Friday, April 17, 2009

"Let Me Put Some God In You": A closer look at the videos for Usher's Love In This Club and Z-Ro's Tired

Yeah, so, this is a year late but bear with me. Every time I view Usher's Love In This Club video it continues transmogrifying from a sleek, celebrity-filled vision of the hottest blue balls ever to something even scarier than I originally imagined. The video's initial allure was the way it wrapped itself up in the material excesses the genre is criticized for and subtly flaunts them in a preternaturally seductive way.

Usher stumbling alone into some purgatory of his repertoire's intended haunts, with the doors leading back into itself, suggests an isolated detachment the seemingly retired superstar had to face when making a comeback. When Timbaland production team member/rising pop star Keri Hilson shows up as the video girl, her sultry taunts in response to his nervous and aggressively defensive inquiries play like the unstable youth demographic he's after. "I'm your every desire." Does the dude still matter? All the girls that fawned over him before his cameo in She's All That are grown, youngsters like Omarion or even weirdos with a futuristic vocoder and a Stevie Wonder visage like T-Pain done stole his place, and the market is unpredictable for celebrities not returning on the surreal life.

But then Polow Da Don comes in, the synths take over, and all of a sudden Usher is at home again, no need to freak out, just freak. Just like the song is about fucking right there on the dance floor because there is no waiting to get out, about that moment that can't be suppressed, that is so immediate it feels just right, the music feels that way, too. Usher puts on his sunglasses, shouts out the DJ, and proceeds to ceremoniously emcee the main event, in which Usher attempts to fucks with a lady right there in the club or, maybe, slide his way into the pockets of his desired demographic.

There to witness the proceedings are fellow Rap and R & B luminaries currently taking the clubs by storm. Those that Usher fizzled out to. The artists that Usher maybe passed the torch to before going back to his dressing room. Here everyone's a friend, Usher's like the kid that took a gap year and is now back for some serious business. Now he finds himself surrounded by wizened industry heads, borderline divas on the cusp of saturation, their entrance, their existence almost a wax work in a museum, crystallized in slow motion. Kanye with his back on the bar while a pair of high heels with legs attached to them saunter past his elbows, barely cocking his head in acknowledgement cause his glasses do enough attitude for him, one of Keri's girls slowly grazing his proximity (as well as Nelly's and that of many others), feels just as right as the song does.

What undercuts the self-indulgence of the proceedings is that all this is good and great, but Usher isn't actually getting any. He's on the cusp of getting some when Keri Hilson and her crew of temptresses taunt him. Moving past the bevy of new social circles being famous and photogenic Usher is getting swept up by the libidinal undercurrent, it's not just flashy it's fuckable in there and he's going to cash in but right as they lock lips, right as they're about to bump hips she disappears. Usher being left to dance choreographically to his heart's and his loin's discontent. And still nothing. Then it ends. Everyone disappears. The girls are there no more. Usher tries to run out again, but this time he ends up in some approximation of heaven. Surrounded by clouds he's actually standing in the rubble of what was once the structure that hosted his grandstanding re-entry into superstardom.

All of a sudden the song's libertinism becomes apocalyptically conservative, with the site of casual sex being done in like Sodom and Gomorrah. What really drives this home, and I didn't notice this until a recent appraisal, is that Keri and her girls don't just graze by and tempt the guys in the club. They leave them hanging in more ways than one. Each encounter leaves the men's lusty demeanor with a parting gift. When Kanye is walked by his hand goes out and a chain is dropped into his palm. Attached to that chain is a cross. When Nelly's hands are clasped by one of the girls, he's being signaled to guard the cross now placed in his holding. In the context of Usher's return, this is a trainwreck. Back in the lime light and before his first video is over his dick killed everyone. By unleashing the atmosphere of promiscuity everyone was blown to bits. Keri's angels did what they could, but maybe it wasn't a sure thing. In the context of Love in this Club, is there no such thing? Or is such a thing a sure fire way to get crossed out of existence?

Like, the brilliance of the thing doesn't necessarily make it agreeable, but holy shit is it a sight to behold. The idea of spiritual liberation from the libations of liminal turmoil makes a startlingly irresponsible return in Z-Ro's tired:

I've written here extensively of Z-Ro's depression, the way don status mythology making was progressively de-layered by his own self-admonitions. Raised by extended family, harassed by the police, isolated by both a perpetual violence that claimed most of his friends and a systematic injustice that incarcerated the others. Ro doesn't have time for romance, all he has time for is to scramble. And constantly being down on his knees he looked to god. Even if you're an atheist you understand the prescriptive nature of his laments are less out of ideological puritanism and more out of desperation.

Despite being robbed of a comfortable existence, despite needing Lexapro to deal with it, he still looked outside himself. No matter the antipathy he still made space to reach out to gays, lesbians and other discriminated demographics. His willing of god onto others was, yes, superstitious, but also dissociative. A coping mechanism in which he saw the breadth of oppression claiming more people than himself. If he could use god maybe everyone else can, too. But what's odd is the continual knee-dropping, and not just because of it's undeniable presence, but because of how aware he was on I'm Still Living of its apparent inability to solve anything. "I pray so much I should be kin to the heavenly son." It's beyond solemnity now, it's a cruel joke, and one he assumes he'll keep on having to tell himself or he'll break down and stop waiting for anyone else to do him in.

What's weird about this new video, boasting Mya instead of, say, past Rap-A-Lot hook roster stalwart Tanya Heron, is the comfort level. Ro's music video production values have gone up, and despite the relative obscurity, his old line about how "Niggaz say Rap-A-Lot ain't payin me like I ain't got nuttin, If six figures is bein bent over, I'm lovin the fuckin"seems to be the de facto protocol.

What's awful here on my part is that his artistry is invariably also judged by his honesty, and Z-Ro's honesty was particularly hard to swallow because of the shit he had to get off his chest. His real talk was that he was living the same fucked up life everyone else around him was. The more fucked up, the more stirring, the more depressed, the more soulful. It's as if the only way he could get any better was to be on his death bed and though everyone wanted him to pull through his exit would have left a mark on rap analogous to that of Ian Curtis.

What's great is that now Z-Ro seems to be finally doing better, or at least the videographer is making a convincing case. Sure the subject matter is about the shackles caused by societal constraints, but looking at all of his new videos dude looks a whole lot better than he did in his most recent stint in county prison, better than he did on his last album before going in. This video, though, is where it gets uncomfortable. Not because of the subject matter, which is aptly conveyed with Z-Ro's trademark sympathy, but his sympathy now seems to have a punch line. The whole thing plays like a weight loss infomercial. Sure, Z-Ro might have found god and told you before, but he never gave weight to it, he just obsessively referred to it as the last thing he could possibly turn to, telling others out of concern, but still not being 100%. Here, though, it's like it's a given, he's outsourcing the work to a street corner preacher. Every symptom of malaise and oppression is lined up like a welfare line and written off with the power of god, at least through the hands of this preacher. All the symbolic shackles are miraculously undone by that dude that was always catcalling you with catechisms on your block.

At least Ro doesn't blow you up, but it's like meat and dairy and the split between vegans and vegetarians. Which is worse? Being killed or being stuffed in a cage and prodded at?