Kanye West's 'Runaway' Video: How Much Art Can You Handle?

A still from Kanye West's 'Runaway'
'Runaway' via Vevo

In all honesty, it just took me a while to deal with it. Runaway, Kanye West's new 35-minute music video that desperately wants to be called a film, premiered on MTV and BET and then hit the internet on Saturday. I watched it Sunday night. The responsible blogger in me felt a need to post about it yesterday, but I just couldn't.

West himself might appreciate that hesitation even while it bugs the heck out of him. Going back to his "first rapper with a Benz and a backpack" days, he's spent so much of the last decade trying to be two things at once: the embodiment of a pop star and a singular artist. He wants immediate celebration, but he also wants thoughtful, considered artistic appraisal.

Knowing that he's got some big, serious project in the offing inspires both anticipation and a little bit of dread. I know it'll be an intricately constructed piece of work with a few moments of astonishing beauty. It might be provocative. It might be a little embarrassing. It'll almost definitely attempt to grapple with the entirety of who Kanye West has become in his own mind as well as in the public eye, and it'll likely be exhausting.

YouTube

Runaway fits that bill. The luxe video, filmed in Prague, looks like it costs millions (in place of an actual dollar amount, let's just quote Pusha T, from his guest verse on the song at the video's centerpiece: "Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet / Comes with a price tag, baby, face it.") I'll let Kanye describe the plot, via an interview he gave New York magazine's The Cut blog last month: "It's the story of a phoenix fallen to Earth, and I make her my girlfriend, and people discriminate against her and eventually she has to burn herself alive and go back to her world."

West's mixing up his mythology here: technically (pushes glasses up bridge of nose), a Phoenix doesn't start flying then fall to earth — it rises from the ashes of destruction. Icarus fell to earth. But then again, West is mixing a lot of  references on Runaway.

At almost 35 minutes, Runaway has time to squeeze in an extended ballet scene, multiple explosions, a bit of gadget/interior design porn, pot shots at both the media and vain artists, and lots of super slo-mo camera work. Though it's ostensibly a promo video for the song of the same name, Runaway includes clips of seven or eight other new songs — many of which have been leaked by West as part of his "G.O.O.D. Fridays" series of mp3 releases to tease his upcoming album — or in the a capella performances he gave this summer at social networking sites (performances that in retrospect seem even less spontaneous than they did at the time).

The inclusion of those songs, and the design obsession, and all of the references to contemporary artists link it back to West's Twitter feed, which in this context starts looking like not just the highly entertaining ramblings of a star with enough time and money on his hands to indulge his every whim and enough intelligence to comment on that indulgence at a constant clip, but a training course for understanding the references he would throw into Runaway.

Attentive followers will see callbacks to (culminations of?) posts on twitter.com/kanyewest all over the video: I recognize that imagery as the work of Vanessa Beecroft, one of Kanye's favorite artists! How expensive are those suits? Are the clothes he's running in during the video's opening made by Lanvin?

Keeping up with an artist who puts out this much material, and who drapes it in so many layers of anxiety and awareness and self-reference, is just one of the reasons that West's efforts can seem off-puttingly overwrought. But he really wants his audience to take him seriously. In demanding this much of our time, West has made clear that he intends to make a grand artistic statement with Runaway.

Is it art? Or just a vanity project? Whether the video contains more than just West's finely honed sense of aesthetics is something I can't wrap my head around right now. The elements by themselves are enough to tackle without trying to incorporate the whole. The music is surprising and compelling. West has an eye for interesting, slightly off-balance compositions, and seems to value steady, patient editing. Runaway is beautiful and interminable, and I watched the whole thing more than once.

West wrote on Twitter, just before the video aired on Saturday, that he considers himself blessed to be a "creative" with "commercial ideas." That seems about right. He's proven himself expert above all else at selling a version of Kanye West so luxurious and expensive that it draws a line between him and his audience that is unbreachable — even as he makes himself, or a version of himself, almost constantly available to us.

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