I am not entirely sure that Kanye West knows how a phoenix works. He does, however, know how to make a gorgeous, self-indulgent, gorgeously self-indulgent piece of art. Nowhere is that clearer than his recent 34-minute epic “Runaway,” a music video—can you really call it that?—straining at the seams to be something larger than itself, not unlike Mr. West himself.
In “Runaway,” Kanye tells a story about falling in love with a phoenix that has fallen to Earth, which is his first strike because phoenixes don’t do that, Icarus does. His second strike is the notion that a phoenix is an alien creature that needs to burst into flame to return to its home world. But he doesn’t get a third strike because none of this really matters: although West might not be pleased with this appraisal, the plot definitely cedes the stage to the pure aesthetics: all the lush visuals, sharp editing, and most importantly, the soundtrack. Please, no heavy-handed social critique, I just want good, G.O.O.D. music. He delivered (both)!
And as you may have suspected, there is more than one song in here. At the core of the video (the middle eight minutes) is the song “Runaway” in its entirety, and it’s bookended by bits and pieces of other tracks, some of which appeared in his G.O.O.D. Fridays series, and most of which will apparently appear on his upcoming album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” This bodes well for that album.
It is worth mentioning that Kanye has a lot of friends helping out on this video, lending verses and reeling off hooks left and right. Nicki Minaj delivers an odd prologue, speaking entirely in a syrupy British accent—a venomous sing-song that, if nothing else, reaffirms the fact that she is clinically insane. After that cryptic little introduction, the video unwraps like eye candy of the highest order: ’Ye in a dope Czech car cruising through some washed-out woods under a peach-flesh sky. Once in a while, the camera cuts to some indeterminate fiery thing hurtling through the sky, but mostly it’s like a tasteful car commercial. West and Pusha T drop solid verses over some masterful RZA production, everyone’s happy, and nothing really weird has happened yet.
But after a bit of this, Kanye’s joyride is rudely interrupted by the phoenix (surprise! That was the indeterminate fiery thing), who crash-lands on the road ahead. The rapper wrecks his car and gets out and finds the bird facedown on the pavement. I have hitherto neglected to mention that the phoenix is a Victoria’s Secret model who is functionally but not literally—thanks to some clever costume design—naked. As he carries her away from the wreckage, the car explodes in appropriately dramatic fashion. “Runaway” is equal parts gawdy excess and fine art, juxtaposing cheesy explosions and haute couture. This is all very, very Kanye West; he has come to relish that kind of brash mashing of high and low culture. He demands the biggest mushroom clouds and the flyest threads, and will settle for no less.
From here on out it’s a love story. Kanye rehabilitates the phoenix. He lets her play with animals, including a deer and a bunny and a lamb, all of which are actual animals and not lingerie models. He mashes at a drum machine and she writhes gawkily to the beat. He watches fireworks with her as a marching band parades a large glowing model of Michael Jackson’s head. He gives her a teacup and watches as her talons struggle to clutch it. And then he takes her to a dinner party, where black-clad white ballerinas perform for white-clad black diners with blank-faced white waiters. Enter the dominant theme of this movie: discrimination. When Kanye’s date sits down for her meal, the other diners whisper mean things because, well she’s a mythical firebird, and this is a party for humanfolk, and later she complains about it: “Do you know what I hate most about this world? Anything that is different you try to change.” Preachy phoenix!
So while Kanye the pop genius could’ve served up a simple love story with an exquisite soundtrack, Kanye the provocative artiste wanted to drape some opaque racial commentary over it. Sure, the phoenix ordeal gives your story a little bit of conflict, but why throw in all those other incoherent touches: red KKK robes, white waiters serving black diners, maybe even the inexplicable MJ effigy. Why even bother making a racial statement if you’re just going to sort of listlessly half-ass it? These random details are distracting and meaningless, and frankly, only a few shades more sophisticated than saying straight-up, “George Bush doesn’t care about phoenix people.” Yes, although this film is at times deliriously beautiful, it is also pretty frustrating.
In light of that, I found myself watching and re-watching the beautiful parts—especially the title track. Halfway through the dinner party, Mr. West walks off to start plinking at a nearby piano, which prompts a whole troupe of ballerinas to file into the room. Soon the plinks take on an icy sheen and are joined by a hi-hat and a menacing synth rumble. It’s just a delicately constructed, beautiful piece of music, equal parts crystalline trip-hop and heartfelt confessional.
Heavy emphasis on the confessional: Kanye is known for his uncomfortably acute self-awareness (check his Twitter), and it reaches its absolute peak here. He is a huge public spectacle, but he doubles as an attentive observer of that spectacle, able to criticize himself from a detached viewpoint. He refers to real-life incidents (“I sent this bitch a picture of my dick / I don’t know what it is with females / But I’m not too good at that shit”) and generally owns up to all his frailties and fuckups in a very honest, unflinching way. The chorus is a mock toast to bad people, and Mr. West enumerates all manner of unsavory folk: “let’s have a toast for the douchebags,” he days, and adds “assholes,” “scumbags,” “jerkoffs.” Judging by this song, he certainly includes himself in that number.
Watching him sing all this—as he’s standing up on a piano, fidgeting and twisting like a pre-tantrum toddler—I was transfixed. It all looked so guileless and child-like that for those eight minutes I was pretty convinced that this guy understood himself better than anyone gives him credit for. In Kanye, colossal ego and crippling vulnerability converge; the result is sheer entertainment. So while Mr. West misfires on the racial commentary in “Runaway,” the personal commentary is pretty potent. And lest we forget that this whole musical self-flagellation is set to a complex dance sequence, keep an eye out for that sublime moment where the drums drop out and all the ballerinas freeze in place and the cameras pan around it. You can tell it’s real because once in a while you spot a twitch.
I can’t even imagine how many takes that shot took. I can’t even imagine the level of perfection that ‘Ye demanded of his production crew, looking at all of all the random aesthetic minutiae that makes this video tick. Blueberries are strewn all over the white tablecloth in dense fruit clouds; the phoenix wears nice spindly golden talons on her fingers. In fact her entire costume—and this entire movie—is carefully wrought decadence. This is appropriate, because apparently the rapper intended for the phoenix to represent his career. That career-as-phoenix metaphor is interesting for two reasons. First, because he falls in love with the phoenix, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Kanye is in love with his career—he gets so much mileage out of being his own biggest fan. And second, because it means his career is going to (***spoiler!***) hurtle into the sky and incinerate itself while wearing a Wonder Woman breastplate.
I don’t know about the incineration. The hurtling into the sky might be more accurate: if these songs are any indicator, this might be Kanye West’s best LP yet. I haven’t given the songs enough credit; after all, the only reason anyone could successfully make this movie is because all the tracks are that cinematic, that huge and ambitious. There is still so much deep genius buried in this guy, and “Runaway” is proof positive of that. It also proves that there’s still a lot of bullshit buried in him, but Kanye wouldn’t be Kanye without both.