By Eóin Donnelly
The origin story of Nabil Elderkin, the director of SZA’s new video ‘Doves In The Wind’, is one of the most fascinating in all of music. The beauty of free market capitalism is that one small investment can change one’s life forever. Nabil has a reputation for being one of the most visually gifted music video directors in the industry, lending his gorgeous imaginative flair to such iconic videos as ‘Pyramids‘ and ‘Novacane‘ from Frank Ocean, The Weeknd’s ‘Twenty Eight‘, FKA twigs’ ‘Two Weeks‘, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DNA‘ and Kanye West’s ‘Welcome To Heartbreak.’
Indeed, it was the acquaintance of Kanye West that catapulted Nabil from obscurity to stardom. Once just a music geek and aspiring photographer living in Chicago, Nabil was one of the first Kanye West fans, becoming obsessed with his early mixtapes before he had ever released an album. As The College Dropout would later prove, Kanye was a true original, something that the music industry had never experienced. Possessed with the desire to photograph him, Nabil searched the domain KanyeWest.com, only to find it didn’t exist. How his friends must have laughed at him when he told them he bought the domain for seven dollars in the naive hope that Kanye would somehow end up getting in touch. Except that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks later, hype forced Roc-A-Fella Records to finally look beyond Kanye’s unorthodox image and sign him, and got in touch with Nabil to purchase the domain. “How much do you want?”, they asked. I think most of us would’ve quoted at least a five-figure sum. Nabil just wanted to take Kanye’s picture. The resulting shots became Kanye’s first ever promotional pictures, launching Nabil into a world where he rubbed shoulders with musical heavyweights desperate to apply his auteur’s eye for detail in a video format. It’s difficult to think of a more in-demand music video director working today, with Nabil’s inimitable work behind the camera so highly sought after that he has the luxury of turning down 90% of offers. This year will mark the first feature film he has directed, Gully, a dystopian portrait of L.A’s disenfranchised youth. Wait, this article is meant to be about SZA and Kendrick’s new video. Wow, that was one hell of a detour…
Anyway, Nabil fanboyism aside (you really should check out his previous work), there are two other people that deserve my adulation: SZA and Kendrick. After ‘Love Galore’, ‘Supermodel’, ‘Drew Barrymore’, ‘The Weekend’ and ‘Broken Clocks’- the first two of which Nabil also directed- ‘Doves In The Wind’ represents another edition in Ctrl’s hugely impressive collection of music videos, which have significantly expanded the shelf-life of the gorgeous music that inspired them. At the time of writing I ranked Ctrl as my 9th favourite album of 2017, a ranking I’d certainly revise in hindsight. Top Dawg Entertainment keep coming through with incredible music videos, and ‘Doves In The Wind’ could be one of the best yet. The label is full of captivating partnerships, but Kendrick & SZA are staking a claim for the best chemistry in the whole of TDE. When SZA refers to Kendrick as the most inspiring person she’s ever met you know there’s a special bond. When all is said and done at the end of 2018, ‘Doves In The Wind’ and the Black Panther soundtrack’s lead single ‘All The Stars’ will be two of the most memorable videos of the year. Lord Almighty, I love TDE. Fresh off their polychromatic, Afrofuturist homage to Pan-Africanism in the ‘All The Stars’ video, Ctrl’s fifth single ‘Doves In The Wind’ sees Kendrick paying tribute to Asian aesthetics, returning to his Kung Fu Kenny persona and teaching SZA how to fight in the desert. The video adds to Lamar’s messianic vibe, with indelible sights such as watching him shoot invisible projectiles with the power of his own hands and floating in the air while drinking tea. I presume it’s special effects, but I’d sooner believe Kendrick can do these things than Jesus walked on water. Don’t you know God Is A Man On Earth? Yes, that’s the working title of my Kendrick Lamar biography.
‘Doves In The Wind’ is a fantastic watch, with hilarious dubbed dialogue, abrupt camera close-ups and fighting ninjas, all of which are faithful to the kung-fu films that inspired Lamar’s latest moniker. You can certainly see the influences, from the Wu-Tang Clan’s obsession with martial arts films to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and even to the beloved Street Fighter game that was so central to my childhood. It’s a matter of time before TDE conquer Hollywood. Tarantino has long said that he’ll retire from directing after ten movies, and after the Charles Manson movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood out next year there’ll only be one left. He’s got to have something huge planned. Is SZA, Uma Thurman and Kendrick Lamar in Kill Bill: Volume 3 too much to ask? I have a theory that Kendrick’s discography is following the same trajectory as Tarantino’s filmography- who just happens to be my favourite director- and I’m going to have to write that article soon before someone beats me to the roundhouse kick.
The visual feast that is ‘Doves In The Wind’, however, is much more than the perfectly-executed frame-to-frame transitions and clever uses of symmetry that you see on the surface. The video, just like the song, is a grand metaphor for female empowerment and pussy power, with Lamar’s verse going to great lengths to chastise those who disrespect the complex and beautiful nature of women for the sole purpose of physical gratification. “How many times she gotta tell you that dick is disposable?/But if she fuck a young nigga like me, it’s over for you.” What a couplet. Messages of female empowerment are increasingly ubiquitous in the hip-hop world, presented in a multitude of artistic presentations that keeps the conversation interesting. We are far from over-saturation of this issue, and it is in fact a refreshing and much-needed counterpoint to the genre’s historical issues with misogyny. For example, there is stripper-turned-rapper Cardi B’s new album Invasion of Privacywith its foul-mouthed rampage of sexual bluster, Beyoncé’s meticulously choreographed ode to education, black history and feminism at her headlining Coachella performance, Rapsody’s highly personal Laila’s Wisdomthat defied gender conventions by proving women can go bar-for-bar with the best rappers in the game without sexually objectifying themselves, and Janelle Monaé’s sci-fi magnum opus musical short film (Dirty Computer) dedicated to intersectional sexual freedom. They are all different messages that represent the immeasurable breadth of the female experience that is simplified all-too-often, each of them equally as valid and artfully-rendered as the next. By the end of ‘Doves In The Wind’ however, watching kung-fu master Lamar’s dumbfounded expression of sheer shock and awe as SZA floats above him having defeated Kung Fu Kenny in battle, I’m left to wonder if there’s a bigger badass in music right now than SZA.