Kanye West is a man for whom there is no such thing as half-steppin’. When Kanye walks on the scene, he Leo Struts. (Sorry, I’m still in NaNoWriMo mode, I’ll try to even out the reference based humour before the end of this paragraph.) His music videos have always reflected the themes in his lyrics that no other rapper is touching these days. Ever since Flashing Lights explored the hip hop tropes of beautiful girls in lingerie, fast cars and crime in a way that reversed the power dynamic of the entire set-up, Kanye West has been the only hip hop artist really exploring the visual side of hip hop. We have thousands of videos from every artist–rich, poor, major, minor–all built around the same things. Cars, clothes, cash and attractive ladies. Mr. West has been the only artist to explore these themes and their implications through both song and video.
His new music video, Runaway, is a complex beast of a project. At thirty-four minutes long, it is possibly the shortest thing I will ever review on this website. It’s also the best hip hop music video I’ve ever seen. Daring, complex, constructed entirely in metaphor, but built with a hip hop mindset. It’s also, you know, over thirty minutes long and contains nine songs. On the most basic level, Runaway can be seen as a response to the response to Kanye West’s previous video, Power. Power was just over ninety seconds long and only contained one and a half verses and two choruses to its runtime. Power is also one of my favourite rap videos ever made. It functions not as a video, per se, but more as a portrait. A painting of the artist at a time in his life when he is simultaneously the king on his throne and the penitent in the noose he hung himself. Power is a collection of images and sounds that, when viewed, convey Kanye West as he stands today. 90 seconds? That’s pretty incredible.
Runaway, at thirty minutes, is much more, yet also composed of the same. It seems to be a response from Kanye as he would have intended it. People complained that Power was too short–what better to give them than a 30+ minute video? People complained that they didn’t hear all of Power in its own music video–Runaway contains nine songs, in various states of wholeness. Some are reduced to experimental improvised outros, some are cut off abruptly less than two verses in, the title track is extended to twice its runtime with an instrumental jam as long as the song itself. People complained that Power didn’t have a plot. Runaway is nothing but a plot, conveyed with minimal dialogue and using colour/music to let you feel as often as it uses characters.
The plot of the story is simple. Griffin, the Kanye West character, finds a phoenix in the woods after having seen a comet trail all the way to the ground outside of his house. He takes her home and decides to teach her how to live in human society. After showing her several things that have inspired him throughout his life, she’s filled with rapture. He takes her out to dinner among high society. However, they shun and hate her, telling Kanye to “leave the monkey in the zoo”. When she sees that the main course is an animal like her, her furious weeping ends the night early. Later on, she and him have a conversation about where statues came from. She insists that they are phoenix turned to stone, not allowed to burn to escape this world. While he tells her that he’s never going to leave her, she still takes flight the next morning, leaving him stranded and helpless.
Get it? Griffin is the artist and the phoenix is talent, or what the Romans meant by genius.
Genius was not something a person was, genius was something any person was possessed by. At any point in your life, genius can grab you and affect you in ways unforeseen to anyone. The phoenix comes into Griffin’s life in such a way that mirrors the automobile collision that led to Kanye West writing “Through the Wire”. This is because the phoenix is a direct representation of Kanye West’s experiences with being possessed by genius. His genius sees his inspiration and is filled with wonder. He tells his talent to ignore everything said in the news because all it will do is hamper its instincts. When he shows his talent in public, he is shamed by his community and told to keep it locked up, away from their eyes. Being talented, for Kanye, has only ever led to misery.
Moreso, his talent is an animal, like the animals in his garden, like the animals on the dinner table. He keeps talent like her in his backyard until it’s brought out to be consumed by everyone else in the world. She, representing his talent, is horrified at this mistreatment of inspiration. Talent is not something to be traded upon, sacrificed and consumed by the ravenous public who, unless they’re consuming the end result, don’t want to see it. Talent is meant to be used to create works of art that will stand forever. The key to this interpretation comes from the phoenix’s insistence that statues are phoenix turned to stone. They are literally, to her, talent made physical by being trapped within this world.
None of these are themes you get in a Lil Wayne song. None of these are themes you can find in an N.W.A album. Kanye West deals with themes of art, passion and loss with an eye for clean, efficient staging and an immaculate sense of metaphorical storytelling. All of this talk of the story of Runaway also misses the point of this video. The point is to showcase the music therein. The music is damned good, elaborating upon the themes of artistic struggle and loss with a hip hop vernacular and viewpoint unique to ‘Ye.
The video ends with the phoenix flying into the sky, abandoning Griffin to save itself. What is Kanye telling us? Perhaps that he’s spent his energy getting to the top by, he feels, losing his talent and inspiration. And this is where he stands: a man at the top, afraid to look down. No one man should have all that power, indeed.