J. Cole – “Crooked Smile” ft. TLC


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It's not just about the music in this video; it's about the message.

The music video for J. Cole’s song “Crooked Smile” (off of the album Born Sinner) is a short film directed by Sheldon Candis. The video made a splash in 2013 when it was released, as it commemorates Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old girl who was shot and killed in a raid by police in 2010. The narrative is sad and heavy, packing a powerful message of truth and injustice. It follows the parallel story of two men, “anywhere in America” as the video states, and also shows that this story can and does unravel all over the country. Of these two men, one is a black man that is presumably a drug dealer, and the other a white man who works for the DEA.

These two men lead lives that really aren’t so different, as the video portrays them both getting ready at the same time, both have a little girl in their lives that they really love, and both make a living one way or another to support themselves and their families. A theme of innocence and youth is blended into the video, with the white man making faces with his daughter during breakfast and the black family enjoying sparklers and even a scene at the end with the two young girls at school laughing and drawing together (yes, they are friends ironically). The theme of innocence is darkly contrasted with the very mature and somber motif of social injustice in America and its consequences.

When the video reaches its tragic conclusion, a chilling aspect rings in as the song “Crooked Smile” stops and is replaced by an eerie, slow, slightly distorted version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” There’s also a message at the very end that reads, “For Aiyana Stanley-Jones . . . And please reconsider your war on drugs – a message from J. Cole.” This social commentary speaks to the War on Drugs ruining people’s lives and unfairly targeting black people. This is part of the social injustice rooted in the foundations of this country, which is demonstrated by the use of the national anthem.

The song “Crooked Smile” is a little secondary to what is going on in the film. It becomes background music to other sounds in the story, immersing the viewer into the world of the video. The song is about the imperfections people have, aesthetic features that seem important in society but really do not matter in the larger scheme of things, especially with the deep social issues we have in our society. The song speaks on racial injustice, saying “half the [black] race is either on probation or in jail.” The video itself uses good storytelling—it tells us all we need to know about the characters from interactions and their movements. The message is the real takeaway though, even though there is an intricacy in the little details. While I think the cinematography is pretty good, the most memorable aspect is how the video really moves the viewer and their emotions.