The Black Gatsby and His Muse: Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’

Revisiting Kanye's 'Runaway' film, five years later.
By    September 15, 2015

Runaway lede

Brian Josephs would cast Idris Elba to play Ghostface Killah

Let’s be real here: Unless we’re talking about sneakers, West has been unreliable on nearly all fronts these past two years. His A&R skills need work. His singles don’t stick. His political sloganeering leaves a lot to be desired. That MTV Video Vanguard award comes when his recent batting average with music videos has been slightly past decent. Kanye West’s “Only One” video stars his daughter, so that’s out of cynical criticism’s reach. But how long are we going to pretend “Black Skinhead” isn’t a glitchy PlayStation 2 cutscene?

West’s missteps feel more egregious because of how he openly buys into his own hype. Self-aggrandizement and gratification are why he’s an easy bullseye for #hottakes. They point to those two attributes to what obfuscates his greatness. But that’s inaccurate. When used correctly and given the right conduit, they augment his art. West found a space to do so during a four-day stay in Prague. Before West rolled through Hot 97 in a suit, we got Runaway — touted as this generation’s Thriller.

Kanye West’s Griffin plays a Gatsby-esque character, throwing a lavish party that only clothes desire. There are a few key differences; for one, Griffin is separated from his love by an inter-species complications rather than a white supremacist. It’s also an imperfect 35 minutes. West mistakes what he calls his “white voice” for acting. And in the long run, Thriller is ultimately more ubiquitous because you can dance to it. To my knowledge, brothers don’t bust out ballerina routines at block parties very often. The metaphors are obvious too. Someone with a working understanding of Psychology 101 could assume that the phoenix could represent Kanye West’s id. Ya man’s a bird.

But people don’t flock to West for nuance and brevity. Any possible metaphors are distilled for coolness. Take the Stanley Kubrick-styled pacing of West remixing “Power” in front of his dancing phoenix. This could symbolize him nourishing his creative self, but at the same time, oh shit, he’s killing it on the MPC. West is also a silhouetted figure carrying his winged bride away from an exploding Lambo. What modern image is more masculine than that, other than maybe a flaming phallus?

Some cringed at the film’s flamboyance — from the thematic use of the color of passion to the image of West lying in loafers — exhausted by phoenix pussy post-coitus. But that ostentatiousness and maximalism is Runaway’s greatness. It’s been five years since MTV premiered it and there still hasn’t been a musical expression of pure excess that’s this creative. Fucking with rollies is a distant second. Future’s cool, but Ye was out here hosting his own Last Supper in a tux.

Runaway’s audacity also comes from how it intends to be a monument. The grandiose “All Of The Lights” parade scene contains a quiet reminder that the ecstasy eventually fades. It’s where the band procession leads the gigantic Michael Jackson bust with capirotes and angelic figures guarding it. Jackson is canonized here, but only after decades of tabloid and personal crucifixion. Then there’s the random child with the red smoke flare, a mini-arc West broke down in the post-premiere interview with Sway.

“He’s running and running at top speed holding his torch, and his torch represents his thoughts and ideals. At the end, after he’s been cultivated, he has the hood on now and he’s walking extremely slow. That’s basically how people think,” he explains. “It’s the way society has set people up to be able to control them, slave mentalities.”

We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t talk about the ballerina sequence as much as I’d be kidding you if I claimed my knowledge of ballets extends beyond Misty Copeland. But maybe West’s relevance is roughly like those ballerinas in that hanger. He favors abrasion over pirouettes, but as singular—and as much of an outsider he claims to be—he’s on-beat, coloring staid walls of award show speech conventions and profitable art with his audacity.

So, as far as your standard hip-hop/NBA comparisons go, comparing Kanye West to Serena Williams is more apt than Michael Jordan. They don’t shimmy over boundaries; they struggle and emote as they will themselves through them. To experience West is to experience someone who is loud, verbose, and tactless. But his knotty rhetoric is tied together by one reason: If my words fail, look at the grandness of my work.

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