Killer Mike - Untitled
by Christian Prajitno
Michael Render, better known by his stage name Killer Mike, was born in Atlanta in 1975. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s he made a name for himself as battle rapper in Atlanta’s underground Hip-Hop scene. A few years later Mike met Antwan André Patton aka Big Boi from the famous Hip-Hop Duo Outkast. After their breakthrough, the Duo approached Mike and recorded the song “The Whole World” with him. Shortly after, he signed to Columbia Records and released his first single and album in 2003. In the following years he put out various LP’s on different record labels and in the year 2012 he released R.A.P. Music. This piece of work received widespread acclaim e.g. from the Chicago Tribune, Okayplayer, Spin Magazine, Pitchfork Media, etc. The song Untitled, which will be discussed in this paper, appeared on R.A.P. Music and is a rather personal track that touches on different subjects. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that only the verses are rapped by Killer Mike, whereas the hook is sung by the artist Scar.
Benjamin Dickinson is a director, writer and actor. He is known for his work as a director for various movies and short films, such as Super Sleuths, First Winter and Creative Control. Moreover, he directed the video clips for North American Scum (LCD Soundsystem), Gettin Up (Q-Tip), Get Myself Into It (The Rapture), etc.
This paper analyzes Benjamin Dickinson's video clip for Killer Mike's song Untitled. Therefore, I will start by examining the visualization in general. As a second step the analogies between the song and the visuals will be dealt with. Thus, I will answer the question: In how far are the lyrics or musical elements represented in the music video? Last but not least, the paper ends by giving a conclusion.
The main characteristic of this video clip are the various parallels to baroque paintings. This idea of reusing art is not a new idea in the music video industry and appears in many clips. Nonetheless, not everybody is convinced of this technique, because it may be considered as a simple copy of the actual piece of art without any creative input. Despite this skepticism the reuse of art in video clips is actually self-evident and reasonable. When shooting a video for a song, in most cases there is very little time to present a complex discourse and hence, the director sometimes needs to fall back on already known models, patterns or aesthetics. However, this technique can be found throughout the entire history of art and thus it should not be regarded as less creative.
The references to baroque art can be found right from the beginning of the video clip. In order to introduce the audience to the baroque style, Dickinson chose to display a still life with fruits and an hourglass for the first seconds. Immediately after that, the video shows a framed portrait of Killer Mike, being depicted as a deity. First, this image can be seen from a distance, but then the camera zooms into the frame and as it gets closer, Killer Mike comes to life and starts to rap. In doing so the audience is drawn into the world of baroque art and remains in this context throughout the entire video. Therefore, still lifes appear not only at the beginning of the clip but also at 2:00 and 2:04. The depiction of motionless items as still lifes became an own genre during the baroque period and is thus often associated with this epoch.
Another reference to paintings is the fact, that even apart from the still lifes, most scenes display only little or at least very slow movements (examples at 0:31, 0:47, 1:14, 1:21, etc.). Furthermore, it is striking that Killer Mike and Scar often remain motionless and move nothing but their mouth in order to rap or sing (examples at 0:35, 0:53, 1:06, 1:18, etc.). Both of these effects reinforce the impression that the audience is watching a mixture of a music video and baroque style paintings.
However, this is not the only technique that Dickinson uses in order to bring out this effect. Since baroque painting is sometimes even referred to as the art of colors, it is quite common that colors merge and contours blur. Nevertheless, the blurring of shapes does not only appear in baroque painting but it is a frequently used stylistic device in paintings in general and in photography. The contrast between cloudy shapes and highly defined figures immediately draws the viewer's attention to the latter, as it takes some time to identify the blurry parts. Dickinson's motivation for the use of this technique is probably not the highlighting of certain aspects, but rather another reference to paintings (examples at 0:23, 0:54, 1:40, 1:59, etc.).
Apart from that, there are many scenes, in which the use of light reminds the viewer of portraiture. In these paintings people are rarely depicted in front of an entirely black background. Instead, there is a dim light around the portrayed person that slowly merges into darkness. In the video clip Dickinson tries to evoke the same effect by illuminating the fog behind a person (examples at 0:27, 1:29, 1:43, 1:49, etc.). In other scenes people are put in the limelight with the help of a light cone that shines down from the top of the screen. Such a spotlight is not common in baroque paintings, but it does not really break with the concept and in the video it represents a religious enlightenment (examples at 0:13, 0:30, 0:35, 1:06, etc.). The genre of portraiture was quite famous in baroque painting, because people enjoyed being depicted in an impressive posture. In this respect, it was common that people posed in military uniforms or other costumes. This aspect may offer one explanation for the question, why Killer Mike is partly depicted as a dictator in a military uniform (examples at 1:30, 1:40, 1:43, etc.).
Another parallel to paintings appears when examining the background. Every scene takes place in front of a dimly lit or entirely black background, which implies that there is no setting during the entire video. This technique appears in paintings and photographs, but it is very untypical for a music video.
The last aspect that reminds the viewer of the baroque period is the reenactment of three famous pieces of art from this epoch. There is Judith Beheading Holofernes and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and The Toilet of Venus by Diego Velázquez.
Lastly, it can be stated that the interaction of all these effects create the impression that the viewer is not watching a video clip, but is rather looking at paintings from the baroque period. Nonetheless, it needs to be pointed out that only the way the video displays characters and scenes reminds the audience of baroque paintings, but some of the displayed characters and scenes are not in line with this impression. For example the portrayal of Malcolm X or the fight scene with the baseball bat are obviously too modern in order to be a motive in baroque painting (examples at 0:57, 1:15, 1:30, 2:24, etc.).
Another aspect that is dominant throughout the video clip is religion. The audience is confronted with Saint Mary and baby Jesus, a deity and a nun (examples at 0:12, 0:30, 0:47, 1:06, etc.). However, the display of religious elements is in many cases an analogy to the lyrics and will therefore be analyzed in the following chapter.
Analogies between the Lyrics and the Visuals
The music video for Untitled rarely represents musical elements. This can be explained by the director's intention to display a clip that resembles a painting. Hence, Dickinson tried to avoid dancing and movements that harmonize with the rhythm. Nonetheless, there are some parallels between the music and the visuals. For example the music abruptly stops at 2:42 and 3:08 and in order to represent this silence the screen suddenly turns black. Since these parallels are very rare, the main part of this chapter is focusing on the lyrics.
In Verse 1 at 0:23 Mike asks “Will I die slain like my king by a terrorist?”, while the video illustrates a reenactment of the painting Judith Beheading Holofernes. On the one hand, Killer Mike is shown as Holofernes, as he is brutally and insidiously assassinated in this scene. On the other hand, the lyrics make a reference to the murder of Martin Luther King. Thus, Dickinson did not try to play out the content of the lyrics, but instead he chose an image with a similar topic in order to highlight the message of Mike's lyrics. Moreover, the reenacted painting by Caravaggio can also be seen at 1:01, 1:25 and 2:58. This are the moments whenever the topic of assassination reappears in the lyrics (“You usually don't know it's you until you getting killed”, “Them people might try to have you killed” and “I seen how I die”). Furthermore, Mike asks himself how his woman would handle his death and thus, he expresses the questions “Will my woman be Coretta, take my name and cherish it? Or will she Jackie O, drop the Kennedy, remarry it?”. When rapping the first question, the artist is depicted in a close-up view, which underlines the fact, that he is posing a very personal question. At 0:30 during the second question the video shows a nun, who resembles the above-mentioned Coretta Scott King and is played by Killer Mike's wife. The director did not only make a connection to the lyrics by portraying the woman from an angle so that she resembles a young Coretta King, but he even decided to make her a nun in order to represent sexual abstinence. The fact that the nun is played by Mike's wife additionally reinforces the connection between the lyrics and the visuals. In the following lines, the artist keeps talking about the same topic and says that the thought of his wife remarrying another man is very disparaging. In the meantime, the video clip falls back on the reenactment of the famous painting The Toilet of Venus. Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty and sexual love, is often associated with the sin of voluptuousness. This means that Dickinson, once again, makes use of an image that reinforces Mike's lyrics. Towards the end of the first verse, there are two scenes that reflect the same content than the lyrics. Mike says “The Lord give a load, you got to carry it like Mary did […] It takes a woman's womb to make a Christ or Dalai Lama” and at 0:47 the video clip displays a woman with her baby, who can be identified as Saint Mary with baby Jesus because of their clothes. A comparable scene can be found a few seconds later at 0:57, when Killer Mike raps “I present you Malcolm X for those who saying that He can't”, while he is dressed up like Malcolm X. Consequently, scenes like the reenactment of The Toilet of Venus or Judith Beheading Holofernes reinforce the message of the lyrics, whereas depictions of Saint Mary with Jesus or Malcolm X literally reflect the lyrics.
The beginning of the hook reminds the listener of a devout ejaculation, as it starts with the following words: “Dear Lord, have mercy on the ones that go through life like it's a game. Dear Lord, I won't be forced to shut up when I don't feel the same”. In the meantime the video clip displays Scar as a catholic believer with a rosary around his neck at 1:06 and a nun that is looking with awe towards the heaven at 1:12. Both of these religious characters appear in the above-mentioned holy light and they have folded their hands in order to pray. Obviously, these images perfectly match the first lines of the hook, which seem to be a prayer for the vice of other people. In the rest of the hook Scar mentions some of these sins, such as lying, stealing and killing, while Dickinson shows a fixed-image of Killer Mike attacking Scar with a baseball bat, a crying nun and the reenactment of Judith Beheading Holofernes. Once again, the video reinforces the lyrics by depicting images that can be associated with it.
At 1:40 in the second verse Killer Mike states that he tells the “Naked truth like the stripper that's in front of [him]”, which is visually illustrated, as the audience sees him in his military uniform next to the naked Roman goddess of love. A similar realization of the lyrics can be found at 1:43. Mike does not only say “And I keep a blunt and a bible and a gun on me”, but he is literally holding a blunt in his hand and the other two items are lying in front of him on the table. A few lines later Killer Mike mentions the author Robert Beck, who also goes by the name of Iceberg Slim. Like the bible and the gun, the video also captures Iceberg Slim's book Pimp: The Story of my Life. Aside from these literal connections between lyrics and video, at 2:05 Dickinson decided in favor of a figurative realization of the lyrics. While Mike states “This is John Gotti painting pictures like Dali, this is Basquiat with a Passion like Pac”, Dickinson does not illustrate a piece of art from Dali or Basquiat, because in so doing he would break with the baroque style. Instead he reuses the reenactment of The Toilet of Venus, with the intention to highlight the presence of art in the lyrics and the visuals.
When the hook sets in for the second and last time, Dickinson once again chooses images in order to reinforce the lyrics. Even though the scenes are not the same than the ones that were shown during the first appearance of the hook, the principle is more or less the same.
When taking a closer look at the outro, it is striking that there are much less analogies between the lyrics and the video clip. At 2:54 Mike raps “So I pick a burning bush, put it in a swisher wrap”, while he is depicted smoking. Other than that, the song ends with the words “Until that chariot come and take a nigga home, I'mma spit this ghetto gospel over all these gutter songs. I'm gone.” The chariot is a biblical reference to Elijah the prophet, who went up to the heaven in a chariot of fire. Thus, Killer Mike draws a connection between the end of this song and his death, and so does Dickinson by fading in the reenactment of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, in which Mike's head is presented on a platter. According to the Gospel of Mark, the ruler Herod Antipas had to kill John the Baptist unwillingly because of a promise he made to Salome. Herod is played by Mike's producer El-P, so that the promise possibly represents a binding contract in the music industry that might lead to an end of their collaboration. In addition to that, the last scene displays Killer Mike as Malcolm X, while he is making the gesture to shoot himself.
Whereas the outro does not display many parallels between the lyrics and the video, it draws the viewer's attention to the different characters that are played by Killer Mike throughout the video. It is noticeable that only during the first verse he is portrayed as a deity or maybe even as Jesus. As the video goes on he is dressed up as a Gaddafi look-alike in a military uniform. One explanation, which was already given in the preceding chapter, could be the fact that an impressive depiction in a military costume was a popular motive in baroque paintings. However, the lyrics reveal that the first verse can be distinguished from the rest of the song. This part deals with very personal issues, such as Mike's mortality and his wife, whereas the second verse and the outro present a rather rough and raw image of the rapper. Thus, it could be that these differences in style are also represented in the visuals. Another explanation, why the director may have chosen to display Mike as Malcolm X, Gaddafi and Jesus, “is that all who dare to question authority must be prepared to meet their fate prematurely — be they considered martyrs or madmen”. This explanation perfectly matches Mike's statement in an interview with Spin magazine: “A lot of the things I say, people have been killed before for saying. It challenges people and that's not always appreciated or liked. It could get your ass an FBI file. It's something I worry about but not something I fret about.”
In summary, the most striking elements in the video are the parallels to baroque paintings and the numerous analogies between the lyrics and the visuals.
The references to baroque style paintings can be found throughout the entire video. Dickinson makes use of many techniques that create this impression, such as the reenactment of famous baroque paintings, the light effects, the avoidance of movements, etc. The presence of the baroque style conveys the impression that the video itself is an actual piece of art.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to mention that these parallels can only be found with regard to the way of the presentation of the video clip. The content of the scenes by contrast are not always in line with this concept, because Dickinson decided in favor of a close display of the content of the lyrics. Therefore, he faded in images that can be associated with elements of Mike’s raps as well as literal depictions of the lyrics. This technique calls the audience’s attention to aspects of the lyrics that may not be realized by mere listening. Concluding, this music video has a function and is more than a pastime while listening to the song.
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