On Friday, Men in Black: International, the fourth installment in the MiB movie franchise, arrives in theaters. By now the hallmarks of the series have become film lore: the black suits, the shades, the memory-erasing neuralyzers, and the kooky crew of aliens. But back in the ’90s, only those who had read the original comic book were aware of the premise. On June 16, 1997—two weeks before Men in Black hit theaters—Columbia Records dropped Will Smith’s first solo single, which doubled as the theme song for his new movie. Both song and film became monster hits. Here, two Ringer staffers go back in time to revisit an indelible pop culture classic.
Donnie Kwak: “Men in Black” is a forget-me-not record for myriad reasons—it was the signature song from the summer of ’97’s biggest movie; it was Will Smith’s first solo record and remains his highest-charting hit; it won a Grammy; and it had a $1 million video featuring a dancing CGI alien.
But before we double-click on any of those details, Micah, let’s remember where we were when this song dropped at the end of June 1997. I’m guessing you were in a crib in Baton Rouge? I mean, like, a literal crib. Staring upward at a rotating mobile.
Micah Peters: First of all, it wasn’t a crib. I was siloed in a womb-like space pod for one of my bi-daily download sessions, assimilating all the available digitized information so as to blend seamlessly into humankind. Which is how I know that this was a forget-me-not record that literally sampled “Forget Me Nots,” by Patrice Rushen, which came out in 1982 and still sounds kind of futuristic today.
Also—yes, I’ll say it—remember music video budgets? “Men in Black” starts with a giant slab of bubbling carbonite. But is this in the same hangar that the final shootout of Bad Boys was shot in? Are all the Will Smith movies happening in the same universe?
Kwak: Maybe not happening in the same universe, but Will Smith movies—and Will Smith—are mostly doing the same thing. I’ll let our colleague Rob Harvilla tell it: “Will Smith’s face is the perfect vehicle to convey the sentiment What the hell is that thing? Also: Oh, hell no. Also: I got this. Or, ideally, all three.” We see all three sentiments in the “MiB” video.
But, yes, ’90s music video budgets: In the Showtime Wu-Tang documentary, we learned that the budget for the “Triumph” video, which also dropped in ’97, was $1 million as well. I had the same thought rewatching “Triumph” as I did “Men in Black”—was all of that really worth 100 racks?
And since you didn’t ask, I was at NYU when “Men in Black” dropped, and firmly ensconced in the NYC rap bubble that immediately dismissed Will Smith’s “hippity-hop”-ass rhyme schemes as hopelessly wack and corny. Were we being uncharitable?
Peters: This is a slippery question for a Willennial. For a good chunk of time this was the edgiest music you could listen to in the company of your parents, and it was all terminally catchy, way before you could contextualize it enough to think it was corny. I think the realization that Will Smith, the musician, was corny happened for me during his second comeback, with “Switch.” Do you remember this shit?
Imagine that Will Smith had actually started out as a gangster rapper, and in his big back to the lab phase, he couldn’t get back to that place again because he was too rich. “Switch” would be quietly tragic. Is quietly tragic, still. He decided to be fun and family-friendly at some point in the late ’80s and never really figured out how to stop.
Kwak: I’ll say this: “Summertime” (1991) was Will Smith’s peak as a rapper; post-Fresh Prince, rap evolved and he didn’t. But give credit where credit is due: The song “Men in Black” was the absolute perfect vehicle to promote the film. The premise of the entire movie is laid out in the verses and hook. And I’d really like to have been a fly on the wall for the eureka moment when Will and his music team discovered that “Here come the Men in Black / Galaxy defenders” fit so perfectly over “Forget Me Nots.” They created a damn earworm.
I’m actually struggling to think of a song (and video) that did as much for a movie as this did. Is there one?
Peters: You’re right, I just keep coming up with other times that Will Smith looked really cool in all black dancing around a bargain-basement version of the set for whichever movie he was promoting. I love Wild Wild West unreservedly, but I think I love “Wild Wild West” more? Maybe it’s the “I Wish” sample, maybe it’s Sisqó singing about cowboy stuff with so much passion. Like he’s almost as passionate about Americana as he is about thongs.
But Donnie, I bet you prefer the Kool Moe Dee version, because it reminds you of when you were a young man on Wall Street, in 1987.
Kwak: Ah yes, me and my man Mohandas used to roll thick back then. (For the record, the best rap theme for a movie is still this.) While we’re referencing other songs here, may I remind you [adjusts hip-hop nerd spectacles] that three months prior to the release of “Men in Black,” the legendary Beatnuts dropped a B-side that flipped the identical Patrice Rushen sample. The song is called, poetically, “Give Me Tha Ass.”
Of the unfortunate coincidence, Psycho Les later said: “Because Sony owned the rights to Will Smith’s music and ours, when the ‘Men in Black’ thing came out they stopped promoting our record and put their resources into pushing his. Whatever, the street knows ours was better.”
It wasn’t the last time the Beatnuts would get beat-jacked, either: In 2002, on “Jenny From the Block,” J.Lo sang over the same flute sample featured in the Queens duo’s “Watch Out Now,” from three years prior. The connective thread here? Poke and Tone from the Trackmasters produced both “Men in Black” and “Jenny From the Block.” Shiesty!
But, uh, back to the lecture at hand. What’s your single favorite part of the “Men in Black” song and video? Is it Mikey the CGI alien’s footwork? Will’s “black suits fill the room” Biggie callback? Coko from SWV heard (but not seen) on the hook?
Peters: Oh it’s easily Coko from SWV, who’s also Mikey the CGI alien as it turns out. My favorite part of the whole video is halfway through the big dance number, when Mikey/Coko catches the spirit, peels off into the hook, and Will Smith looks at her/him/Z like this:
I think I’ll give this look 1.5 Will Smith reactions out of a possible three: It’s definitely a what the hell is that thing, and about half of an oh, hell no. Or rather, it’s an oh, hell no interrupted by a shiiiiit … I guess.
What I think we’re both trying to say is that “Men in Black” is perfect. It’s not that “Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head)” is bad by any measure, it’s just not anywhere near as perfect, or memorable. Like, I forgot about it right up until the point when it auto-played on YouTube, after I re-watched “Men in Black” for this blurb, just now.
Kwak: I could tell from the title of the sequel’s theme song alone that it would be bad. (Still better than Pitbull’s offering for Men in Black 3, though.) Which brings us to today, and Friday’s release of Men in Black: International—is there even a theme song for this? There’s a Fergie song labeled “Official Trailer Theme” on YouTube, a Missy song labeled “Official Trailer #2” and a the Heavy song labeled “Official International Trailer #2.” I made it about 45 seconds into each of them; none are good. And that leads me to this infallible conclusion: the better and more popular the “Men in Black” song, the better and more popular the Men in Black movie. By that logic, I fear for Men in Black: International. I fear it will suck. And brick. Badly.
Peters: What we will NOT do today is disparage the good cultural standing of “London Bridge,” nor will we pretend that “WTF,” despite the goofy Pharrell verse, did not—for a few weeks in 2015, if only then—slap. I will say that I’m with you on International, though: I, too, have the creeping feeling that it will suck, no matter how much chemistry Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth have, no matter how much I love Emma Thompson blinking in disbelief.
Still, though, the movie will have all of those things in it, and I’m sure there’ll be at least one Tessa Thompson banger buried in the soundtrack somewhere. (She has now snapped on both Creed soundtracks.) Hopefully that’ll be enough to carry what I’m hearing is a pretty graceless reboot. I’m not that hopeful, though. I guess the moral of the story is, if you want to top the box office, be seen spending $1 million on the music video, and also have Will Smith.