Hype Williams used to be the man. Rising from the position of an intern at Video Music Box to influencing that particular medium and Hip-Hop as a whole in the mid to late 90's like no other, Hype now rarely sets himself apart from the flock of followers that took his style into the new century. Most recently, he's been working with a flanked letterbox gimmick that's going nowhere (Check On It, My Hood, Unpredictable). It may be a different look for MTV and BET, but it's no better. So what happened? Well, if you go over his entire videography, you'll see the gas from the gassed up start to run out at the end of the last decade. The fish-eyed lens and shiny scenes lost their spark, Hype lost his ability to stand out amongst a crowd of newcomers, and everybody could recognize a cliché a Bentley-length away. Then the death of Aaliyah, in August of 2001, after filming his treatment of Rock The Boat, seemed to have really pushed him back. Not only did Hype take a break from working, but, upon his return, his charismatic direction and the previous energy of his videos, especially in regards to color, gave way to four minute acts of the contrived and already-been-covered (Breathe, Only U, Wonderful). It didn't used to be like that though.
While Can It Be All So Simple will always be overlooked in favor of the Gatsby-like grandeur of Big Pimpin' or the melodrama of Hate Me Now, Hype's work here with Wu-Tang stands as the quintessential example of his art. So Simple is highly-stylized but there's balance, a control of the screen, so that the picture doesn't get washed away in the indulgent. It's self-conscious but not self-afflicting. Its numerous crane shots add a dynamic to the standard rap video performance piece, and the careful execution of slo-mo incorporates a hint of grace even. There's a lot going on, but, with this aforementioned control, it's never busy: notice the camera panning right as its subject walks left, treetop dolly shots with the background blurred in a haze; the 2:55 minute mark with the quick exposure of light; fade in fade out transitions, etc. And Hype can capture a still picture with just the same effectiveness, because really this video is as much a portrait of the stare of a young kid or a wheelie on a bike as it is mean-mugging and luxury sedans. (For another good example of his vignette-centric, bright color pulsing agenda, check out the Street Dreams video.)
However, though Hype Williams earned his stripes doing music videos, like most directors in the basic cable genre, the big screen was his goal. For him, 1998's Belly would be that vehicle. But let's take this "vehicle" idea quite literally: Belly was the slickest, sleekest looking car, made with all the chutzpah in the world, that unfortunately couldn't drive for spit, went a lot of places outside its performance capability, and crashed landed in Africa. It's a movie that I own, like, but admit is not all that well made. Oh, the high production values are there, but they don't ultimately align themselves with much overall cinematic quality. The performances? Distracting. The characters? Paper thin. The dialogue? "When it rains, niggas get wet." The plot? Actually not horrible, but loses its grip hard in the third act. So what do I like about it? The pretty pictures (shout out to Malik Sayeed). With photography as eye-catching as a child's kaleidoscope and all the requisite cock-driven audacity, Belly's visuals are clearly its strongest feature. Just look at the use of blues in the prison cell, an early morning alongside Shorty Doo Wop, DMX and the g-man playing hoops at a long and low angle, the black light club scene, or a trail of blunt smoke emerging as a car ride becomes drenched in red. Despite Belly may have satisfied the style-over-substance sense in all of us, even those now forming lines for a sequel have to cop to its entire number line worth of problems, where concerning Nas too.
If The Firm album was the first sign of Nas showing his Achilles' Heel on record, then Belly was it on full display for all the Roger Ebert's of the world. The Nas that so many people, and rightfully so, take pot shots at, the corny Nas, the "let's go to Africa" Nas, the sucker for love Nas, the terrycloth gangsta Nas, all seem to really be exemplified in a character named "Sincere." So while it was cool to see One Love get its Hollywood adaptation, Nas would have done better to stay away in the first place. Even his primary soundtrack contribution wasn't all that great.
Over Grand Finale's solid piano push, amongst the other MCs, Nas delivers a verse falling somewhere in the C+ range. The narrative description works, but the rhyme execution simply isn't up to par. Regardless, relaying scenes of addicts and shooters, vials and firearms, and the lives caught between, he uses the idea of Belly to tap into "the belly of the beast", where all this action finds its home.
DMX, Ja Rule, Method Man, Nas: Grand FinaleIt's irrelevant, the beast love to eat black meat
And got us niggas from the hood hanging off his teeth
We slanging to eat, bringing the heat
Bullet holes, razor scars is the pain in the street