Admitting that he had pretty much “gone through the motions” for The Black Album’s first two videos, for “99 Problems” Jay-Z wanted something visually powerful to complement the track’s bombastic throwback vibe. Originally tapping Quentin Tarantino to direct, producer Rick Rubin eventually convinced him to work with director Mark Romanek.
Known for his stark, minimalistic visual style (used to great effect in the video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”), Romanek had never directed a hip-hop video prior to “99 Problems”. Ignoring the established conventions of the genre (and presumably Jay’s entire video catalogue), Romanek set out to deliver something far removed from the “money, ho’s and flows”-style videos being churned out by the dozen in the mid-00’s.
Shot entirely in black and white, “99 Problems” offers viewers a street-level depiction of Brooklyn, New York, with Jay-Z serving as the de facto tour guide. The track’s thunderous beat propels viewers through a series of visually arresting scenes, starting in the Marcy Projects and ending in an underground dog-fighting pit – drawing the ire of the American Humane Society in the process. Later realizing the immense social marketing potential of “99 Problems” references, the Humane Society has since crossed Jay-Z off their personal list of problems.
Upon its release “99 Problems” caused the sort of stir expected for a video labelled misogynistic and overtly violent – largely due to the video’s controversial ending, where Jay-Z is gunned down on a Brooklyn street corner. Though MTV ultimately agreed to play the video, it was broadcast with a disclaimer by MTV reporter John Norris (“Guns are bad, but violence can be symbolic. This gun violence is symbolic so it’s OK.”). This notoriety certainly didn’t hurt the video, as it went on to win a number of honours at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Rap Video, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.
Treatise upon the evils of gun violence aside, what other web video lessons can we learn from “99 Problems”?
1) Establish yourself
Romanek’s establishing shot from “99 Problems” is textbook: it takes approximately one second, and immediately places the viewer in the middle of the action. Resembling a ghetto Star Tours, a single camera tracks at high speeds up a grimy staircase, bursting out into the courtyard of the Marcy Projects seconds before Jay-Z pops into frame. As an added bonus the shot has great thematic value, mirroring the rapper’s own rags-to-riches story as he transcends the desolation of the Brooklyn cityscape. A strong establishing shot instantly sets the stage and situates the viewer within the narrative, making it easier to deliver your message.
2) Work the angles
Referred to by Jeffrey Rotter as both a “celebration and a disparagement of Brooklyn iconography”, Romanek uses off-kilter camera angles and wide shots to give the alleyways and stairwells of Brooklyn an imposing quality. While the video’s editing matches the beat seamlessly (it also won the MVMA for Best Editing in 2004), it’s the visual angles and frenetic camera movements that accentuate the underlying tension of Jay-Z’s Brooklyn. Experimenting with wide and tilted-angle shots can completely change the appearance of your location, and give your video an additional layer of visual interest.
3) End with a bang
Towards the end of the video the anxious undercurrent boils over, reaching a climax at 3:21 when Jay-Z is cut down by a hail of bullets from an unknown assailant – placing an exclamation point on the narrative. At this point the fatalistic imagery becomes more pronounced (rapid cuts between open coffins, church choirs, etc.), completing the loop started with the establishing shot. The moral of the story? You come up, you go back down.
So what do you think: Was the final shot of “99 Problems” powerful or simply posturing? Given Jay’s return to rap a few years later we’d lean towards the latter, but there’s no denying it made the video more memorable.
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