Hip-hop has always been an audiovisual genre. It emerged around the same time as the music video; Queen’s pioneering “Bohemian Rhapsody” visual was released in 1975, four years before the Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight.” Since then, rap stars have become icons through their aesthetic choices nearly as much as they have through successful songs. Sometimes, this comes in the way of fashion choices. Other times, it comes from the music videos; from Biggie’s luxurious “Hypnotize” visual to Drake’s memeable “Hotline Bling.”
Of course, music videos can be extravagant projects that take a chunk out of one’s budget. This plus the reality that in today’s social media-heavy landscape, artists have to put out significant amounts of music in order to constantly engage shrinking attention spans, means artists also have to make more music videos than ever. Additionally, saturation in the market leads to the aesthetics of an artist and their music being leaned on more heavily – how else does one stand out?
This combination of circumstances has helped birth the “visualizer,” a cute catch-all term that can describe anything from a colorful, commissioned animation to a filmed non-performance video of the artist with little in the way of moving parts. The term originates from “music visualization” functions in electronic media playing software. If you’re above the age of 20, you’re likely to remember these old visualizers; twisting, colorful graphics that moved with the frequencies of the audio.
The term had since been used over the years in long psychedelic audiovisual experiences posted to YouTube from channels like Amanda Darling. But it was notably adapted on Lil Uzi Vert’s YouTube channel on October 10, 2017, when he released visuals for every track off of his record Luv Is Rage 2, with each title sporting the phrase “official visualizer” in brackets. This included viral YouTube visualizers for “XO TOUR Llif3” (which has since been removed) and the single “The Way Life Goes,” which has since eclipsed 70 million views; the latter video features a looped stop-motion clip of play-doh-like clay compounds, performing optical illusions with paint and shape and eventually forming a portrait of Uzi.
This can be pointed to as the mainstream emergence of the word “visualizer.” Soon after, small YouTube channels and fandoms that had already been designing visuals for popular rap artists latched onto the term. “I found out about (the word) from Lil Uzi’s album,” says YouTuber Cryingwolf, who amassed a large audience from compiling visualizers he enjoyed. “The style of visuals that I and others made comes from the Playboi Carti community, but it’s starting to reach a broader audience through Twitter.”
The Playboi Carti community Cryingwolf is referring to ranges from his subreddit to different fan pages on Instagram. The Atlanta artist has amassed a massive internet following in part due to his unique high-street fashion aesthetic, as well as the seemingly endless amount of music he’s created in his young career, with perhaps the majority of his oeuvre being unreleased tracks. These leaks are often subjects for fan-made visualizers, such as one for “Molly/No Stylist,” a song which was previewed live on tour last year but has yet to be released.
These video edits combine behind the scenes clips of Carti as well as random footage that fits the look – anywhere from skating clips to videos of women, with VHS filters either added on or preserved from the original footage. Video editors such as @deathtoaq on Instagram also make use of text effects, transition effects, and slowed frame rates. A$AP Mob project AWGE’s DVD series, featuring freestyles and vlog-style footage from artists including Carti, seems to stand out as a major influence on these creators.
Cryingwolf had built a YouTube channel with over 6,000 subscribers and several videos with hundreds of thousands of views before, suddenly, he removed every single one. The move came as a measure to avoid a potentially channel-ending copyright strike. “Your account gets terminated after 3 copyright strikes,” he says, “and both of my Kid Cudi videos got striked, so I didn’t want to risk a third and deleted everything.”
This is par for the course given YouTube’s ongoing controversies with “Content ID” copyright claims, which has drawn increasing ire from content creators over the past few months. These claims affect music and music-adjacent channels particularly hard, which can often see copyright strikes even for content with strong fair use arguments. One can argue it’s not just the content creators that suffer for it but also the artists themselves who lose something from fan-made content being taken down.
Take, for instance, Travis Scott’s “Highest in the Room,” an unreleased track that the rapper has continually teased in concert. A YouTube visualizer for the song was uploaded to Cryingwolf’s channel and reached over 300,000 views, the highest of any video containing the song. Then, it was taken down. The video remains on the internet, having been shared on other platforms like Twitter to viral success. But it’s not on YouTube anymore, a site which remains one of the biggest platforms for music streaming and curating in the world.
This is likely small potatoes for multi-platinum artists like Travis Scott. But good marketing is good marketing at any level – and these videos are exactly that, presenting popular audiovisual content for an artist’s material. They also help cultivate communities of fans that feed off of each other’s creativity, sharing their own work and gaining followings. This type of unpaid, unsolicited, viral content creation helps to further an artist’s brand, whether these artists – and the companies that push them – know it or not.
Regardless of the odds, Cryingwolf will be back: “(it) takes a few months for strikes to expire, so I’ll make videos again then,” he says. Meanwhile, the term “visualizer” and its corresponding potential has reached the industry, with numerous artists releasing “official visualizers” over the past year. Each visual plays with different aesthetics, but the one thing they have in common (aside from their name) is their attempt to engage traffic; traffic which was bred by Lil Uzi Vert and the communities of creatives that took the term and made it pop.