Music videos will always hold a special place in the heart of millennials. They remind us of a time when we used to rush home from school to see which artist would top countdowns like 106 & Park or TRL. Our obsession didn’t stop with watching clips from our favorite artists—we wanted to know how they were made, too.
As the industry has changed, so have our habits. As we passed from adolescence to adulthood, the countdowns disappeared, and even videos from music’s biggest stars began migrating from live television to sites like YouTube and Vevo They never stopped being important—now those streams equate to dollars—but with less formal programming dedicated to showcasing them, the art form seemed like less of a priority than in previous decades.
Recently, though, there have been signs that things may be changing. Earlier this month, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released whimsical videos for their new hit singles— “Up” and “Cry Baby” respectively—collecting over a combined 70 million views in just a few weeks. Together, they would seem to be leading the charge in a return to the big-budget, elaborate rap videos of our childhood.
Cardi B’s “Up” video is less than three minutes long, but there’s no shortage of elements to make you do a double take. There’s a memorial for 2020 (relatable), a wig constructed from doll heads, and even a moment where Cardi reimagines herself as a Rolls Royce emblem. And I don’t even want to think about how many COVID-19 tests were required to pull off that Britney/Madonna/Christina lip lock between Cardi and a group of girls in a clam shell.
With nearly 50 million views on YouTube, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Tanu Muino-directed video helped drive the success of the song, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, just below the viral melodrama of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.” Needless to say, “Up” feels like a refreshing return to rap’s maximalist roots, and exciting addition to Bronx rapper’s long list of over-the-top videos.
Last month, Cardi B shared the budget for some of her most popular videos on Twitter. It is interesting to note how much the budgets have increased since her mixtape days and “Bodak Yellow” breakout moment—and rightfully so, considering that she is now one of the biggest names in rap. She revealed that she shot “Lick” at a New Jersey Holiday Inn, paying $40,000 out of pocket for her future husband Offset’s wardrobe, because she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. According to the rapper, she shot the fan-favorites “Bartier Bardi” for $150,000, the extravagant “Money” for $400,000, and the Bruno Mars-assisted “Please Me” for $900,000. Representatives from Atlantic did not respond to a request for comment about the budget for her most recent video, but “Up” certainly shows that she’s come a long way from her humble beginnings.
It should come as no surprise that “WAP,” at least as of that Twitter thread, was her most expensive video to date, sitting high at $1 million dollars. “WAP” was a must-watch during the summer. Cardi and Megan were at home, just like we were—except theirs had tigers, snakes, and cameos from the likes of Kylie Jenner and Normani. Director Colin Tilley, who was also the person behind Megan’s equally elaborate companion pieces “Body” and “Don’t Stop,” has a CV full of conversation-starting music videos, like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Rihanna and Bryson Tiller’s “Wild Thoughts,” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” He also directed the Toy Story-channeling “Cry Baby,” filled with intricate dollhouse sets and Hot Wheels racers. If “Cry Baby” is what happens when we leave our toys alone, we’re a little jealous.
Ornate, big-budget videos have historically made for some of hip-hop’s biggest pop culture moments. Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” still holds the record for the most expensive video, with a $7 million budget, and TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Busta Rhymes’s “What It’s Gonna Be,” and Sisqo’s “The Thong Song” all fell above the $1 million mark. It will be interesting to see how artists follow Cardi B and Megan’s lead and make videos that keep us excited about new releases. We are certainly not gathering around the television while doing our homework anymore, but one could argue that music videos are even more important today than they were back then. They’re the best way we can experience the full artistic vision of our favorite stars at a time when we can’t see them play live—and have the potential to be even more ubiquitous. Now, they go where we go and we can replay them as many times as our heart desires.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.