Kahlil Joseph's m.A.A.d. gives new visual life to Kendrick Lamar's breakout album

The acclaimed filmmaker's latest musical collaboration debuts in Los Angeles

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Last Thursday, two new exhibitions opened at the main building of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, both part of what the museum is calling a "new era" in the wake of the tumultuous Jeffrey Deitch years. Most of MOCA’s downtown space is now dedicated to Sturtevant: Double Trouble, a retrospective of the replicationist Elaine Sturtevant, which features a muscle-bound dude in silver booty shorts dancing on a lit-up go-go platform for 45 minutes each day. And behind a wall and on the other side of a long black curtain is Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience. From the title, casual visitors may assume it's a companion installation, but what is playing on a continuous loop in the darkened room is director Kahlil Joseph’s m.A.A.d.

Joseph's body of video work falls somewhere between music videos and short films. Though they are definitely works of art, they're usually watched on a laptop on Vimeo, not on museum walls. The approximately 15-minute-long m.A.A.d. is set to songs from Kendrick Lamar's revered 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city. At MOCA it is presented as a double screen video installation with the side-by-side images either supporting or ricocheting off of each other. If asked what Joseph's m.A.A.d. is about, the answer is "Compton, two decades after the riots," but without real dialogue or anything resembling a linear narrative, a more accurate answer is probably "a feeling of Compton, two decades after the riots."

Like most of Joseph's work, m.A.A.d. is gorgeous but unsettling, meant to reflect the underlying instability that threatens erupt any day or moment in the infamous city. His camera gracefully travels through a public pool where teenagers sun themselves on hot concrete, to a house party where a baby sleeps on a red sheet under a yellow blanket. Joseph wanders across a hair salon's worn linoleum floor and lingers on a close-up of a young man's heavily tattooed face. There are eruptions of gunfire and flashes of a horse racing through the nighttime streets. In old camcorder footage time-stamped March 23rd, 1992 — about a month before the Rodney King verdict — Lamar's father is shown in the street with his friends, goofily posing with his pistol grip pump shotgun. Then there are the moments of magical realism, like when the bodies of young men hang like bats from street lamps and storefronts. At one point a car pulls up for a drive-by casket viewing.

In her introductory remarks about m.A.A.d. at the media preview last week, chief curator Helen Molesworth said, "I encourage you to let that piece wash over you." I watched it three times in a row, and when it was done I felt like I needed to swim to the surface to come up for air.

Joseph's first music video was for Shabazz Palaces' "Bellhaven Meridian" in 2010. It's a three-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that literally turns the world upside-down and nods to Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep — the most famous, but still barely known, film from L.A. Rebellion, a group of experimentally inclined black directors that came out of UCLA's film program in the 1970s. Joseph and Shabazz Palaces' follow-up collaboration for the group's 2011 recording Black Up began the build toward Joseph's best-regarded work. In it, the images bounce between the rural and the urban — a lush rain forest or a dead rat on the sidewalk — as selections from the album blast in and out.

"Joseph has strummed a chord of emotion in some of us that is beyond the words that we normally use to describe film."

From there, Joseph's projects have included a short film for the Kenzo fashion house and a brutal take on FKA Twigs' "Video Girl," but the piece he's best known for, and which got him attention outside the music world, is his 2012 collaboration with Flying Lotus for the Los Angeles producer's album Until the Quiet Comes. It's an upsetting, but cathartic meditation on the deaths of two young black males. Discussing it on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's website, visual artist and scholar Duane Deterville wrote, "The consensus of opinion amongst my peer group is that Joseph's short film is pure genius. But beyond that, it seems, to have touched and strummed a chord of emotion in some of us that is beyond the words that we normally use to describe film."

Until the Quiet Comes was submitted to the short film competition of the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, where it won the Special Jury Prize. In August of 2014, a single screen version of Joseph’s m.A.A.d. debuted at Sundance’s Next Fest in Los Angeles. "Every time I see one of his things, I can tell its his, even though it’s completely unique," says Charlie Reff, a features programmer at the festival. "It has such a grip on its vision, so clearly and so strongly, that you know."

Joseph does very few interviews, and the only biographical information that is usually provided about him is that he was born in 1981 and he presently lives in Los Angeles. Ask around, and you’ll get told that he’s a private person. In an article in the Los Angeles Times this week, some more details about him were fleshed out: he grew up in Seattle; his mother is a teacher; his father is a lawyer; his brother is the fine artist Noah Davis, with whom he runs the West Adams / Crenshaw gallery the Underground Museum; he interned for Doug Aitken; he worked at famed commercial and music video production company The Directors Bureau; and he was an editor for Terrence Malick in Texas.

On the Tuesday following the opening of Kahlil Joseph: Double Consciousness at MOCA, Joseph appeared at the Otis College of Art and Design as part of the school’s visiting artist lecture series. In a room filled with a few dozen students, Joseph spoke about how his career developed through being denied what he wanted to do. He wanted to go to film school, but didn’t get in anywhere, so he studied art at Loyola Marymount University and learned about concepts like the importance of specificity. He wanted to make music videos while working at the Director’s Bureau, but was told he never would, so he developed his approach on his own. When good kid, m.A.A.d city first came out, he wanted to work with Kendrick Lamar, but the three treatments he wrote for three different singles were all rejected. (Given the nature of Joseph’s work, it’s not surprising that the label would decide it was simpler to just have Kendrick pray his dick gets as big as the Eiffel Tower in front of the actual Eiffel Tower.) It wasn’t until the end of 2013, when Lamar needed video projections for his opening set on Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, that the rapper and his management approached Joseph. When the shows were done, Joseph edited the hours of footage he shot and compiled for that project into m.A.A.d.

Through Joseph's lens, the album isn’t about the kid, so much as it is about the city that turned him into the person he is

Joseph’s m.A.A.d. was finished nearly two years after good kid, m.A.A.d city was released. Taken in now, even as we're all still busy parsing Lamar's follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly, the film suggests a re-framing of Kendrick's breakout. The narrative surrounding the album was the story of one young man’s redemption, and the arrival of a masterful new voice; that Lamar signaled a rebirth of Los Angeles hip-hop. Through Joseph's lens, though, the album isn’t the story of the kid, so much as it is about the side characters and background players in the city that turned him into the person he is.

At Otis, responding to a question about whether he had more freedom working in music videos or the fine art world, Joseph diverged into talking about how his best-known, award-winning video has over 2 million views on YouTube, but that number is nothing compared to the 60 million views you might find on a cat video. Still, he said that someone brings up a video he did with less than a million views to him every day. "There’s this weird inverse relationship between what people are really watching and what they will just look at."