Alice Through the Looking Glass
There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…
Right from the opening seconds, where the camera eye climbs up subway stairs out into the stark, gritty streets of Brooklyn, the viewer immediately knows "99 Problems" is going to be a dizzying, intense experience.
Officially ten years old this month, the video for Jay-Z’s third single off The Black Album (aka his supposed, final album before retiring from recording to briefly run the Def Jam label) still crackles with jolting, frenetic imagery. The song itself, produced by Rick Rubin, who produced many a classic hip-hop track before becoming the behind-the-boards icon everyone from Johnny Cash to Justin Timberlake would go straight to, is just as jarring musically. For starters, it samples the opening, oft-sampled drum break from Billy Squier’s "The Big Beat," the two-chord guitar riff from a live version of Mountain’s "Long Red" and the jangly percussion from Wilson Pickett’s "Get Me Back on Time, Engine Number 9." Add to that Jay-Z picking up Ice-T’s chorus hook from his "99 Problems" ("If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son/I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one") as he tells his own tales of inner-city blues, and you have a rap song that doubles as an aural assault.
The video is an assault on the senses (but in a good way), as famed video director Mark Romanek takes his first shot at helming a rap video. Jay, who originally wanted Quentin Tarantino to direct until Rubin advised him to give Romanek a try, wanted to make a hip-hop video that 1) showed the Brooklyn where he grew up and 2) looked like photographic art. Romanek, who’s always had a flair for creating videos that doled out artistic expression, whether it’s Nine Inch Nails’ grimy, disturbing freak show "Closer," Beck’s Truffaut-saluting "Devil’s Haircut," Johnny Cash’s sad-eyed tribute "Hurt" or Fiona Apple’s voyeuristic "Criminal," immediately thought of cribbing from the black-and-white noir photography of New York photojournalists like Weegee. But the visual, urban bluntness also brings to mind the work of late, black photographer (and Brooklyn resident) Roy DeCarava, who captured black-and-white shots of Harlem in the early 20th century.
Much like DeCarava’s photographs, Romanek gets shots of African-American life, one after the other, in "99 Problems," with Jay serving as a tour guide of sorts. First shown outside the famed Marcy Houses where he grew up, eventually making himself at home in one of the apartments as he raps about music-industry gripes, action goes on all around him as the video progresses and Jay walks around his city, telling his tales.
Romanek takes off in several different directions throughout the video, zooming right into people’s face one minute, slowing down the whole momentum of one scene the next. But thanks to exemplary editing from longtime Romanek editor Robert Duffy, the video maintains a rhythmic pulse. It’s literally never out of step. But, just as Jay raps about the problems he’s had in his life—music-industry drama, almost getting caught by police with drugs in his trunk, having to go toe-to-toe with an idiot—"Problems" visually breaks down the problems that have plagued Brooklyn and inner-city America in general. As much as Romanek shows celebrations randomly popping off (whaddup, dude in Viking hat!), he counters it with bleak shots of black men in jail (completely naked, at one point, as they’re showered down) and old men prematurely mourning their loved ones in funeral homes.
As the video shows everything from a guy aiming a gun out an apartment window, pointing it to unsuspecting passersby, to street performers and step teams literally dancing in the street, it’s obvious that Jay and Romanek are both out to show Brooklyn as a land of contradictions. Good things can happen, but really, really bad things can happen, too. (In a New York Times piece on the video, Jeffrey Rotter said, "’99 Problems’ is a celebration and a disparagement of Brooklyn iconography.") And, yet, as Romanek captures it all with cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay, who would later work with James Gray on We Own the Night and Two Lovers, there’s a striking, visual poetry to it.
Romanek also saw the humor. He had Rubin walk around Brooklyn as well, wearing a cowboy hat and a fur coat. (Romanek said he wanted Rubin to look like "a rabbinical pimp.") In one, odd instance, he’s seen walking down the sidewalk with, of all people, Vincent Gallo! Romanek also plays hip-hop misogyny for laughs. Whenever Jay uses "bitch" in "Problems," he’s actually referring to everything but a girl. In the first verse, that’s what he calls the music-industry BS he goes through. In the second verse, it’s a female, drug-sniffing dog. In the final verse, it’s a silly-ass dude looking for a fight. But as Jay uses "bitch" in different ways, Romanek uses it ironically, as standard-issue, bikini-clad, big-booty video girls ridiculously grace the screen the second Jay says the word.
As those shots of butt-nekkid black dudes show, the video also isn’t afraid to be startling in a sensational, controversial manner. Shots of gunplay (or, in Jay’s case, pretending to hold a gun with his hand) were excised from the original cut when it played on MTV (The shots were replaced by a hand obscuring the camera lens.) And, of course, there’s the climactic moment where Jay himself gets shot up with bullets, as his arms flay around in slow motion—a rather violent reminder that Jay was done with rap at the time. The moment scared MTV to the point where it regularly played the video at night, with a pre-video disclaimer attached to it. It’s worth noting that, in the video for his last single, "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," he simply got in a limo at the end and rode off into the sunset. If "Dirt" was his John Ford-ish sayonara, "Problems" was him saying bye-bye, Peckinpah-style.
"99 Problems" still remains immensely watchable, like nearly all of Romanek’s videos. One of those rare hip-hop videos that eschewed—even mocked—rap-video clichés and actually packs a cinematic punch, the video would go on to win a well-deserved, Video Music Award (back when those meant something, of course) for Best Rap Video, as well as moon-men statues in directing, editing and cinematography.
Back when it began making the MTV and BET rounds ten years ago, Armond White wrote in a New York Press essay, "’99 Problems’ shows a young black man’s New York as it has never been seen before. Jay-Z spins a tale of common aimlessness and selfish survival… His delivery is terse yet eloquent –swingsong, but the world he walks through is ferocious." No matter how much of a hipster playground Brooklyn becomes, "99 Problems" will forever be an energetic, musical snapshot of the borough at its most down-and-dirty.
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