Music Video Analysis: “Sundress” by A$AP Rocky
by Colin Hodgson
Even pretty people get their hearts broken. Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye, also known as A$AP Rocky, is no exception. The difference is that while the rest of us mope around, A$AP Rocky drops a music video.
Never one for pessimism or self-doubt, the song, “Sundress”, is not the typical melancholy yearning, although he does reflect on what could have been. Similarly, the music video is a departure from the usual breakup video, most notably because they don’t seem to break up at all. What catches the viewer’s attention, though, is the stylized cinematography and choreography as it mimics moments stuck in time.
I will explore how, rather than being merely an interesting concept, the style of the video directly relates to the otherwise obscured narrative through its references to the French film La Jetée.
As far back as 2014, there were speculations that A$AP Rocky would sample Tame Impala, but none appeared until the sample of “ Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind? “ in “Sundress” in 2018. The Tame Impala song is about a woman who can’t decide whether to break up with her boyfriend or not, leading him to feel anxious and upset. “Sundress” picks up where the original song left off, after she dumps him, and even includes a direct reference in the line “I see you made up your mind”. Rocky addresses his ex, saying she made a mistake and they were meant to be together. He acknowledges that the breakup hurt him, but he quickly healed and moved on. Now when he sees her with her new man he can only laugh, though whether laughter is a sign of indifference or a coping mechanism is left to the listener’s interpretation.
Released on November 20, 2018, “Sundress” was the first single A$AP Rocky released after his album Testing earlier that year. The music video was directed by Frank Lebon, who has created equally experimental and visually rich music videos for artists like James Blake and King Krule. Lebon is a British director, as is the protagonist and most of the film crew. It’s likely that the video was filmed in the UK. This European quality has been characteristic of Rocky’s style since Testing, as can be seen in the fusion of New York and London styles in “Praise da Lord”, the video for “Potato Salad” in front of the Eiffel Tower, and his work with Dior.
A$AP Rocky takes a back seat in the music video for “Sundress” as British artist and model Kesewa Aboah takes center stage, portraying Rocky’s ex. As she walks down the street with her new man, she notices someone across the street who mysteriously turns into Rocky. This spurns her to follow him into a club and shoot him, thus creating an explosion of shared memories. The twist comes once she returns to her current boyfriend, who is none other than A$AP Rocky.
The cinematography of the video brings the viewer into Aboah’s mental state. The camera is handheld through the majority of the video, creating the sense that the viewer is right there with her. Additionally, the camera moves through the crowds at eye level and in close contact with the people surrounding Aboah and Rocky. This, along with the natural movements of the camera, mimics a POV shot as if the viewer is in the club, which amplifies the raw emotion of Aboah. The passion, anger, and jealousy all feel real, and the staging turns the scene into something that resembles a memory.
Lebon directs the extras to freeze in certain positions mid-action and rearrange into different stances each time the camera returns, as Aboah moves toward A$AP Rocky. The staging directly relates to the narrative of the video. The way the video is shot — like photography in motion — is a reference to La Jetée, an experimental film from 1962 by French director Chris Marker.
La Jetée is almost exclusively still photography with narration over it. It tells the story of a French POW in a post WWIII world who travels through time to save humanity. He meets a woman in the past and they have an unusual transient relationship. Eventually, he works up the skills to travel to the future and bring back an energy source to restart society. His mission thus completed, his captors plan on killing him, but he travels back in time to see his lover one last time. An agent follows him through time and murders him. The murder takes place in front of the man as a child, searing the image into his mind and ultimately giving him the ability to travel in time to find the woman, creating an infinite loop. The American film Seven Monkeys was inspired by La Jetée and follows the same plot.
In “Sundress”, the roles are more ambiguous. Aboah depicts the female love interest. Aside from the obvious reasons, there is a subtle homage to La Jetée that links her with the original character. In La Jetée, there is only a single shot that is film rather than photography — it’s about six seconds and often goes unnoticed. There is a sequence that shows the woman sleeping, and in the last shot she blinks several times. As Aboah approaches Rocky no one moves, with one exception; Aboah’s eyes move as she scans the room. This detail is meant to strengthen her connection with the woman in La Jetée.
Yet on the other hand she also acts as the assassin. This conflation of roles can be explained through the meaning of the song. The woman dumps Rocky, gets with another man, but is still in love with Rocky. She gets jealous when she sees him with other women, and her expression makes it clear to Rocky that she wants to kill him.
Now, taking into consideration the lyrics as well as the reference to La Jetée, we can make a strong educated guess as to the meaning of the video. Aboah is walking down the street with A$AP Rocky (yes, it’s him even at the beginning). She looks displeased, as if she does not particularly enjoy his company. At this point, she is the woman in the original Tame Impala song; she’s still in the relationship but can’t make up her mind whether to dump him or not.
She sees a man who looks like Rocky, and this trips her into the future, after the events depicted in the song take place (after she dumps him and they both find someone new). We can tell she’s now in the future because of the still-life action taken from La Jetée.
Now jealous and angry, she confronts him and kills him. This sets off a series of positive memories they shared during their relationship. These memories provide her with a healing experience, shown through words such as “forgive” and “heal” flashing on the screen. She immediately realizes her mistake.
She then travels back in time, repairing the destruction she caused. This is shown as the footage is reversed and the mess in the club flies back to normal. Aboah returns to the time she began at with a smile on her face. She has seen the future, healed from it, and chosen a different path. She once more looks across the street at the man who first sparked the time travel, and sure enough, he does not turn into A$AP Rocky, meaning that this future has been averted. She continues to walk with Rocky as if nothing happened.
Could it all be in her head? Possibly. If the video follows La Jetée, however, the answer would be no.
In La Jetée, the narrator explains the protagonist “never knows whether he moves toward her, whether he is driven, whether he has made it up, or whether he is only dreaming”, however, this is followed by the sequence that includes the piece of film. The inclusion of film in the otherwise static world indicates that he has reached a point where it’s not a dream. The jump from photography to film mimics the jump from fantasy to reality. Furthermore, his death and the circumstances surrounding it continue to suggest the time travel is real. Dying in front of his younger self, and remembering it as a child, is predicated on the fact that he can travel to that time in the first place. So, under the assumption that “Sundress” follows the film, she does travel through time.
Just as “Sundress” is a continuation of the original song “Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?”, the music video for “Sundress” extends the narrative to what seems to be the conclusion. When considering all three pieces, the narrative is as follows; a woman is restless in her relationship, frustrating her boyfriend. She eventually leaves him for another man. This forces her ex-boyfriend to move on as well, but she is immediately filled with jealousy and realizes she made a mistake. She travels back to the beginning, while they were still together, and chooses not to break up with him.
More than just a stylistic choice, the still-life technique is an allusion to La Jetée. This connection is used to make feasible the otherwise unlikely scenario of the woman traveling back in time. It also complements the transient nature of relationships, as well as the feeling of regret that accompany their endings, that A$AP Rocky touches on in his lyrics. Lastly, it aligns Rocky with one of the greatest experimental artists and renaissance men of the 20th century, Chris Marker, during a period in which Rocky was very experimental in his music and was expanding into new arts such as fashion and acting.
The beauty of “Sundress”, like all great music videos, is that without this prior knowledge it’s still an extremely entertaining and visually pleasing video. When you dig deeper, though, a whole new world of meaning opens up.
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on September 3, 2020.