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Music Video Report: Chance the Rapper, “Everybody’s Something” (dir. Austin Vesely)

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I suppose it’s not particularly revolutionary to posit that everybody’s a palimpsest, but the music video for Chance the Rapper’s “Everybody’s Something” sure makes that sentiment seem like a revelation. In the video, simple images of Chance, well, rapping, become a surface for other moving images. Here’s how it works: Chance’s chiaroscuro silhouette moves against a darkened background while images play across his body. The images don’t overtake his features: eyes, mustache, head of hair are all visible beneath the visuals. Additionally, the darkened background sometimes fills up with images, furthering the video’s density. These background images are usually, but not always, abstract—dots of light, blurring colors, cloudy wisps—while the images against Chance’s body are usually, but not always concrete.

Part of what’s fascinating about the video is the fact that the images playing across Chance’s body are culled from footage spanning a wide swath of cinema, television, and internet history. Here’s The Great Train Robbery. Here’s footage of Muhammad Ali (maybe fighting Sonny Liston). Here’s Fox News. Here are bits and pieces of an instructional film from 1948 called Build Your Vocabulary. All this is merely the tip of the iceberg: hundreds of images arise and disappear in the video’s three minutes and thirty-four seconds.

The result is a strange inversion of the song’s title: “Everybody’s Something” becomes “Somebody’s Everything.” The move relates to the excitable cynicism of Chance the Rapper’s voice, which tends to cast doubt on the song’s surface optimism (“Everybody’s somebody’s everything / Nobody’s nothing”). If the video begins as a simple affirmation of Whitman’s platitude about the self containing multitudes (or, in this case, the self containing the whole universe: the video begins with a galaxy in a clear sphere and uses outer space iconography at various points throughout), it becomes a sort of gasping for air from beneath the stockpile (a stockpile that may, in the contemporary moment, be essential to the formation of the self nonetheless).

Yet right alongside the suffocating mass of images is an indelible loneliness. The song, on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, features two additional artists, Saba and BJ the Chicago Kid. And while we still hear BJ the Chicago Kid’s singing voice in the video song’s hook, Saba disappears entirely and BJtCK is absent from the image track. It is Chance’s body, and Chance’s body alone, on to which the images project.

“I know somebody / Somebody loves my ass / ‘Cause they helped me beat my demon’s ass,” Chance intones before the first hook. The fact that it’s just “somebody” and that the term is repeated suggests a futile grasping for a companionship whose absence is reinforced by a prayer—assumed, not heard, and resulting in a specified spiritual violence. In other words, the demon’s presence is more palpable than the pray-er’s. As the words play, we see two red splotches, like bleeding hearts, appear next to Chance. The splotches contain images of what seem to be a kind of metallic armor, which also appear against Chance’s silhouette as he hugs himself. The video cuts to a closer image of Chance. The splotches disappear. Orange flames dance across his skin in their stead, and in the flames is a figure, head tilted back. Who is this figure? A demon? Chance himself? Chance shifts his head to the left before we have a chance to see. And then, for a split second, the screen cuts to total darkness.

It’s in this moment of total darkness, incredibly brief and repeated only once as far as I can tell (at the 2:53 mark), that we see the video making its most compelling use of the music video form’s quick cutting. For the quickness allows absence to be neither frighteningly permanent nor reassuringly contemplative (by michelle tests forge). It is an absence that undercuts the presumed messages of the video (everybody’s somebody’s everything, everybody’s a palimpsest) and that cuts right back to the textual mayhem, a mayhem that’s comfortable perhaps but also accented by the glimpse of nothingness that came before.

“Nobody’s nothing,” Chance insists. It’s just a little bit harder to believe after the nobody and the nothing have entered our field of vision.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gctf0n8b3F4