Against considerable odds, music videos continue to surprise, thrill, and sometimes, annoy. Busta, Bokeem, and Pharrell ogling; Diddy and Lenny Kravitz gyrating; Justin defying gravity in Not-Britney’s living room; Britney not kissing Madonna; Jay-Z returning; and Ludacris growing his awesome Afro for “Stand Up” — the images are indelible. That’s not to say that some aren’t quite unnecessary. Juvenile’s reteaming with Manny Fresh for a music video in a car showroom only looks old already, following G Unit’s “Stunt 101.” In fact, the prodigious and ubiquitous 50 Cent has been everywhere first, with a seemingly unstoppable flow of videos off Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and now, Beg For Mercy too. Here’s to Phillip Atwell and all others who provided 2003’s music with memorable imagery.
Listed below, the year’s top videos, in alphabetical order:
50 Cent, “In Da Club” (Directors: Phillip G. Atwell) The most innovative, brilliant, and self-conscious introduction of a superstar ever: 50 drops from the ceiling to pronounce the year’s most often repeated invocation: “Yo shorty, it’s your birthday!” Cut to Em and Dre in lab coats, monitoring the construction of their extraordinary next big thing. Smart, catchy, and monumentally self-referential. How many dance track videos can boast all three? Plus, the guy in the green headband who waves his fingers over his face near video’s end never fails to amuse.
Christina Aguilera, featuring Lil’ Kim, “Can’t Hold Us Down” (Director: David LaChapelle)
As much as “Lady Marmalade” shook up the industry, the re-connection here of Kim and Xtina makes another point, even beyond their mutual demand for respect. Wacky on its surface, the video features a competition of sorts between street performers — boys against girls, of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, races, and athletic talents — with gym-shortsed, black-tressed Aguilera belting her anthem and her bejeweled girl Kim has her back. No matter the awkward moments — the video earns points for nerve and down-ass chickness.
Ashanti, “Rain on Me” (Director: Hype Williams)
Ashanti, “Rock wit Me (Aww Baby)” (Director: Paul Hunter)
Yes, Ashanti’s voice is thin and her lyrics repetitive (“Aw baby aw baby aw baby”), any video that has her riding an elephant deserves notice. More elaborately and for the most part, more impressively, “Rain on Me” returns Hype to the music video fray (for a minute, anyway) and Ashanti to her melodramatic origins (“Foolish”). It also reveals a newly bulked-up Larenz Tate: someone please cast him in a full-length movie.
Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love”
Beyoncé, featuring Sean Paul, “Baby Boy”
Beyoncé has never met an outfit, hairstyle, dance move, or close-up she didn’t like. “Baby Boy” warrants attention just for the weird bat-dance fingers she makes on the beach, just before she flips herself over backwards: who choreographs this girl’s videos? Moreover, from start to finish, “Crazy in Love” is the most watchable video of the year: Beyoncé strides toward the camera in heels and shorts, slithers and struts, tosses her hair, strikes poses, bites her finger in blue light, flicks her chinchilla at Jay. The car explodes. The girl reappears in hot orange and pink minidress and dares the giant fan to rearrange it. And oh yes, the butt shimmy Warren Sapp stole.
Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (Director: Mark Romanek)
Justin was right: this is the video of the year. Who knew a cover of Trent Reznor would be so right for Johnny Cash? Though the video was awarded a VMA for “cinematography,” its genius lies in editing and selection of archival footage. While Cash’s performance is almost alarmingly perfect, Romanek’s visual translation is equally painful and virtuoso. I can’t think of another recent video that so encapsulates a life — its public version, anyway — with such simultaneous compassion, sorrow, and respect.
Missy Elliot, “Pass that Dutch” (Directors: Dave Meyers and Missy Elliot)
Missy as King Kong. Hardly another word need be said. Again and again, Elliot and her boy Dave Meyers conjure serial visual delights: “Hooty hoo!” Here the range includes an “unknown virus that’s attacking all clubs” (turning scarecrows into dancers), a tribute to Rerun (“I’m what’s happ’nin!”), humvee cruising, a teary prom queeny crowning, and Free gazing up at her girl atop the Empire State Building. More power to Missy: apparently no one at MTV noticed the title and refrain, even while every possible reference to chronic made by Dre or Snoop is fuzzed out tout suite.
Kelis, “Milkshake” (Director: Jake Nava)
After reported difficulties with Paul Hunter’s first version of this video, the company turned to Nava, whose on-beat comedy accommodates the track’s mix of sultry and silly. As Nas the short order cook looks on, his fiancée humps the counter and the milkshake machine explodes. And Kelis has a hit single like she’s never had before.
Alicia Keys, “You Don’t Know My Name” (Director: Chris Robinson)
Yet another video set in a diner, but it might as well be on another planet: the difference between Kelis and Alicia could not be more profound. With so many delirious instants crowded into three minutes, it’s hard to pick the most affecting: the stolen moment in the piano warehouse? The stride down the sidewalk? Still, there’s something special about the lights playing over Alicia and Mos Def’s elegantly shadowed bodies, as the track offers up a thrilling piano trill. Who would believe Keys is a diner waitress, even if she does look “a little different outside [her] work clothes”? But no matter. The old-school device follows the song’s classic feel, meaning that her longing and her self-knowledge: “Did I mention? (Oh!) / You about to miss a good thing.”
No Doubt, “It’s My Life” (Director: David LaChapelle)
Again incorporating speculations concerning the group’s internal tensions and imminent break-up (see also: “Don’t Speak”), the video for No Doubt’s only new song on this year’s album delivers a terrific series of vignettes, as Gwen, in glamorous ’40s costumes and Jean Harlow’s hair, kills off the boys one by one. Each story is conjures its own little drama, with its own means of murder: poison, car, and my favorite, the hairdryer tossed in the bathtub. Yes, she’s executed, but not before she busts out of her orange jumpsuit and her mascara-stained face slips out from under her blindfold: even on death row, she’s unstoppable.
OutKast, “Hey Ya” (Director: Bryan Barber)
A passel of Andre 3000s, gleefully making girls yelp and “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” Big ups to the multiplicity FX team, who’ve made an eerily seamless world full of Andres. What’s cooler than being cool? Ice Cold!
Justin Timberlake, “Cry Me a River” (Director: Francis Lawrence)
The greatest stalker video since Sting’s. Lesson learned: do not throw down with JT, ’cause he’ll get you back. Timbaland’s sublime production backs lithe white boy’s magical matrixy leaps so smoothly that the fact he’s waiting out in the car, egging on the mischief — because, after all, “the damage is done” — hardly seems culpable. Instead, you focus on the in-house shenanigans. Though Justin breaks that pretty picture window and penetrates the bedroom in a wholly unnerving way, it’s hard to look away from his hovery slither up behind rain-wet low-riser Britney Stand-In. Who knew Justin Timberlake was so nasty?
Pharrell Williams, “Frontin'” (Director: Paul Hunter)
A video in love with video: between the handheld camera and the digital frames on the walls, the house party is pumping the pictures. As for flesh-seeming bodies: Pharrell fronts as a player who’s shy, girlfriend fronts as a girl who’s uninterested, and Hova won’t front at all: it’s not in his nature.