We Talked to @LILINTERNET About Directing Beyoncé's "No Angel" Video
Beyoncé's self-titled record, an '80s-indebted, chillwave-chewing womanist treatise about success and sexuality released out of the blue a week ago, arrived with videos for every song and then some. One of the best is “No Angel,” a touching, patient trip through Houston hip-hop culture pepped with legends like Bun B, Scarface, Willie D, Z-Ro and more, directed by none other than @LILINTERNET. And yes, the Beyoncé liner notes do credit him as “@LILINTERNET.”
The frantic beatmaker (check out “DMXICO,” a DMX/Mortal Kombat mash-up and/or rumination on where your coke comes from), #seapunk OG, KarmaLoop creative director, and subtly visionary video director (Dillon Francis' “Que Que,” Diplo's “Express Yourself,” and Riff Raff's “Original Don Remix”) getting scooped up by Beyoncé—on a song co-produced by Carolina Palochek of Chairlift, no less—is something of a crossover moment for web-brewed weirdness? If you can handle your supposedly cool-as-fuck tastes topping the Billboard Charts, then this was a mini-event proving that even the biggest stars in the world are caught up in the endless scroll of Tumblr. Then again, none of this should've been a surprise to anybody who saw Beyoncé's HBO documentary, Life Is But a Dream, which showed the indefatigable, impervious pop institution retreating to her laptop when she feels lonely just like the rest of us.
Earlier this week, I reached out to @LILINTERNET via Skype, and he took a few minutes out of his very busy schedule to discuss how “No Angel” came about, running around Houston for a week and a day with a camera shooting the thing, and avoiding “touristification.”
Noisey: How did the “No Angel” video come about?
@LILINTERNET: I was shooting a look book for clothing brand Nasty Pig on Fire Island and Diplo calls me and says "You won't believe this but Beyoncé just asked for your contact for a video." She had seen Diplo's "Express Yourself" video which I directed and liked my style of capturing New Orleans. A rapid and surreal flurry of emails, treatments, and meetings later, and we were off to Houston. The project happened very rapidly. I happened to be working with my longtime friend and collaborator Ben Solomon, who is my producer as well as skilled director himself, and we jumped directly from our lookbook shoot to this project. We met with the people at Parkwood [Beyoncé's entertainment company], who are all incredibly cool, creative, and respectful and got on the same page immediately.
Did Beyoncé have you in mind for “No Angel” in particular or did she just want you to do a video for her?
We were chosen to do “No Angel.” She wanted a real tribute to Houston, and my thing is really immersing myself in a location, opening my eyes to the more subtle beauty that exists in a place. Accidental, innate, environmental beauty. We tapped my team from Karmaloop Media, which I work for – DP's Shomi Patwary and Thuan Tran—and left like a week or two later. We wanted to shoot for eight days, which is a long time for a music video these days, but I knew from "Express Yourself" that you can't cover a place by spending 48 hours there.
Was it really as easy as you using "Express Yourself" as the template and suggesting you'd drive around and try to capture Houston?
We worked on some ideas, we had some little narratives planned, but in the end it was [driving around and capturing Houston] that ended up really winning. That and the people. We had so many Houston legends all together in that video, and they all really worked hard to let us capture Houston properly. Beyonce's team hooked us up with the legends. It's her hometown and she wanted its heroes represented. And I think they really respected the fact we weren't in and out. That we were there to soak it in.
For a high-profile video, it seems like you had a significant amount of a freedom.
There was a lot of freedom. A lot of freedom and a lot of time. And the result is something you can't cheat. You need the freedom and time to capture somewhere the way we did. In the Internet age, people try to cheat with shit like that, but I know that doesn't work the same.
You've developed a complex value system when it comes to the Internet and aesthetics. Like you want to use the Internet “for good.”
I have a very intense relationship with the Internet. I love it as a form of expression, but I hate it for what it's done to art in general. It's devalued it, buried it in noise, and reduced some things' worth to "views" and "shareability," which usually means pandering to the lowest common denominator or manipulating novelty. I've done things on both sides of the coin—extreme novelty and then more patient pieces like “No Angel.” It's always a battle between those extremes. Ultimately though, I hate how devalued art has become. I hate how rushed, how everything is about shortcuts and quick fixes. I don't want to have to work that way, although in the right context I certainly do.
The type of video you're doing here—the careful, empathetic portrait of a part of a city not often explored by most—very much feels like a post-Juvenile's “Ha” (directed by Marc Klasfeld), early 2000s video. Is that accurate?
Funny you mention Juvenile "Ha," though. That video is probably my biggest influence. When it came out, I threw away all of my "real hip-hop" CDs and started listening to nothing but Cash Money and No Limit. That video was perfect. Huge influence obviously and I'm not at all ashamed to admit it. I mean, the fact that hip-hop was dominated by the NYC jiggy type shit at that point, and here you have a video shot in the projects in New Orleans with a fine art photographer's eye—that was it for me. That was how I wanted to capture things.
What was your plan then, for “captur[ing] things” in “No Angel”?
We really wanted to spend time, immerse ourselves, drive for hours and hours aimlessly with a camera, jumping out and shooting things that caught my eye. We didn't want to go there and just shoot Frenchy's Chicken and call it an “authentic video.” There was tons of hanging out, getting the feel, all with cameras ready. We hooked up with our dude Scotty who was a great help, plus Bun B's brother Truck, and Paul Wall. The city was so receptive, so willing to help, so open, and that leant a lot to the fact that we really got to glimpse of the real character of Houston.
How important is it for you to be mindful of the subculture you're documenting. Is that your mission statement?
My father is an architectural photographer and artist. When we were kids, we watched Baraka all the time. I went to an art magnet school in high school for photography. A lot of my work as a teenager was exploring the "other side" of where I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. I'd go take photos in the train yards at night, drive around deep in the hood and take photos. I remember discovering places that are incredibly striking, but places that if you weren't paying attention, you'd pass right by. I still think very photographically for videos like "No Angel" and "Express Yourself." I really am into the Situationists as well, psychogeography, the derive, just exploring urban environments letting the aesthetics of the surroundings guide you to find hidden beauty there.
And what was your approach with shooting people? You're doing a kind of portraiture it seems to me.
With the people, I really like to capture them neutrally. I usually tell them to relax every muscle in their face, just let them "at rest" show. I think you kind of capture the person unadulterated that way in portraits. Of course, there are countless nuances of local subcultures that are incredibly novel and striking to the viewer, so I look for those as well. To me, I approach it as an explorer, a documentarian. To put it in a more modern concept than the Situationists, Nassim Taleb writes about the "flaneur" and avoiding "touristification." I embrace these principles as well. Spend time in a place as the people in the place would and you'll learn and experience far more than visiting the "sights."
Brandon Soderberg is a writer, film buff, and dog owner who lives in Baltimore. He’s on Twitter - @notrivia