Welcome to Producer’s Chair, a mini-column in which Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman offers his own career advice to artists and various figureheads in the film and music industry. In this installment, he tackles the latest trend: the visual album.
Late Thursday night, Frank Ocean surreptitiously dropped his followup album to 2012’s Channel Orange. After four years of waiting impatiently for the damn thing, it just all of a sudden materialized from the Upside Down in Apple Music. Except, it’s not really an album, but a “visual album” — a short film that spans 45 minutes and 51 seconds and showcases 18 tracks.
These aren’t just any tracks, though. There’s the cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)”, which features synths by James Blake and strings by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra, in addition to guest vocals by Sampha and Jazmine Sullivan; guitar work by Alex G; and programming by Arca. It’s a blockbuster, alright.
And Ocean isn’t the first to do it. Back in April, Beyoncé broke the Internet when she dropped her own visual album on HBO, which she followed up by premiering the actual music on Tidal shortly after. She did something similar years before with her 2013 eponymous album, only that one was broken out into individual music videos rather than one full-length film.
You might even want to toss Kanye West in the mix. Prior to debuting his landmark 2010 epic, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he debuted a 35-minute short film titled Runaway, which showcased and previewed a handful of songs off the record almost two full months before the entire critical juggernaut swept the online world and shook the genre to its core.
What all three of these films have in common, outside of debuting new material and being conceptual in nature, is that they came straight from the hands of their creators. Ocean, Bey, and Yeezy directed each film by themselves, making these direct visual counterparts and representations of their music. Nothing was compromised. Nothing was altered.
That’s a truly powerful medium, and quite a popular one.
While MTV’s relationship with music videos has since been buried six feet under — as Billboard reports, last year’s VMAs ratings were down by 18 percent — YouTube continues to thrive: Kendrick Lamar’s video for “Alright”, our top pick last year, has nearly 60 million views since June 2015, while Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” has commanded over 1.5 billion views in just two years.
Needless to say, there’s an audience there, and the top artists are smart to capitalize on them, but not just for dollars and cents. Again, there’s something unique about the format, especially how it’s in their hands to craft, which is a key component to consider given that our society continues to become more and more visual by each passing year.
Taking charge of your own narrative is key for those at the top of their own game, which explains why the few visual albums we’ve seen have all come from some of the most important acts of the last decade. With that in mind, it will be interesting to watch more and more artists grasp the medium and analyze where they take it in the years to come.
But because I’m an impatient bastard — and one of my columns is about offering superfluous advice to much more talented people than I’ll ever, ever be — I decided to create a shortlist of artists that could benefit from the visual album. Specifically, those with not only the capabilities but the proper story to develop and embellish and own.
Alas, here they are…
Here’s one choice that could happen soon. Lady Gaga is just a couple weeks removed from unveiling her Kevin Parker-produced single, “Perfect Illusion”, which means that her comeback album to 2013’s disappointing ARTPOP will follow. Given her recent work on American Horror Story — a role that nabbed her a Golden Globe over Kirsten Dunst and likely landed her a starring gig in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut — a visual album would be a decisive victory for the pop icon.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Tool need to do something epic to make up for the 10 years fans have been floating around in the waiting room. Considering the recent fact that not one song on their as-yet-to-be-titled, probably-isn’t-coming-anytime-soon followup clock in no shorter than 12 minutes, one might argue a film would be the best way to experience them. Perhaps Maynard James Keenan can ask his Mr. Show pals for pointers behind the camera? After all, Scott Aukerman’s schedule sadly just got a little lighter.
Don’t get excited. Daft Punk might as well be dead in the water. Random Access Memories celebrated its third birthday this year and they still haven’t toured behind it. But, let’s say they came back, and let’s say they wanted to send shivers down our spines without having to hit the road, which they clearly don’t want to do. One way they could accomplish this would be to followup 2003’s Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem with all new music and a whole new film that blows our mind.
Photo by Nina Corcoran
The Horror Master has released two solo albums since returning from the depths of hell last year. He’s toured all summer and will next produce Blumhouse’s Halloween sequel, which he may or may not score. But, if there’s anyone whose music demands a visual album, it’s Carpenter’s, even if he’s gone on record in saying his Lost Themes are for the imagination. That’s fun and all, John, but it would be even better if you could reclaim the throne and prove you’re still the Master with a terrific short film.
Photo by Autumn Andel
Rest assured, we’ll be seeing St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, relatively soon. It’s been nearly three years since her eponymous fourth studio album and she tends to keep a regimented schedule. This time around, though, she’ll be bigger than ever, having toured mercilessly through festivals and venues all across the world for two straight years. Even better, she’s since directed a film — see: forthcoming horror anthology, XX — which means she’s well versed in the medium. Besides, have you seen her videos??