MOSCOW -- With breathtaking drone views of the Moscow skyline and scenes of the dynamic urban life unfolding below, Timati's latest music video was bound to get noticed.
But it's unlikely that one of Russia's best-known rappers expected the backlash it would provoke.
The clip for Moscow, a track featuring Timati and fellow rapper GUF, has proven so unpopular on YouTube that Timati removed it from the video-sharing platform after just two days.
But not before it received over 1 million "dislikes," handing the two artists the record of largest negative rating in the history of Russian YouTube.
It all came down to sycophantic lyrics and dismal timing.
The clip, versions of which have been copied and uploaded after its deletion by prescient YouTube users, is a paean to Moscow, a city that has emerged from the Soviet and tsarist eras as an architectural smorgasbord and major metropolis of over 12 million inhabitants.
But most controversially, Timati's verses include a veiled condemnation of rallies in support of free elections, which rocked the capital for weeks ahead of a September 8 city-council vote, and a shout-out to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Kremlin ally accused of corruption and blamed for a violent crackdown on the protest movement.
"A fifth-generation, native Muscovite, I don't attend protests," Timati raps in the video, over panoramic views of Moscow landmarks. "I'll chomp a burger to Sobyanin's health."
The song was released ahead of the Moscow City Duma election, which became the catalyst for the protests after the authorities barred numerous independent and opposition candidates from the ballot.
Timati has long played a key role in the Kremlin's outreach to Russia's youth, penning laudatory verses about President Vladimir Putin and posing with him at his 2018 reelection party. In the court of public opinion, his latest effort was widely judged to go a step too far.
In an Instagram post announcing the video's removal on September 9, Timati said he had "no intention of offending anyone." He defended his song and his praise of the Moscow administration.
"I love my city, and right now it looks better than at any time in the 36 years of my life," he wrote. "And for that I'm infinitely thankful to those who made that happen -- respect!!"
In the comments section, many people accused the rapper of selling out and sucking up to the government.
"I'm not ashamed, I wasn't paid, and I'm not saving my business," he wrote back to one comment. "I'm holding to my views and don't change according to the public's demands."
He then added an allegation that people who protest in Moscow receive money from "handlers" who sponsor the unrest, seeming to repeat a false narrative peddled almost daily on Russian state TV.
Moscow has indeed undergone major changes under Sobyanin, with the city center modernized even as political freedoms have continued to be curtailed. But the uproar over Timati's pro-government lyrics comes amid a broader cultural battle in Russia.
With its soaring popularity among the country's youth, rap music has increasingly become a platform for political expression. The authorities have responded to its rise with a campaign to sideline a host of prominent performers -- last winter, the concerts of several acts across Russia were canceled at short notice, and a number of venues raided by police.
The campaign culminated on November 21 with the very public arrest of rapper Husky, who was seized by police before a throng of his fans as he performed atop a car roof outside a venue that had canceled his performance following warnings from prosecutors that his music contained "elements of extremism." Husky was subsequently sentenced to 12 days in jail for hooliganism.
Timati's YouTube milestone was first reported by ZhYu (short for "YouTube Life"), a page on Russian social network VKontakte that shares online videos with short commentaries. The previous anti-record, according to the site, belonged to fellow Russian rapper Face.
Face's song I'm Dropping The West, which features clips of him dancing atop a burning U.S. flag and burning Manhattan skyscrapers, was supposed to be a mockery of the jingoism that swept Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Instead, it earned Face 676,000 "dislikes" on YouTube and over 17 million views.
On August 10, Face stood on stage before some 60,000 protesters on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue, to perform before the largest anti-government rally for free elections in almost a decade. "I'm performing today so that my nation has freedom and the power to choose," he said.
The presence of several other rappers alongside Face that day, including some acts that had concerts canceled in previous months, brought home for many the political rift in the country's rap scene.
As if to drive the point home, some Russians have begun to merge the two sides of the barricades: a video featuring scenes of police violence on Moscow's streets, with Timati's rap Moscow as a musical accompaniment, has already garnered 100,000 views.