Not too long ago, the rap video was a key part of success for an artist. So much so that record labels would approve million dollar budgets at one time, and it was all to help a rapper’s song or album get noticed.
For example, the video for Missy Elliott’s 1999 “She’s A B—-” cost a whopping $2 million. Of course, this is when physical rap albums were still selling in droves, and it was far easier for labels to recoup some of that money.
But now with shows like “106 & Park” and before that “Rap City” gone, things have changed and instead of kids racing home after school to catch their favorite videos on TV, they turn on their personal devices — and that’s if they even care about videos.
Still, nothing can bring home a rapper’s point like the perfect visuals, and when an artist is trying to uplift or inspire, a stunning video works wonders.
Sometimes the best rap videos can be elaborate and seemingly big budgeted, like the Fugees “Ready or Not,” or they can be simple but just as powerful, like the visuals for Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop.”
Surely, throughout rap’s history, there have been videos that have captured our imaginations, lit a fire in our belly and made us care about a particular issue. Others just made our mouths drop from the sheer ambition and creativity of the director. Here are some of the most inspirational and powerful rap videos of all time:
Public Enemy – “Night of the Living Baseheads”
Clearly ahead of its time as far as videos go, Chuck D and company faced the crack epidemic head-on, which was fairly new then.
This particular clip wasn’t just a video that merely had a few performance scenes, it stopped, changed settings, added characters and could be considered one of the best hip-hop videos ever.
Plus, how powerful is that opening scene with the group members standing in front of that tombstone?
Stop the Violence Movement – “Self Destruction”
The year was 1987 and a young man was killed at a concert featuring Public Enemy and KRS-One. Afterwards, KRS would start the Stop the Violence Movement and assemble a who’s-who list of East Coast rappers and drop the song and video “Self-Destruction.” It was one of the first times the world saw what hip-hop looked like as a collective voice.
Nas – “I Can”
A happy looking Nas, a bunch of cute little kids and beautiful shots of the ghetto.
This scene created an uplifting visual to couple the rap legend’s message of staying focused and not being deterred. It was also one of the first times we’ve seen Nas take on the elder statesman role in hip-hop.
KRS-One – “You Must Learn”
Before there was Nas’ “I Can,” there was KRS-One’s “You Must Learn,” where the Boogie Down Productions leader spoke to the young ones as well.
If you were a little kid or teenager watching “Rap City” around the release of this video, you were probably all ears while you listened to KRS talk about Africa and Shem from the Bible.
J. Cole “G.O.M.D.”
The North Carolina rapper has been known to drop a provocative video or two and this one is no exception. Playing more like a short film than a music video, Cole plays a Nat Turner figure and rallies fellow slaves to rebel against their oppressors.
Cole also touches on colorism in the video, as well as the different lifestyles lived by the field and house slave.
The West Coast Rap All-Stars – “We’re All in The Same Gang”
Besides starring some of the best and most popular West Coast rappers of the ’80s and early ’90s, this video also starred a little boy who was surrounded by the gang wars of Los Angeles. Seeing his story is touching and the anti-violence message in the clip is nothing short of powerful.
Related news: J. Cole
Tupac Shakur – “Keep Ya Head Up”
Whether it’s the visuals for Tupac’s “Dear Mama” or “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” many of his videos are just as memorable as his songs, just like “Keep Ya Head Up.”
Some might find it hard to think about this song without envisioning Pac in that striped red and white shirt, wearing his hat backwards and telling people that everything will be alright.
Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
With some artists, their song might deliver a more powerful message than their video or vice-versa but not with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alight.”
Just like the song, the clip has a big feel to it and a certain level of importance. Plus, it comes across more as high art than just a regular video.
Queen Latifah – “U.N.I.T.Y.”
The video first starts off with the Queen catching the keys to the motorcycle that her brother was tragically killed on. Then over a catchy saxophone riff, a group of Black kids run freely.
From there, decked out in a baggy blue sweatsuit, Latifah bursts through the crowd and asks the question that many still remember and have probably asked themselves: “Who you calling a B–?”
J. Cole “Crooked Smile,” Featuring TLC
Released in 2013, Cole dedicated this video to Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was 7 years old when she was shot and killed by police during a raid on her Detroit home.
Cole plays the part of a marijuana dealer who’s pursued by a relentless DEA agent, and the storyline is incredibly well-written.
In fact, Roland Lawrence, who’s the Chairman of Justice for the Aiyana Stanley-Jones Committee, said he was pleased that the rapper addressed the tragic incident.
“This effort and recognition by J. Cole hopefully will call us all on the table as it pertains to injustice in America and in fact injustice everywhere,” Lawrence stated.
Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”
If there was ever a video that makes it look like hip-hop is an actual movement and not just a musical genre, this is it. The waving flags, the Malcolm X photos, the red black and green flying all over the place, Spike Lee did a phenomenal job with this one and created a real classic.