The Visual Album: Kanye West's Runaway

Kanye West’s entire career rested on what he would put out in 2010. Despite releasing four classic hip-hop albums from 2004 to 2008, West’s career was on the brink of ruin following his infamous debacle at the 2009 MTV VMAs. After storming the stage to argue that Beyoncé deserved the Video of the Year Award over Taylor Swift, West was ostracized and even marked a “jackass” by President Obama. Many doubted whether he could recover from the controversy. To silence the critics, West disappeared for months to Hawaii, recording music in an open studio, where he and his collaborators were required to wear suits at all times. The result: his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably the greatest hip-hop album of the 21st century. The album celebrated its sixth anniversary this Tuesday, but shortly before releasing his album to critical acclaim, West first released a half-hour long short film set to many of the songs that would appear on the album.      

Over the past few weeks, I’ve covered three other visual albums: Frank Ocean’s Endless, Drake’s Please Forgive Me, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d. city. Each was unique in its own right-one experimental, the other wishing to be an action feature, and the first an intimate portrayal of the artistic process. Kanye West’s Runaway can be seen as a mixture of these unique works, combining a familiar storyline with daring visuals, incredible music, and potent messaging.     

The film opens to the Mozart piece ‘Lacrimosa’, as West, given the name Griffin, runs towards the camera with the forest on both sides. As we see Griffin drive in his fancy car, a half-phoenix, half-women creature crashes down to Earth in a meteorite. The ensuing explosion causes Griffin to crash his car, in a manner that harkens back to West’s car accident early in his career. Griffin exits the car, saves the phoenix, and carries her in his arms. This seems to be the beginning of a beautiful love story. The beauty however, as is portrayed in many West’s songs and stories, is only evanescent.

In the following scene, Griffin interrupts the phoenix while she watches a news broadcast. As he turns the television off, he tells her “The first rule in this world baby: don’t pay attention to anything you see in the news.” One can only imagine the number of times West has told himself this same exact sentiment over the years. Next, the phoenix discovers all that the Earth has to offer in the forms of pastures and sheep, paralleling the Biblical garden of Eden, while West delivers his most powerful verses in the song ‘Gorgeous.’ While the lush imagery and beautiful cinematography match with the song’s title, the lyrics are far from such. “Cop look like Alec Baldwin/Face it, Jerome gets more time than Brandon” paints a bleak picture of current society. While these lyrics call to modern day issues of police brutality and prejudice, West portrays these as dissonant from the issues the phoenix focuses on. New to a seemingly beautiful world, she lacks the foresight to delve deeper into this new world’s issues, like many around this country. The first act of the film concludes with West and the phoenix marveling at a procession set to West’s 'Power,' a celebration rife with a marching band, men in red KKK-esque hoods, and a giant Michael Jackson bust. Throughout the film, race plays a pivotal role. For West, it is imperative for him to empower himself and those similar to him, in a manner owning those institutions that may have once overpowered him.

At a dinner with the phoenix, Griffin, and his friends, there is visible discomfort and chatter. Griffin’s guests give condescending looks towards the odd ‘creature’ in front of them. As an all-white staff serves the all-black aristocratic table (an image of West’s utopia, perhaps), Griffin lashes out his anger towards the disrespect toward the phoenix in the form of music, appropriately. He gets up, sits at a piano as a group of ballerinas join him, and performs his iconic song ‘Runaway,’ widely regarded as the quintessential Kanye West track. This scene is seven minutes of absolute bliss, featuring the song that allowed West to regain public favor after the Taylor Swift incident. In the same song in West cries out, “Let’s toast for the douchebags/Let’s have a toast for the assholes/Baby I got a plan/ Run away as fast as you can”. This is West at his most vulnerable, and this scene foreshadows the dissolution of his relationship with the phoenix when she is served a bird for dinner. The phoenix repulses at the thought of eating one of her own, but should Griffin not have seen this play out in his head already? This scene portrays Griffin, and by extension Kanye himself, as one of the “assholes” and “douchebags” he celebrates in 'Runaway'.

The world we humans inhabit is not the world for the phoenix, and she explains so to West: “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different you try to change.” After delivering perhaps the ultimate indictment of the world we live in, she disappears and returns to the sky. Waking up the next morning after making love, West runs back along the forests, but his attempt to retrieve her proves unsuccessful.      

Despite the film’s triumphs, Runaway is far from perfect. Its flaws, however, only add to the larger than life presence that is Kanye West. During one of West’s infamous Twitter rants, he expressed remorse that he cast himself in the lead role. Rather, he admits that his fellow rapper and CEO of his label Pusha T would have been a wiser choice. West’s poor, often stilted delivery detracts from the film. However, the film is West’s canvas, and he is willing to expose himself to the world to see his flaws.

At some point, West just wanted everybody to like him. Early in West’s career, he wanted to be redeemed in the eyes of everyone else, such as after he declared that “George Bush does not care about black people” on live television. With Runaway, West realized he needed to look within himself for acceptance first. As a fan of West, the past week has been extremely difficult. I’ve seen him end a show after twenty-five minutes, have his messages completely misconstrued by the media, and most recently, learned of his hospitalization for a psychiatric evaluation. One thing is clear–West needs to redeem himself in the only way he knows how, which is through his art, whether it be through his visual pieces, songs, or his fashion line. If he needs to follow through on his own advice and run away, he should. He doesn’t owe the public anything, only himself and his family. Us on the outside? We’re lucky just to be part of the ride.