Do you remember Drake’s video for “Best I Ever Had?” If not, you’ll find it somewhere in a forgotten corner of YouTube (not on his VeVo for sure). With the song itself being a monumental moment in Drake’s early career, he needed a video that radiated with urbanity. “I want women to feel special when they watch the visual and say, ‘I wish that was me,’ or ‘I know that feeling.’ That’s the goal with the video — to be genuine and not sappy,” he told MTV News prior to the video’s release.
While it wasn’t sappy, it wasn’t that good, either. The Kanye West-directed visual wasn’t much more than a Drake-centric comedy romp, using slo-mo shots of women stretching to masquerade as edgy. Drake was a coach for a women’s basketball team – the worst coach in history, really – and his “Best I Ever Fucking Had” signature line goes to his team to spark a fire in them to win a game against fitter, taller women. Drake dominated damn near every frame, but that wasn’t the only problem. The lighting was extremely bad and it just lacked grit and imagination; Rolling Stone said “On an intellectual level, the video makes Drake’s old show DeGrassi: The Next Generation seem like Masterpiece Theatre.” Since then, the duo have yet to collaborate on another visual, and, judging by the content from Drake’s latest album Scorpion, I doubt that’ll happen again anytime soon.
“Best I Ever Had” is the glaring example, but bad videos didn’t start, or stop there. “Replacement Girl,” the Trey Songz-assisted 2008 hit, was moderately worse. “5AM in Toronto,” consisted of Drake doing his hardest impression of Don Corleone for four minutes. “Find Your Love” was an endlessly corny adventure about love that overstayed its welcome far longer than the song. There’s also been good videos as well – “Started From The Bottom” riffed on Drake’s dweebiness and brought along a ragtag group of friends for an often hilarious treatment. “Hotline Bling” was a flipbook of dancing Drake memes -probably manufactured specifically for this purpose – that was shot crisply and confidently, shocking because it was much different than anything he’d ever done. All of these videos stand a rung below Drake’s videos released in 2018. There’s one reason that he’s been on a hot streak lately in the visual department, and it’s because of his new favorite music video director Karena Evans.
Karena Evans is only twenty-two years old. She began her directing career for as an intern for Director X, one of hip-hop’s most esteemed directors. After putting in the work, and staying longer than anyone else, X saw something in her; he promoted her to a full-time position with his video company Popprok. From there, she played big roles in videos for Sean Paul (“Tek Wek Yuh Heart”), Belly (“Mumble Rap”) and Anders (“You For You”). After helming the direction for each of these visuals, she managed to secure a directing role for Drake’s “God’s Plan.” The positive, viral reception that the video received enabled her to take another stab at Drake’s work; she directed the now-viral “Nice For What” video that features a diverse cast of fifteen Hollywood women of all shades and sizes. After the series of skirmishes with Pusha T, she helped Drake make the world forget about his hidden child with the nostalgia-heavy video for “I’m Upset.” She most recently directed the video for Drake’s “In My Feelings” and, if early reviews tell the story, it’s Drake’s best video yet.
Describing Karena’s directing style is an impossible task – that’s what makes it so endearing. Instead of focusing on Drake’s many facial expressions, as Kanye chose to do in “Best I Ever Had,” Karena rarely focuses on Drake at all. His face is memorable enough to carry a video in only a few frames; instead, Karena absorbs the environment around. She builds worlds through bold, contrasting colors, and the thoughts, facial expressions, and ways of life of those that would normally be blurred out of frame. The walls, buildings, and skies are just as much characters as the recording artists front and center. And everything’s enveloped in a thick, dream-like sheen, whether it’s from camera angles or some other not easily describable means, that makes the proceedings feel as if they’re taking place off-Earth.
Just look at the video for “In My Feelings.” Drake appears in small doses while the city of New Orleans is the star. The smiling people in front of storefronts, little black boys banging drumsticks on white buckets while sitting on the side of the street, young women dancing on the sidewalks under the blistering sun. Shiggy appears as well, and, given his proximity to the song’s viral nature from his dancing capabilities, you would be forgiven if you went in thinking he would play a larger role. But he’s equally as restrained, yet he does appear more towards the end – save for a couple of comical dancing scenes on the bus – when he hounds a plodding Drake, with his original viral dancing video playing, along with some select celebrity others, as the credits roll. It’s a masterful, exhilarating experience that breathes on its own.
“I’m Upset” was equally magnetic. Drake and the cast of Degrassi party like it’s 2005 in their old stomping grounds, with each of the show’s memorable faces getting a moment to shine. The show’s cast, as a collective, is the central focus, not Drake himself. The video is that much better for it. Whether it’s Rick being chased down the hall with a look of absolute trepidation on his face, or Spinner’s face lighting up with a charismatic smile as he prepares to bring Drake along for the party of the century, everything feels organic. The video released right at the height of Drake’s feud with Pusha T, and, almost instantaneously, the frenzy surrounding the controversial bubble burst. All of the momentum swung in Drake’s direction because of the wistful feeling generated by seeing the entire cast of a generation’s lead drama series living it up as adults. The artistic framing of their charades that night swept under the rug the very real reality that Pusha had destroyed Drake at his own rap beef game. This video alone, and its reception, showcase just how important Karena’s work is; her prescience generates the right kind of conversation that grips the culture in ways that many music video producers, much older than her, seemingly can’t due to less creative visions.
These two videos aren’t flukes. Karena understands Drake’s troubled music video history. Rap often makes its’ artists the subjects of their videos. The problem is that Drake’s a goof – a lovable, dumpy, goof. Focusing on him for too long exposes his dweebiness and makes watching his videos often times cringy. Karena’s mastered the ability to draw away the focus from his goofiness and, instead, focuses on the action surrounding him. Because she gives heart and soul to everyone else involved in the videos, she’s helping to increase his star power one video at a time. As Frazier Tharpe of Complex tweeted, Karena Evans is the best thing to happen to Drake in some time. The fact that “In My Feelings” marks their fourth collaboration together in nearly six months, means that Drake must realize it too.