Deciphering Kanye West's Runaway

When this feature-length video was released a couple of weeks ago, it was met by some with a disorienting mixture of shock, confusion and appreciation, and by others with the unwavering clarity of ridicule.

Is Kanye West just an egocentric maniac, hell-bent on imposing his ‘creativity’ on everyone who’ll listen? Is he screaming so loud that even those not listening have no choice but to pay attention?

Or is it something more noble? Is he attempting a renaissance of the crumbling music industry with an injection of artistic integrity?

To fully make a judgement in either direction, you must first fully understand his biggest artistic project to date from a personal and creative perspective.

‘Blurring the lines’. A phrase that will ultimately represent Kanye’s career. From album-to-album he’s crossed boundaries, whether it’s between genres or in connecting his music with other arts: College Dropout revived the soul and hip-hop connection, Late Registration brought out Kanye’s visual creativity with a barrage of great videos, and Graduation combined dance, hip-hop, Japanese influences in artwork and video, and spawned one of the most original and elaborate tours in recent memory. Most recently, 808s and Heartbreak crossed over into the pop realm, and blurred the lines between an artist and a broken man, resulting in his most personal music to date. The human mind is conditioned to categorise and organise things rationally, but as Kanye has proven throughout his career (along with many others), in letting yourself accept a blurring of previously-accepted boundaries, you open yourself up to more possibilites and enjoyment.

Now it seems the line is blurred between film and music. In combining the storytelling narrative with the music, the synergetic outcome is an engaging audio-visual experience: the film and music work fine independently if you choose to only enjoy one or the other, but willingly sitting in the ‘grey area’ between the two is the only way you can fully decipher the messages and metaphors of the video.

‘You might think you’ve peeped the scene, you haven’t, the real one’s far too mean’.

Runaway starts with everything the ‘hip-hop listener’ came for: a great beat, a nice car and some clear raps. It’s a simple, unfussy introduction. However, it’s interspersed and eventually replaced by a combination of celestial and natural images that provide a powerful juxtaposition with those that preceded it, and at 02:40-03:00 the three images crash together: the phoenix, the Lamborghini and the deer are calm amidst a chaotic wreckage. Does this combination of factors represent the ‘arrival’ of Kanye West back in 2004? Given the biographical nature that manifests itself throughout the film, it’s highly likely.

First rule in this world baby: don’t pay attention to anything you see in the news‘.

The above quote is a fairly blunt social commentary, and really requires little analysis: question what you’re told by the news. It’s a mantra strengthened by Kanye’s comfortable referencing of the phoenix as ‘baby’, a term generally reserved for established, familiar relationships, which encourages the belief that the word of a real human interactor is stronger than anything ‘you see in the news’. This is the first evidence of self-indulgence on Kanye’s part, with the suggestion that his word in particular will carry more weight than that of others: it’s a romantic view that human-to-human words override dictated media, but ultimately displays ignorance of the flaws in human nature, specifically the power of lies. Unless, of course, that was the intention.

Kanye West is harbouring an alien. Visibly, it’s a phoenix from another world, but metaphorically it’s an extension of himself. There are things he doesn’t understand about it, but it’s familiar and he is tied to it. Despite this, he is quick to seperate the two parts of himself, and the self-doubt manifests itself with the phoenix being extradited to roam outside with other animals. However, the phoenix doesn’t know how to co-exist with these ‘animals’, which symbolise the conflicting facets of his own being that may be innocent and serene (the rabbit is especially poignant here), but largely incompatible and quick to leave the phoenix in isolation.

We’re then treated to our first musically-driven scene, with a revamped version of Power providing the accompaniment to a mutual communication between Kanye and the phoenix. Music is the universal language, and Kanye West has previously called himself the ‘voice of a generation’: this is a piece of self-appreciation from Kanye, but the kind of brash arrogance that has made Kanye West incredibly magnetic for the last 6 years. However, assuming the biographical perspective, this also represents a ‘coming together’ of his alien and himself. It is through the music that they are united, and with endless controversy and drama surrounding his life, it’s entirely possible that music became the sole platform whereby Kanye West experienced completeness and freedom.

A boy runs across the screen shortly after, exuding vibrancy, happiness and freedom.

A celebratory transitional scene follows, supported by the triumphant All Of The Lights. With the song set to feature 11 of the industry’s leading lights, this scene is unquestionably a celebration of music itself, typified by the bright, colourful homage to the previous ‘voice of a generation’, Michael Jackson. Once again, Kanye and the phoenix are united in a childish happiness, gazing in wonderment at the various visual stimuli. This is followed by a fiery explosion, the likes of which we last saw after the opening scene: these are surely representative of turning points in Kanye’s life, specifically negative incidents, each progressively threatening the unity of the phoenix and himself.

‘Do you know she’s a bird? No, I never noticed that’.

Compare a cup of tea to a soft drink. Tea is viewed as a much more cultured, refined choice, and the use of a teacup to develop humanity in the phoenix represents Kanye’s attempt at conformity: he wants the phoenix to fit into his world and is attempting to reduce the impact of its visual/physical differences by teaching sophistication. It’s a learning process, but appears to be successful.

We’re moved to a banquet scene, which serves as both a damning commentary on the prejudices of society, and a reflection on role reversals. The banqueters and waitresses are ‘seperated’ by colour, but in a reversed society to that of many years ago. Whilst it could be mistaken for a racist division, the use of the ‘seperation’ appears purely to highlight the incredible power wielded by African-Americans in today’s USA, in contrast to the oppressive days now consigned exclusively to textbooks. However, the truly damning indictment comes in the seemingly humourous line quoted above. Kanye’s exasperated response displays infuriation at the need to judge and persecute based upon physical difference, despite the phoenix attempting to fit in with the other banqueters: she offers to ‘break bread’ with a neighbour, a term often used in hip-hop to represent sharing money or success. Biographically, this represents Kanye attempting to help peers or friends, but being shunned for prejudices with possibly physical/racial origins.

‘And I always find something wrong. You been putting up with my sh** for way too long’.

West’s annoyance manifests itself with another musical scene, with the callous Runaway hook having particular significance when targeted at his dining companions. When put into the context of the phoenix being an extension of himself, the meaning behind the song becomes clearer: he wants the conspicious, unpredictable phoenix to ‘runaway from me’. The performance itself is beautifully supplemented by the ballet dancers, who add a subtlety and variety to the video. Their chaotic dispersion in the foreground belies the closely-packed background, which has some parallels with the ‘news’ quote from earlier in the film: if you focus too much on a few small details, you lose sight of what’s really happening behind the ‘frenzy’.

The arrival of a peacock, something Kanye’s been frequently compared to, leads to another ‘explosion’. The phoenix’s nature compells it to react impulsively to the arrival, drawing more attention to its differences and in doing so scattering everyone surrounding Kanye, resulting in the undoing of the attempted social adjustment. A mirror of the Taylor Swift incident, whereby West’s inner impulses and ‘peacocking’ nature led him to alienate the majority of the public. After his previous transgressions, his attempts to recover people were ultimately futile as he was his own worst enemy, once again.

‘Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different you try to change’.

Once again, the alien is put outside and observed from a distance. This time Kanye is shown in a much more studious observation, accompanied by a very appropriate song: Blame Game is perfect for the scenario, highlighting the internal struggle that must have followed the incident. With this track and the one that follows, Lost In The World, we’re given the strongest audio-visual combination of the entire film, as it moves towards an artistic piece with the saliency of the music with the context of the storyline.

The phoenix cannot suitably fit in ‘this world’, and has to be set free in order for it to truly blossom as it should. The phoenix must be allowed to burn, and the entire process comes full circle. As it was said in The Dark Knight, ‘you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’. Kanye West was forced to part with the phoenix before she turned to stone, in a similar manner to his need to abandon his reckless nature before it consumed his career and turned him into the villain.

Does the video end as it started, or start as it ends? Is this a biography, or a story? Is it an album sampler, or a film? To answer those questions, I’m forced to end where I started:

Blurring the lines. A phrase that will ultimately represent Kanye’s career.

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