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Kelela Melba's Call

How Kelela channels the pre-Skype spirit of early-00s R&B

Tracing the links from Janet Jackson and J.Lo to CGI visionaries like Tabok Robak and Nic Hamilton

When the video for Bok Bok and Kelela’s “Melba’s Call” debuted last week, it seemed to stir up a "collective memory" (to borrow a phrase from recent Dazed Visionary Nic Hamilton, one of the men behind the video). Dummy wrote: “It seems to hark back to a past that was still looking to the future: in this case, the video recalls the CGI that made up many a classic R&B music video during the 1990s.” Willie Almack of Pitchfork wrote: “…like much of the Night Slugs canon, “Melba’s Call” succeeds through its crisp rendering of subtly mangled instrumentation in an idiom that’s simultaneously nostalgic and forward thinking.”

It led me to start thinking about these 1990s videos. Many videos in the late 90s and early 2000s were set in vortexes and portals of sorts or warehouses/airplane hangers/environments where there was plenty of space for dance routines to be performed. The key word then – as it is now for Hamilton and others – was architecture, and a recurring feature of these videos was screens with projections of the artist’s face on them. We have seen this recently with videos as diverse a Holly Herndon’s “Chorus”, Ciara’s Michael and Janet-referencing “I’m Out”, as well as a few years ago in the video for LOL Boys’ “Changes”. Before there was actual Skype, the pop stars of the late 90s and early 2000s sort of created their own.

Now, Nic Hamilton brought this vortex idea of the past into the present with his recent piece about the terrain in Tasmania ("Underwood") and video for Actress’ "Our". Meanwhile, NYC artist Tabor Robak has a website which is basically a late 90s/early 2000s video set, and whose show at New York’s Team Gallery hit on the music video pulse with works such as “Algos” which acted as a rollercoaster ride through different environments, and “20xx” which depicted a vivid place. So we decided to dig into the video vault to find the best examples of this excited-about-the-millennium music video style, all ranging from the years 1998-2001, showing that this type of video making was just as much of an aesthetic movement then as it is now with Hamilton, Robak, Night Slugs, and Fade to Mind.

Janet Jackson – "Doesn’t Really Matter" (dir Joseph Kahn)

Janet’s 2000 video for “Doesn’t Really Matter” begins in her home – which could be a building found in Robak’s “Algos” piece) and which contains a refrigerator that speaks directly to his “Xenix” piece as well as Mark Leckey’s “Green Screen Refrigerator”. There's a robot dog and a dance routine on a moving disc with screens all around (a millenial fantasy of the club?).  Extras and dancers trace sparkly lines and swirls in the air with their hands, and Janet rides down a super highway. See her videos for "Just a Little While" for the DVD video version of "Melba's Call" and "What's It Gonna Be" for something a little more vaporwave.

Jennifer Lopez – "If You Had My Love" (dir. Paul Hunter) / "Play" (dir Francis Lawrence)

In the video for J.Lo’s 1999 single “If You Had My Love,” we watch a male protagonist type “Jennifer Lopez” into a search engine (yes, you hear the dial up noise) which leads him to her official website which ends up being a live feed of her life. The rest of the video shows people in different situations (the club, a little girl’s room) watching what is essentially J.Lo TV. This video has perhaps the most direct parallels with Bok Bok & Kelela with the white outfits and how both singers are shown performing for us. The video for “Play,” two years later, mined similar territory, albeit on a super tricked-out airplane.

Destiny’s Child – "Say My Name" (dir Joseph Kahn) / "Bootylicious" (dir Matthew Rolston) / "Get on the Bus" (feat Timbaland) (dir Earle Sebastian)

Destiny’s Child were queens of this micro-genre of video. The color coordinated rooms and outfits in 2000’s “Say My Name” spoke to a type of design Nic Hamilton would respond to. 2001’s “Bootylicious” is set in yellow, pink, purple, and blue-colored, almost James Turrell-like angular, geometric and prismatic rooms that look like pantheons. “Get on the Bus” is set in a long silvery white room while stock images of purses, diamonds, shoes, briefcases, and cars are projected on screens behind DC, very much anticipating the now omnipresent DIS Magazine iconography.

TLC – "No Scrubs" (dir Hype Williams) / "Unpretty" (dir Paul Hunter)

Chili gets to ride an architecturally-stunning giant silver swing, Left Eye does fight moves and raps as a video camera zooms around her, and T-Boz dances in a tall illuminated cage in TLC’s 1999 “No Scrubs” video. It could be the cover art for a Fade to Mind release, with every shape chrome-plated and a pentagonal hallway. Think of the “Unpretty” video as No Scrubs’ hippie cousin with the trio mediating on floating shapes in a chamber that has screens with projections of the ladies in a field with magenta flowers, cute ladybugs, butterflies, rainbow circles, and what seems like some form of the Northern Lights. It makes for a more nature-oriented take on Robak’s cityscapes and also, connects to the verdant, imprisoned plant in “Melba’s Call” – nature is contained by or within a screen. And of course, there’s a flying robot following Chili in the plastic surgery office.

Aaliyah – "More Than a Woman" (dir. Dave Meyers)

With “More Than a Woman” we again have the high-tech city of Tabor Robak, Janet’s “Doesn’t Really Matter,” Jessica Simpson’s “Irresistible” and Britney’s “Stronger” – but this time, Aaliyah is dancing in a factory of sorts with machines pumping away and grinding gears on all sides. Later, of course, everyone ends up at the club, which has circular boat windows. The motorcycle racing around throughout the video calls to mind the cover of Jam City’s 2012 album, “Classical Curves”.

Blaque – "Bring It All to Me" (dir. Billie Woodruff)

The 1999/2000 vortex trend continued with Blaque and their song “Bring It All to Me.” The girls are walking holograms who teleport and shrink into a tiny box. They stand on a white rotating plate in the box and have turquoise, sparking hologram male backup dancers. The importance of coloured rooms found in “Say My Name” and “Booytlicious” continues here.

Britney Spears – "Stronger" (dir Joseph Kahn)

A vivid urban landscape, a car, a circular lounge with a rotating floor. And Britney’s chair dance scene calls to mind Kelela performing on the bed inside the computer screen and J. Lo performing in her house in “If You Had My Love” – a private performance for just us.