Over-the-top music videos are back again, and rap’s approach is anything but minimalistic. In the last year, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion have transported us to different dimensions with their videos for “WAP,” “Body,” and “Cry Baby” and all three visuals are the brainchild of one whimsical director: Colin Tilley. Over the past decade, the Bay Area director has been quietly cultivating some of hip-hop’s biggest videos, with Future’s “Mask Off,” DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” as just a few of the visuals in his arsenal. But most people's entry point to Tilley’s work is “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar’s anti-police brutality manifesto turned Black Lives Matter protest anthem.
“The other day I saw 'Alright' at IMAX and I hadn’t seen it for like four or five years,” he tells me over the phone, revealing that after he finishes working on a video he doesn’t watch it again. “It was an incredible experience because it was like, Wow, this piece was a game changer in my entire career. ['Alright'] changed my life in one video. It feels nice to reflect on those moments and the platform of music videos and what it does for the artist and everyone involved when it’s a success.”
Tilley has come a long way from his humble beginnings: He taught himself how to edit by watching YouTube tutorials and now runs his own production company, Boy in the Castle. Known for his vibrant, to-the-max approach, Tilley is quickly extending the legacy of music videos as a form of iconography, seen previously in the work of Benny Boom, Hype Williams, and Director X. Lil B even considered Tilley one of the last big directors. The director talked to VICE about the music video’s place in internet culture, and how he became the man behind some of the most controversial rap videos made by women.
VICE: Your signature has become these vibrant, maximalist color palettes. But even “Alright,” which is black-and-white, has a lot going on. How do you think approaching visuals that way lends itself to rap?
Colin Tilley: I’ve always been a little bit of an extremist. I like stuff that’s action-packed even if I’m going for a more minimalist piece. So even when I’m going for more minimal frames, it’s about what you’re putting in that frame. If you’re not creating a lot of movement with the camera, it’s about how you make that frame feel very full using bodies, props, and everything you can to create the perfect frame—or the perfect photograph.
You’re behind two of the most controversial videos by women rappers in recent memory, Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” What’s the conversation when you’re handed a song like “Anaconda” or “WAP” that are both inherently sexual?
I love to be involved with seeing that boss energy on screen. From working with Nicki for so long before “Anaconda,” we’d done over 10 videos at that point, I just knew what kind of powerhouse I was dealing with. I treat her as more of a boss than any male rapper, because she is. I’m so obsessed with showing iconic imagery, so when you have someone like that and a song like that, you have to be able to amplify that. When you’re dealing with songs that are so sexual, I want to make it a little more fun and not be taken so seriously and so literal to what the lyrics are. You’re creating an entire moment using this imagery and making play on the lyrics by overexaggerating it. It makes it feel like a little bit more of a fantasy in a way. There’s a lot of surreal imagery and that’s kind of what I really go after.
It’s the same thing for “WAP.” I hadn’t done a video like that in quite a while. I had shifted my mind to storytelling to prepare for some of the movies I want to do. It took me a while to get into that mindset for a song like “WAP.” It was like, Okay, cool. What am I going to do here? I have to create this world again. Meg and Cardi are the biggest powerhouses in the world right now and I want to create that same feeling and show them as powerful artists. It was about creating super crazy images that were also fun.
To me, there are a few types of music videos and these kinds are the experiential ones. I want to create a really crazy experience when you’re watching it. I want reactions out of people. Let them laugh. Let them smile while having a good time watching it. To your point earlier, the reason why music videos are at an all-time high right now is because of how much content we consume. But also, reaction videos are a big part of this too. It’s created a thing where people can react and share their experience together.
You filmed “WAP” at the height of the pandemic. What was one of the challenges that came with shooting with restrictions?
When the opportunity came up to do this piece it felt like it was the right time to come back and get into the action of shooting again after having several months down. Me and the team had to do so much research on how to do this right, as far as setting up testing facilities every day and doing rapid tests and doing things safely. Everybody was freaking out and we wanted to make sure we weren’t putting anybody in danger. It showed the power of being able to adapt while still being able to create under these insane restrictions. Me and my team have been rocking for over ten years, so if you can envision it there’s always a way to execute it, no matter what’s in your way.
“WAP,” “Body,” and “Cry Baby” are elaborate because of how grand the sets are. What would you say it is about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion that lends itself to this aesthetic?
When I hear Meg’s music, I see these really wild worlds. She’s also trying to do something very specific in a sense that she’s trying to be a triple threat. She wants to dance, rap, and act all in one frame, so you have to be able to show a world where she can be her best self. What keeps this exciting for me right now is I try to make sure every video I do each week is a different approach. Whether that goes from storytelling or going in the streets, like I did with J Balvin in Colores, or creating these really graphic worlds—all of that are new challenges. I would get bored if I was doing the same thing every time.
Megan and DaBaby are a pair whose chemistry leaps off the screen. They’re both fairly animated. How collaborative was it creating the treatment for “Cry Baby?”
Meg and I were playing around with different ideas and then it came down to creating this world where her and DaBaby were toys that come alive in this really vibrant world. The thing that nobody ever really knows is the circumstances you’re under when you create a piece and why things come out a certain way. One of the things that wasn't on our side [for “Cry Baby”] was time on the backend. We had to turn that around in like a week. I didn’t want to create a full world in CGI, so I did it a little more practically.
We ended up spending a day shooting at a toy store creating all of our plates. Then I had to shoot Meg and DaBaby using those plates I had already created and put them together. It ended up being a really cool process that gave it a different aesthetic than you would get using only CGI.
We’d be on set and I’m like Baby, you’re literally running in front of an aisle of dolls right now. How are you going to do this? Then I’d have to show him the image of what the world is going to look like and have him play into that. When you don’t actually have a world in front of you at that time to foresee what that’s going to feel like… that’s hard.
Cardi said “WAP” was a million-dollar video. With touring uncertain, people might allocate funds toward music videos to create an experience that we’re not currently getting from live shows. Do you think we’ll see a return of big-budget videos?
The game and the industry is always changing in front of our eyes. Music videos, especially in the last few years, have always been the best platform in the world for people to create their brand identity. You’re letting people see you and hear your music and feel the world you want to represent as an artist all in one piece. It’s the most vital piece of content you can have as an artist to represent yourself. That’s where you want to be putting your time and your energy.
I don’t really know the other side of the music business enough to say it’s going from touring to music videos, but I know that people are wanting to make these videos right now. I got off set last night doing another one. Streaming is at an all-time high, so you have a captive audience so it feels like it’s having a new moment right now and I’m happy to be in the middle of it.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.