Again hat with the opening lyrics: "With all due respect/I don't have pity for you black n----s." Yikes. But Lucas' viral song, which begins in the perspective of a white man and then offers a rebuttal by a black persona, has earned applause by some for diving into a subject many are uncomfortable broaching. The video takes a bold approach in actually putting the first half of the lyrics literally into a white man's mouth (although it is a black actor, not Lucas, who offers the eventual response).
Why it might not: Again, let me just say it: Yikes. Lucas has been blasted for suggesting that there might be "two sides" to racism, and the video, which Lucas helped direct, doesn't downplay the problematic lyrics in any way; it ends with the two men hugging it out. While the opening is provocative, the video for "I'm Not Racist" doesn't add anything to the song other than fuel to critics' fire.
4. "Mumbo Jumbo" — Tierra Whack
Directed by: Marco Prestini
YouTube views: More than 469,000
Memorable moment: The cockroach (see it here)
Why it should win: "Mumbo Jumbo" is the dark horse among the 2019 Music Video nominees, with by far the fewest views of any video in competition. Still, it manages to make quite the impression, which is no surprise when artist Tierra Whack is actively experimenting with audio-visual storytelling. Her extremely creepy video plays with minimalist sets and heavy blocks of red, creating a sterile landscape where something as organic as a fish or a cockroach is jarring and nightmarish. The video ends with Whack leaving the sterile clinic with a new "forced smile," only to wander through a dystopian landscape — a metaphor that is perhaps a little too on the nose.
Why it might not: "Mumbo Jumbo" is weird and wild — a work of art. Still, it doesn't stand as tall as some of the year's more adventurous music videos. But it's a wonder to look at (and listen to), and I have no doubt Whack will continue to surprise and alarm us with her videos in the years to come.
3. "This Is America" — Childish Gambino
Directed by: Hiro Murai
YouTube views: More than 440 million
Memorable moment: The gospel choir shooting (see it here)
Why it should win: Childish Gambino's startling and provocative opus on gun violence might not be the most-watched music of the year, or the best, but it is pretty safe to say it was the biggest in every other way. Directed by Hiro Murai, who has also worked with Donald Glover on some of Atlanta's creepiest episodes, "This Is America" is so dense with symbols and references that it practically takes a key to decipher. Technically speaking, the music video is one of the most impressive of the nominees, using long shots to fully utilize the physical space of the warehouse, often in disturbing ways that you don't notice until your third or fourth rewatch.
Why it might not: The video is extraordinarily controversial. "I am not revolted because I find the images triggering," wrote Ira Madison III for The Daily Beast, "[...] It's because I find the entire endeavor nihilistic." Although brilliant, that gory cynicism might be something some voters can't get past.
2. "Pynk" — Janelle Monáe
Directed by: Emma Westenberg
YouTube views: More than 10 million
Memorable moment: The iconic Pynk dance (see it here)
Why it should win: The imagery in Janelle Monáe's video for "Pynk" is about as subtle as a Georgia O'Keefe flower painting or Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party" plates. But although women have been sexualized in music videos since the beginning of the art form, Monáe playfully turns the tables in this radical, sex-positive "queer masterpiece." Monáe and the dancers in ruffly "vagina pants" (which I propose are the fashion statement of the year) look as if they are having a great time on set, and that might be the best part of this video: its simple, joyous, and genuine celebration of womanhood.
Why it might not: Alas, while men can use all the visual and lyrical innuendos they'd like when singing about women, it is still unfortunately "radical" to see a woman doing the same. It is a pity, then, that some backwards thinking might get in the way of Monáe winning best music video when she is one of the most deserving in this category. Personally, my only mark against "Pynk" is that as pretty as a tinted desert might be, the interior scenes and landscapes pale in comparison to the iconic dance, which deserves a place in a museum.
1. "Apes**t" — The Carters
Directed by: Ricky Saiz
YouTube views: More than 140 million
Memorable moment: Beyoncé's dance in front of the the Winged Victory of Samothrace (see it here)
Why it should win: Beyoncé and Jay-Z rented the Louvre for this song essentially about how rich and great they are ("I said no to the Superbowl/you need me, I don't need you"). While that might have been obnoxious in anyone else's hands, the choice to put relative newcomer Ricky Saiz (the co-head designer for Supreme) in charge paid off. A handheld camera glides through the abandoned halls of the Louvre like a ghost, seeming to chance upon dancers dressed in nude — and, of course, the exquisitely clothed Carters. The couple's takeover of the legendary museum is pushed beyond boast into a project that is also blisteringly political; as The New Yorker's Doreen St. Félix puts it, "The Carters are their own protagonists in a grand narrative of establishing a black elite."
Why it might not: Some critics have taken issue with the way the Carters have historically interacted with artwork. "I have previously been distrustful of this couple's quotations of visual art, whose appeal has too often seemed to be its prestige and expense rather than its meaning or beauty," The New York Times' Jason Farago hedged, although even he has to admit that in "Apes**t" "the pair admirably let the art speak for itself."