15 MINUTES OF FAME
By Ben Tuthill
Let’s hear it for the surprise-internet-success model, still going strong after all these years. Three months ago Desiigner was an 18-year-old cellphone repairman from Bed-Stuy named Sidney Selby. He threw together 75-or-so inarticulate words about an extremely specific subject, put it over a weirdo beat by a no-name British producer, never even tried to get signed, and somehow via he-said-she-said made it all the way to a Billboard number one. Who cares if he’s bound for one-hit-wonder status? This is the 21st-century rap version of the American dream. And now that dream finally has a music video, and against all odds its one of the most memorable hip-hop videos of the year.
Panda is filmed from the Snapchat angle, a facial profile that’s become so ubiquitous in the past two years that you barely even notice it when it shows up in a high profile music video. The opposite of the classic Selfie Angle, the Snapchat angle comes from below and is about as unflattering as it gets: giant chin, tiny eyes, a shot straight up the nostrils. This is an angle that in the Myspace era would have been purged from any teenager’s photo library long before it made it to the internet. Now it’s prevalent at levels that weren’t even possible in 2006 via the insta-reactive world of teen social media. It milks the most of the Snapchat-able emotions (shock, scorn, confusion, disgust, snorting amusement) and presents them in all their unenhance-able glory. Teens may be more obsessed about their images than ever, but the traditional obsession with idealized beauty has been overcome by the the maximization of emotional honesty.
Desiigner is a master of the Snapchat profile form. His nostrils look great, and he knows just how to use them to evoke the spazzed-out drama of his Brooklyn experience. Most of Panda is focused on his face, but that face fits right in with everything happening behind it. There’s enough going on that you’ll miss the best details if you blink. Desiigner spitting what looks like blood out the window of his X6 –the tough kids hanging outside the warehouse on phones– the true nature of the panda face that at 2:25. Kanye shows up and does donuts in a German luxury car, the only activity that seems to bring him true public joy. It’s fast and ephemeral and more than a little bit self-conscious, which is about as good of a summary of 21st-century popular culture as you can get.
What’s most refreshing about Panda, though, is that Desiigner makes no attempt at pretending he can actually afford the lifestyle he’s rapping about. He doesn’t get his X6 by any amount of hustling, but by the only means that a 19-year-old cellphone repairman could: he steals it. Carjacking doesn’t come across as a particularly hard act (nothing about Desiigner is threatening) but it’s not American Grafitti-style teen crime romanticism either; the middle portion of the video is mostly focused on a bloody (but not ornately so) police raid. It’s all in fun, sure, but not so much fun that reality gets sacrificed. You can steal a car, but you’re going to get messed up for it. You can go out at night in Bed-Stuy, but at some point in time you’re going to feel very much alone. Panda walks a line between hood sensationalization and hip-hop escapism and refines it out of existence. The hood is dangerous without descending to its exploitable tropes. Bed-Stuy is exciting without covering up the mundane grit in a haze of capitalist fantasy. The two ends are united and grounded in the weird, wild-eyed, marbled-mouth person of Desiigner, who for reasons of his own is just unapologetically excited about black-and-white BMWs.
As hip hop gets more and comfortable with its weirdness, it faces the danger of sliding into visual absurdity. We can see that happening on one end with artists like Lil Yachty, whose videos are about as nuanced as circa-2009 Adult Swim videos, and on the more fashionable end in the past year’s offering of A$AP Mob videos. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘random-ness’ or runway-ready trippy-ness. But I think both lose sight of the thing that makes hip-hop enjoyable in the first place – its firm grounding in reality. Hip-hop has always been driven by the power of its performers personalities in necessarily real-world setting. It doesn’t have to stay that way, but there’s something to be said for the entertainment value of realism. We listen to hip-hop because we want to hear one individual’s take on the particular world around him. Without that, we get an endless repetition of nuance-free tropes (see, Worldstar) or an inane repetition of randomness (see, the lesser imitators of Lil B). Desiigner, against both ends, presents a very real world through the nuanced lens of his personal perspective. Panda takes what’s uniquely good about a Snapchat account and makes it into an elegant work of commercial art. It’s a refreshingly real model, and it offers a whole lot of promise for the generation of hip hop videos to come.