Hip-Hop’s Visual Swagger—Synesthesia

seeingsoundscollageMade you look.

Listening previews, of new music is a song that the press knows all the words to. Up until Kanye West’s premiere of his pivotal third album Graduation, when record companies gave an “exclusive,” they never skimped on predictability—an oasis of free beverages (mostly libations), uninformed liner notes, and the obligatory appearance by the artist. Yet on August 27th, 2007 at New York’s New World Stages Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Records billed West’s event as an “experience.” [Ed. Note: New World Stages was formerly a discount movie theater known as Loews Cineplex Entertainment Worldwide Plaza from 1994 to 2001. It screened films as cheap as $2.]

It wasn’t the mark of the music industry’s dark days. Buzz jargon like “experience” or savvy marketing techniques are all familiar bait to lure in the fickle fans who’d heard it all before. No, seeing is believing—a credo the figure-heads at Def Jam seem to pride themselves on when making landmarks out of albums like Kanye’s Graduation, and Deeper Than Rap by Rick Ross.

Amidst the predominance of Blackberries and smart phones, the gamut of distractions is never-ending. Hence the power of the moving image. Generation A.D.D. was reminded of the elephant in the room, the movie screen at New World Stages that storied summer night. It was a dream come true for ’80s babies to see iconic scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey almost 40 years after it’s original release. Set to the soundtrack of Kanye’s psychedelic howls on “Good Morning,” the monolith was reborn to a new anthem. It was the dawn of hip-hop’s age of synesthesia.

The music video is a tried but true accompaniment, mastered by visionaries from Hype Williams, to Spike Jonze; reformed by Dan the Man, and Rik Cordero. As for the recent surge of music that lends itself to iconic imagery, what do our ears really see? Or what do our eyes truly hear? In 2001, The Phenomenolgy of Synaesthesia by Vilayanur Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard cited the pioneering report of Francis Galton from 1880. Granted Galton’s theory profiles the sight of sound on a micro level, where the brain processes musical notes as colors and shapes; not so much the larger scale of Tron, Akira, or hentai— other visual muses of Mr. West. Ramachandran’s studies in neurology (addressed at a lecture in the Bay Area) takes Galton’s theory one step further, proving that the areas of the brain, that recognize color and numbers are physically close to each other. If the space between the two regions is trimmed shorter than others, the result is “eight times more common incidence of synaesthesia among poets, artists, and novelists.” [Ed. Note: “Synaesthesia” is the alternate spelling normally attributed to the Belgian Synesthesia Association.]

Rick Ross, for argument’s sake, poetically sewed together the mafioso lifestyle with a glamorous texture on his pivotal third album, Deeper Than Rap. Miami’s trill MC needed to create a thriller of his own to shroud the controversy surrounding his past as a correctional officer. So clips from rap’s default library of gangster movies were used to bring his gangster to life. But Ross’ palette of film wasn’t very diverse. If viewers were supposed to get a glimpse of what drama was like for the self-proclaimed Biggie of his city, well, people already saw the movie, bought the T-shirt. Scarface, Carlito’s Way, even Belly—arguably one of the greatest gangster flicks to come from rap left the crowd desensitized. The impact left by Hype Williams’ Belly had it’s own score that was a testament to the golden years of Nas, DMX, and Method Man. To add insult to injury, the movie scenes were interrupted by Rick Ross’ logo, and an album plug that was as annoying to picture, as it is to hear it on a watermarked cd, distributed by a record label.

This is not to say hardcore imagery has had it’s run with rap. Hip-hop is a progressive art form that goes through it’s share of creative peaks and repetitive valleys. Taking music and film to new heights is artist Kenzo Digital. Through the span of 57 minutes and 55 seconds, Kenzo creates a fictional coming of age story with Nas, Jay-Z, and Ghostface as the stars in City Of God’s Son. All of the dialogue, and songs by the aforementioned artists are carefully spliced, and remixed to put a new spin on the characters we’ve come to know through music. At Kenzo’s listening experience at New York’s Norwood club, instead of using specially edited videos or movies to illustrate his Beat Cinematic project, he encouraged the small audience to close their eyes and imagine the story that played out in 3-D sound. This unique form of synesthesia gives new life to last year’s conceptual album titles like Ludacris’ Theater Of The Mind, or N.E.R.D.’s Seeing Sounds.

Now that Graduation is a glimmer in our eye, how will Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam stun fans again? Kanye has videos for “Paranoid” and the Spike Jonze-directed “Nightmares” in the works; while “Amazing” is gaining attention for it’s opulent capture of Hawaii’s landscapes the way Christopher Nolan did with The Dark Knight‘s metropolis. I quipped via NahRight.com that I’d pay $20 to watch the video in IMAX. Seems like an exaggeration. But later this year, Jay-Z is slated to drop Blueprint 3, a possible rap equivalent to a box office killer. Show us what you got.

Related: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

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