After Young Thug’s “Wyclef Jean” video was released on Monday, co-director Ryan Staake was everywhere. “There’s so many videos that are really similar to each other, especially in hip-hop,” Staake told The FADER. In another interview, he referred to the clip as a “marketing gem.” The video, which has been largely positive received, has racked up nearly 3.5 million views in two days, and received praise for its novelty. It presents a tardy Young Thug as an antagonist, Staake’s barrier to realizing a vision.
As the clip tells it, the “Wyclef Jean” video was originally meant to be co-directed by Staake and Thug. In an audio file played at the beginning of the video, Thug envisions the same kind of fun and cartoonish treatment he brought to the “Best Friend” video. Staake’s original concept was to literally burn the video’s $100,000 budget, which Thug’s label nixed. This idea came across to me just as gross 22 years ago, when anachro-pop collective The K Foundation set £1 million on fire for reasons they’ve never been able to explain and later came to regret. Staake, apparently eager to challenge notions of what music videos can be in arguably played-out ways, incorporated the audio file of Thug explaining his concept into the finished video, as though he hoped a device from the Postmodernism 101 playbook could compete with Thug’s originality. “I think seeing something jarring and bizarre is refreshing to people,” Staake told The FADER.
But few things are as refreshing, jarring, or bizarre as Thug’s art and personality. Even if how it peels back the process of video making is exhilarating to some, Staake’s finished product is also imbued with a cynicism that strikes me as totally wrong for an artist like Young Thug, who defies hip-hop's traditional masculinity and questions the existence of gender. These statements reveal an intense and uncompromising engagement with his chosen art form, one that is likely impossible without a profound optimism about what it can say and who it can reach.
With the help of subtitles, the video presents the shoot day’s unfolding events, as adjustments and accommodations are made in real time. Staake’s anger at Thug’s failure to show up and Thug’s label’s failure to produce him is understandable. But Staake’s resentment at his deteriorating video boils over when he presents a karaoke-style lyric line of the song’s explicit hook by way of responding to feedback from Thug’s label, who request to change a scene that’s insensitive to children. “What’s worse, what he’s saying or what I wanted to do?” the video effectively asks.
Without Thug to fill the planned shots of “Wyclef Jean,” Staake was by his own admission left flailing. He tried to improvise, but the results are not compelling, as we see with a shot of two models simultaneously deep-throating an enormous sausage.
“On my way home, I wondered if Young Thug would’ve liked the video we put together for him,” Staake muses in a concluding title card, “But I guess none of that matters now. In fact, maybe that’s the moral of the story: None of this matters. The video cost over $100,000 and the artist never showed up.” A dubious notion to hinge a nugget of nihilism on, since there’s an established history of music videos without the lead artist in a single frame (Thug has announced the video’s release, but offered no other commentary). That’s the heart of the video’s problems, spelled out in black and white. From his original concept to the supposedly verite clip we all ended up watching, Staake chose to make “Wyclef Jean” with irony-tinged candor and no small amount of entitlement (as well as the endorsement of Thug’s label). There's no truly bold vision to match Thug's, just a list of excuses floating in a vacuum that masquerades as documentary. For a larger-than-life artist like Thug and his fans who are watching, why is that worth showing up for?