Deconstructing the Imagery in Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” Video

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As we reported earlier this morning, the music video for “Black Skinhead” is live on Kanye West’s website right now. It’s a collaboration with British photographer Nick Night, and as you might expect from the man responsible for Björk’s “Pagan Poetry,” among other things, it’s heavy on striking, dramatic imagery. There’s so much imagery, in fact, that it’s a fascinating exercise to look closely at what it all means.

The Ku Klux Klan

If you ever doubted that West was going for full dramatic impact with this video, such doubt will be dispelled by the very first shot of this video: three sinister figures in full Klan regalia. The twist, of course, is that they’re black hoods, not white ones, a neat inversion that echoes the song’s title.

Wolves

“I’m aware I’m a wolf,” barks West in the second verse of this song, and the idea is made explicit throughout this video. Striking single-frame images like the one above are intercut with the main narrative, creating a strobe-like effect that’s disconcerting and dramatic. (Also, play the video really slow and listen to how much West’s guttural vocals sound like… a wolf. That’s pretty damn amazing.)

Black skinheads

An army of black men, all with shaven heads, all facing away from the camera. As with every other image in this video, it’s full of aesthetic appeal. But it’s also dehumanizing — in this context, the men look like an army of identical automatons, shorn of any personality or agency.

Facelessness

The idea of dehumanization is reinforced by this shot, which quite literally removes the face from the curious CGI/live action hybrid dancer. You’re left with just his body, which is lithe and physical, but also crisscrossed with strange, scar-like textures. The impression is of some strange hybrid that’s both more and less than human.

Fangs

The fangs that frame this image appear throughout the video, suggesting that we’re looking from the wolf’s point of view. (Or, more strictly, from its mouth’s point of view.) The shape of the fangs also recall the KKK hoods of the intro. This time, however, they’re white, which only serves to make them more threatening — another inversion of conventional imagery, where white and black are one of the old semiotic binaries, with white carrying positive connotations (light, day, purity) and black negative (dark, night, the unknown).

Chains

This is the first appearance for West, or at least the CGI avatar of him that pops up throughout the video. As before, he’s faceless, and the attention is placed squarely upon the gold chain around his neck. The image of a chain carries obvious connotations of slavery, but here it’s a gold chain, not an iron one. This evokes the ideas of “New Slaves,” where West discusses “rich nigga racism” and how the same people who enslaved his ancestors are only too pleased to take his money: “Come in, please buy more/ What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things/ Used to only be niggas, now everybody playing/ Spending everything on Alexander Wang.”

Glitch

There’s a distinctly net art aesthetic to parts of this video, which seems to reinforce the idea that it was designed as an Internet-based piece (something that perhaps also explains why West was so pissed off when the plain old video-only version leaked a couple of weeks back). The result is a trip into the uncanny valley — West’s avatar and his environments are almost real, but not quite.

Masks

Another inversion of the KKK masks shown at the beginning of the video. Interestingly, the original handwritten lyric to this song contained the lines “What do you say to a masked man/ This inglorious bastard that’s rappin’/ We might have to burn this whole shit down/ Like the theater Hitler was trapped in” — the lines are an obvious reference to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and here the mask revisits the idea of West as some sort of cultural vigilante, urging his contemporaries to “Stop all this coon shit.”

Transformation

At several points during the video, West’s avatar morphs into this jagged, glitch-y creature. It’s a sort of lycanthropic transformation, referring back to the wolves we saw earlier, and also to the idea that West is perceived as a danger by the mainstream: “I’ve been a menace for the longest.”

Possession

“They say I’m possessed, it’s an omen,” says West in the song’s hook, and his glowing eyes here certainly seem to suggest that something has gotten into him. He looks terrifying, which is no doubt the point.

Armor

Another transformation, this time of West’s virtual skin, which suddenly looks like a suit of armor. It’s probably a reference to the “I keep it 300, like the Romans” of the chorus, and indeed, there are echoes of 300‘s hyperreal style in the way this video is shot. Beyond that, the armor is a proclamation of strength and resilience, conveying the idea that our hero is bulletproof. (There’s also something written on his chest which is really hard to make out. Ideas, anyone?)

Slavery

And finally, one more evocation of slavery. The unmistakeable scars on virtual Kanye’s back are a strong and instantly identifiable signifier of America’s dark past. There’s another binary opposition here, that of strength and vulnerability; for all that he’s rich and famous and apparently invulnerable, West’s skin continues to define him. It’s an idea that informs all of Yeezus to varying extents, but rarely has it been rendered so dramatically as it is here.