APES**T: HEAVEN & EARTH
Mythic Structures in Time and Space
Dani Oore, University of Toronto, July 2018
My contribution to a collaboration with Carol Vernallis, et al., for submission to the Journal of Popular Music Studies. [This is a working draft. Suggestions & comments welcome: dani’at’oore’dot’ca]
What mythic structures and stories are invoked in APES**T? How are these structures and stories invoked through temporal interactions among the music video’s auditory, visual, and kinesthetic elements?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless… darkness …and the Spirit… hovering… And God said “Let there be light.”
The screen is black.
Hear the clashing timing of the classic French police sirens and church bells. Feel the tension in their asynchrony (128 bpm against 22 bpm shifting to 32 bpm, all with different start points).
Who plays who —the good or the bad, the sacred or the corrupt— in this temporal symbol of the endless chase between chaos and order?
Now the sound of footsteps walking in yet another tempo.
A bell tolls and there is light; a winged angel appears.
A thunderous chime interrupts this tempo tail-chasing. The video cuts to a vast mural of Apollo slaying Python, serpent of earthly chaos, ouroboros of time. The mural is lit by reds, magentas, and blues, whose flickering recalls the police siren and its wailing tempo. A montage cuts from one painting close-up to the next, in synch with bell tolls whose reverberating sustain stretch moments in time out like a canvas.
Whose heel steps now reverberate across the hard floor as I stare up to the stretching Galerie d’Apollon ceiling? To where do they now hasten me (36 bpm)? Linear time surges forward with anticipation…
…and I find myself in a room where Beyoncé and Jay-Z dare stand alone with their backs to the Mona Lisa. The southern Afrological twang of a synthesized berimbau pulsates at 79.75 bpm —more than double the tempo of my now vanished footsteps; am I floating in the presence of the Carters? Trap loves twangs… swangin’ n’ bangin’ tape delays, the stuttering broken boing in Formation, and the buzzing spectral swank of a berimbau in APES**T. The overtones of the APES**T twang are so rich and gliding they serve multiple and disparate pitch perceptions (“multistability”): is the berimbau alternating from E “down” to D (characteristic of shifting tonic levels in axial African bow music)? Or from E “up” to high E, or…? Mona Lisa’s eyes follow us through the ambiguous pitch-space.
The twang is counterpointed by Quavo’s rhythmic “Ye[ah], Ye, Ye, Ye, Ye” incantation.
Are the Carters embodying art or flaunting it? Are they positioning their Blackness, or Beyoncé’s Creoleness in relation to the Western (and specifically French) institution? Is the relationship multistable?
When the bass drops —on top of the berimbau and incantation— we dance. We become the art, and the art lives and dies with each breath. Mythic, cyclic time dominates.
Feel the multiplicity of rhythmic cycles:
The berimbau strikes every four hi-hat ticks and the alternating (e.g. low-high) pattern of the berimbau takes eight beats to cycle, but Quavo’s incantation spans across the end and beginning of two eight-beat groups, fusing them into a longer sixteen-beat cycle. The snare mostly synchronizes with the berimbau. Whether one perceives the hi-hat tick as the salient beat or as a subdivision of the larger “tactus” pulse of the berimbau, such a relational, multistable engagement is characteristic of Afrological temporal play. Temporality is spatial too. Witness the rhythmic tricksterism in Beyoncé’s dancing, where she shifts her motions to emphasize different temporal cycles (e.g. her slow pulse at 5:08 suddenly changes to emphasize a rapid pulse at 5:11).
Against these symmetrical and even-numbered cycle lengths of four, eight, and sixteen, the bass groove’s asymmetrical and odd three-beat groupings acquire a syncopated feeling. The asymmetry that begins on the third and fourth bass hits (on beat 7 and 8 of the hi-hat) might feel like a displacement of the position of the strong beat by one beat (hi-hat tick). An alternate (multistable) perception is that the bass hits group into four groups of three beats each, followed by two groups of two beats. This synergy of quadruple and triple beat groupings is characteristic of Afrological music-dance traditions; it finds further expression in Beyonce’s triplet-grid rapping (see top three rows of figure 1).
The interaction of duple and triple groupings within the bass rhythm generates a tresillo patterning (see bottom three rows of figure 1). The tresillo is a rhythmic pattern found in dance musics around the globe, including in traditions throughout the African diaspora… and Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer.
Figure 1: Some of the rhythmic layers and their groupings, in the APES**T groove (with triplet rapping).
The bass rhythm, like its tresillo substructure, is comparable to African rhythmic ostinati known as timelines, or bell-patterns because of the bell on which they are often played. The APES**T bass rhythm resembles a seven-stroke pattern found in sub-Saharan African music and dance, referred to as the standard bell pattern (which includes the strokes of even more widespread five-stroke patterns, known in Cuba, for example, as the son and rumba claves, see figure 2). The sequence of three pitches in the bass part, too, recalls those played on the double (or triple) belled gankogui or agogo. The bells that toll in APES**T signify layers and cycles of beginnings and endings.
Figure 2: The APES**T bass pattern resembles the seven-stroke standard bell pattern (which includes the strokes of common sub-Saharan African key rhythms, known in Cuba, for example, as the son and rumba claves).
Throughout APES**T, the regularity of these cycles forms a ground: the predictability of the beat is danceable, the mass of interlocking beats forms a groove, a pocket, that draws our feet and bodies into the earth below, over and over.
Above this spatiotemporal ground, APES**T delivers countless expressions of flying and floating: the ungrounded asynchronous relationship between the bell, siren, and footstep tempos (0:00-0:16); the elimination of footstep sounds when the berimbau first enters (0:38); a recurring wing motif, however immobile, for example, in a white-winged sculpture of Nike of Samothrace; lofty ceilings decorated with angel figures and images of heavens (0:17, 1:13); the syncopated and multistable properties of the groove that engender ungrounded and shifting perceptions of time; women laying on stairs gesturing upward in rhythmic contractions (Martha Graham, demanding grounding, would say “move from your vagina”) …will this graceful labour set the women free to the heavens?; points-of-view repeatedly looking down to the grounded women (1:06, 1:23); lyrics signifyn’(g) on success through metaphors of flight and elevation, e.g. “planes too,” “stage divin’,” “jumpin’ off the stage,” “bought him a jet,” “spaceship,” “G8 planes,” “hop in . . . wanna’ see the stars . . . sendin’ the missiles off”; lyrics delivered with a “floating” flow, where Beyoncé raps in triplets “over” the groove (top rows in figure 1), and Jay-Z raps in a more complex and ambiguous rhythmic relationship that “flies” above the “underlying” groove (e.g. in a 7:6 or 7:8 ratio between the number of Jay-Z’s rapped syllables relative to the number of hi-hat ticks, usually beginning on the third of every group of eight hi-hat ticks, until 3:41 where he climactically extends this temporal flight “over” twenty four ticks, or six berimbau twangs); and Beyoncé flapping her white dress beneath the winged Nike.
In Afro-diasporic traditions, flying and floating are recurring expressions of a transformative journey, or escape —“goin’ apeshit”— often back home and especially back to family: ancestors (their resilience and sacrifice “is what we’re thankful for”), community (“crowd goin’ apeshit,” “crowd better save her,” “call all my girls,” “my bitches,” and through call-and-response echoes), and perhaps, as seems here, also a reunified marriage. “I can’t believe we made it,” Beyoncé admits gratefully.
If flying is an expression both of ecstasy and of power, distinguishing its symbols —the revelry from the ascendency gained by those who control this revelry— helps to understand when each aspect is at play in APES**T. The winged Nike statue symbolizes the victory of this power, not the Dionysian power itself which the Carters (claim to) exert over their followers, through music, dance, and ritual “sippin’ my favorite alcohol.”
The contrasting expressions of groundedness and flying-floating are, in fact complimentary. The receptive feminine earth, yin, and the creative masculine heaven, yang, form a whole. Yin and yang are often expressed as the two interlocking spirals of shadow and light in a taijitu. The rhythm of contrasting lighting in APES**T tells a story: the video begins with a black screen and ends in a white one, in between unfolds a dramatic play of shadows (some scenes barely visible). APES**T choreography too, features significant spiraling motions that bridge heaven and earth and also unify cyclic and linear temporalities. A spiral combines circular and straight motions, and we repeatedly witness dancers rhythmically forming kinesthetic circles that coil, in serpentine motion, around an axis.
Three times we see The Coronation of Napoleon as a backdrop to such spiraling choreography, a line of dancers corkscrew their hips as well as torsos and limbs, along the axes of their spines. Their gyrations combine circular and linear motions. In front of this particular painting, the spiral choreography reconciles the repetition of coronations throughout history with the singularity of Queen Bey’s own position below the painted crown: “can’t be toppin’ my reign.”
In another thrice-repeated spiral choreography, an undulating helix is formed by a line of dancers’ swaying heads, positioned from nearest to the camera moving back and up along a staircase toward the headless statue of the goddess Nike (Winged Victory of Samothrace). Nike is the personification of that moment in time when the scales of victory sway to one or another side. The swaying helix choreography reconciles the anonymous repetition of female and Black victory and loss throughout history, together with the singular embodiment of this mythic cycle in Nike. The diagonal orientation of the helix along the stairs bridges heaven and earth. Positioning the Nike sculpture at the top of the helix contrasts the enduring immobility of the white material past (essence of the Louvre) with the transitory dance of the Black living present. Whatever reconciliation it might achieve, it produces a spiraling “apeshit” trance.
The alternation of contrasts, such as between steady groove and ambiguous floating time, is as provocative as it is complimentary.
The opening of the music video features thirty-eight seconds of unpredictable temporal interaction between bells, sirens, and footsteps, before delivering the grounded pulse of the berimbau. It takes twenty-five more seconds before the bass drops (at 1:03). But only seventy two seconds later (at 2:15), it’s floating again…
…the groove abruptly stops and we’re left watching a montage of shots sweeping across passive, motionless environments. Instead of groove we now hear an eerie collage of morphing sounds: unpredictably timed bell tolls with long reverberation are overlayed with their reversed audio (i.e. backwards, the sound of the toll increases in volume from silence into a bell tone cf. “reversed out of debt”?) and subtle (Matrix-style) glitching, a muffled Métro train, a fragment of filtered berimbau groove, sirens.
In these new correspondences between time and space, and between sound and image, the previously established temporal and spatial reality are questioned. The arrow of time seems to move in multiple directions now, and distinctions between past-present-future, between order and chaos, between here and there, between stillness and flux, and between art and reality, are all blurred. Can the Carters and their angels set the world straight for the apeshit? Will Jay-Z and Beyoncé bridge heaven and earth?
For the next minute and a half we cannot easily anticipate the rhythm of the sounds and visuals. But the chiming bells continue to mark divisions. A painting of White tears and suffering (Les ombres de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile) is accompanied by church bells, while video of Black love and prayer is accompanied by police sirens.Has the dancing ended?
Do we hear music in the urban soundscapes or see dance in the everyday movements? Do we experience divisions among reality, pop, art, and high art? Which of these serves as the other’s background? Do the different players recognize one another across their distinct spaces and temporalities? (It’s a natural development of Picasso Baby where Jay-Z also questions and invites recognition across art-performance boundaries and spatiotemporalities.)
Then the groove drops again.
And three minutes later the groove stops with the return of the pealing bell. With their backs to the Mona Lisa, the power-couple now stages its transformation. The Carters turn to face one another, and the sound of the siren creeps back in. Beyoncé and Jay-Z then turn further inward, siren and bells continuing, until they both face the Mona Lisa.
In this transformation, the Carters make themselves vulnerable not only as two humans humbly facing artistic pursuit and achievement. They also turn themselves toward those public and cultural institutions that look back at them from behind bulletproof glass, as faceless African Americans whose presence calls for police sirens.
One last bell toll.
The screen turns white…
Let there be light.
 Cf. analysis of echoes in G. Lochard’s analysis.
 Cf. “moving painting” in D. Chapman’s analysis.
 Cf. Quavo’s vocal percussivity in https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/migos-high-times-and-heartache-with-the-three-kings-of-hip-hop-122262/.
 Cf. Dirty Computer tresillos in http://dani.oore.ca/monae/.
 Cf. women as “captives in a slave ship’s hold” in C. Vernallis’s analysis.
 Cf. ad-libs in G. Ellis’s analysis.
 Cf. flying and floating in Afro-diasporic cultural practices in http://dani.oore.ca/snap-twang-bluenote/.
 Cf. shadow and femininity, blackness and whiteness in G. Lochard’s analysis.
 The spirals themselves reconcile the spirals of [Martha] Graham technique and gyrating torsos of Afrological dance.
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