Music video commentaries (5) – Kanye West

Kanye West, Runaway (Kanye West, 2010)

Runaway pushes the boundaries of the music video, turning it into a 34-minute (including credits) short film. West conceived the story and directed the film; among his many collaborators is Hype Williams, who is credited with the screenplay. The film contains an extended version of West’s song Runaway, together with other songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), arguably his best album, and one that seems to be coming from a very dark place; the songs are filled with misery, fear, and self-reproach.
Runaway has a loose narrative. It concerns Kanye’s relationship with a magical woman with wings (the model Selita Ebanks). She seems like, perhaps, an angel; but she is identified in the film as a bird, and specifically as a phoenix (the mythological bird that renews its life periodically by bursting into flames and reanimating itself from the ashes). At the beginning of the film, she crashes to earth; Kanye, driving through the forest, finds her unconscious and takes her home in his arms. We see her at home; then Kanye takes her out, first to see a Carnival-like procession, then to an elaborate banquet. Towards the end, she tells him she needs to leave and go home; at the end of the film, she burns/renews herself and ascends; Kanye cannot stop her.
The story is told less through dialogue and physical action – both of which are reduced to a minimum – than through a series of tableaus, often accompanied by songs from the album. The beginning of the film shows us shots both of Kanye driving and of him running through the woods – the latter shots turn out to be flash-forwards to when Kanye futilely runs after the phoenix at the end of the film. During this opening portion, we hear a selection from Mozart (Lacrimosa, a passage about tears and lamentation from his Requiem Mass), and Nicki Minaj gives a voiceover (in a British accent, for some reason) about the perils of fame. We then see the phoenix in Kanye’s house, twitching on the couch, and watching a TV news broadcast about her crash. Kanye (shown in a separate shot) tells her never to trust the media. The phoenix seems both innocent and curious. Human things are a puzzle to her. She communes with animals connoting innocence (sheep, rabbit, deer) in Kanye’s enclosed inner courtyard; and she dances, as if discovering how to do so, as Kanye plays a song for her (Power, but without the vocals) on a sampler. The implications of all this part of the film are Edenic: the phoenix is innocent, awakening into a marvelous new world.
We next see the odd Carnivalesque procession, with a marching band, some dancers, and fireworks in the background. Kanye and the phoenix look on in wonder. The procession carries a huge carnival float of Michael Jackson. The music is Kanye’s song All of the Lights (we saw an entirely separate video for this song, directed by Hype Williams, earlier in the semester). But at the end of the procession, there are marchers in Ku Klux Klan hoods (more or less: the hoods are red, and resonate with medieval Catholic festivals, I think from Spain; but the relation to KKK hoods is unavoidable). This tableau moves us away from innocence, and towards a sense of the complexity (including racism and other evil) of the actual world. We also see the phoenix playing with a cup, as if she were figuring out for the very first time what it does, and how to use it. Despite her initial innocence, she is descending into the fallen world.
The centerpiece of the film is the elaborate banquet sequence. In an enormous hall, there is a long banquet table, with white chairs and a white tablecloth. All the guests are black people dressed in fancy white. Well back from the table stand the servers, all white people, also dressed entirely in white. Kanye enters, wearing white and purple, with the phoenix who is bedecked with jewelry etc (in the early sequences, she was close to naked). We see people gossiping at the appearance of the phoenix. Kanye’s song Devil in a New Dress plays on the soundtrack, with its talk of the opposed realities of Jesus and the Devil. One of the guests turns to Kanye and tells him, “Your girlfriend is really beautiful. Do you know she’s a bird?” Kanye awkwardly replies that he hadn’t noticed. The man continues, more or less mumbling so that he can barely be heard, “I mean, like, leave the monkey in the zoo.” The whole scene is disturbing, all the more so in that the guests mostly mask their scorn behind smiles and whispers.
This leads into the song “Runaway” itself. Kanye starts by playing the piano, then a whole crew of ballerinas, dressed in black leotards and tutus, and mostly white people (I thought I saw one Asian among them) do a ballet interpretation of the song, while Kanye stands on top of the piano and sings/raps (i.e.lip syncs). The song is extended with an instrumental coda during which we see a solo dance by one of the ballerinas. I am not sure what to make of the choreography here. But the song itself is lacerating and self-lacerating, with Kanye talking about his own inadequcies in relationships, and also offering a “toast to the douchebags… the assholes… the scumbags… the jerkoffs.” (The diners all join him in this toast).
After this lengthy musical number, we return to the awkwardness of the formal dinner. Servers put the main dishes on the table; they deposit an elaborately prepared turkey in front of Kanye and the phoenix. She starts screaming – a bird reacting to the murder of another bird – and the guests all leave. This is accompanied by Kanye’s song Hell of a Life (though, according to Wikipedia, there is also a version of the film where this song is replaced by Monster. Both songs are filled with horror).
The phoenix screams continue while we cut to a shot of the explosion/fire from the beginning (or the end?) of the film. Another Kanye song then comes up on the soundtrack — Blame Game, with a lyrical piano, and half-sung lyrics about a couple arguing and blaming one another — while the phoenix sits again in the Edenic inner garden with the peaceful animals, while (in a separate shot) Kanye stares at her from inside the house, through a floor to ceiling window. This cuts to a shot of clouds gathering, as the song dies away.
Next, we see Kanye and the phoenix, in silhouette with the clouds and the redness of (presumably) the sunset behind them, sitting on the edge of the roof of Kanye’s house. She tells him — this is the only time she speaks in the entire film — that she hates the way the world she has found herself in detests and destroys anything new; she says that statues (and presumably works of art more generally) are the remains of phoenixes that were frozen into stone, and not allowed to consume and regenerate themselves. (As she says this, the camera moves slowly around the ballerinas from the banquet scene, themselves frozen into immobility). Another song from the album begins to play: Lost in the World, which opens as a soft ballad before it builds to a more rocking climax with love lyrics. This song plays in full, for the rest of the film. As it continues playing, we get very stylized shots of the phoenix moving back and forth, lit with a reddish sunset glow, as she apparently makes love with Kanye. These shots fade in and out, and they are replaced by another shot of the explosion, only this time in slow motion. The song continues as we cut to daytime, and Kanye wakes up on the roof alone. He sees that she is missing, and runs into the forest where he met her originally. Here we have the same running scenes that we also saw at the very beginning of the movie. But he is too late; the shots of him running are intercut with shots of the fiery explosion; the phoenix has been reborn, and rises through the flames. The next time, we see her flying above the treetops, and rising ever higher into the sky. The song continues as we cut to the credits, and segues into the album’s final track, Who Will Survive in America (which is built around a sample of from Gil Scott-Heron (one of the precursors of hip hop, whose poetry-with-jazz-accompaniment, and militant lyrics, made a powerful impression in the 1970s).
What does it all mean? Kanye West takes substantial portions of his album, and re-situates them in a new narrative that is conveyed mostly by visual means. You would never be able to derive this story by just listening to the album; but the album’s sounds and words are powerfully expressive in their new context. The story doesn’t come from the songs’ lyrics, but it does come out of, and powerfully uses, all the songs’ emotions. If music videos in general are, on the deepest level, about the resonances (both emotional and cognitive) between sounds and images, then Kanye West has put together these resonances in an astonishingly powerful and original new way. His story of loving and losing the phoenix, being inspired by her, but also misunderstanding her, and suffering from how she is misunderstood by others, is a powerful (and fairly clear) allegory of the creative process (and admittedly, it still partakes of the sexist tradition, going back at least to ancient Greece, where the man is the creator, and the woman can only be his inspiration or muse); but the way the story interacts with, and is inflected by, the musical set pieces, gives it a power and depth that are unique.

Kanye West, Love Lockdown (Simon Henwood, 2008)

This is a beautifully stylized video for a song from 808 and Heartbreak, Kanye West’s most depressive album, made after a big breakup and the death of his mother. The album is so named due to its emotional themes, on the one hand, and its prominent use of synthesizers such as the Roland TR-808 drum machine, on the other. The 808 has been heavily used in dance music to create reverberating low-bass, wobbling percussive sounds that cannot be mistaken for the more flexible beats of a human drummer. As for West’s singing voice, it is spookily altered by the heavy use of Auto-Tune. This software was originally invented in order to correct errors by singers who failed to hit the proper pitch. But hip hop producers quickly discovered that you could get strange and resonant effects by messing with the settings. It could make singers and rappers sound robotic, or science-fictionally alien. Here West uses it to make his voice reverberate, so that he sounds alienated from himself: this both expresses his depression, and puts us at an odd distance from it. We both share his feeling, and yet realize that such a feeling puts him at so extreme a remove — with such a sense of loneliness — that he cannot reach us, and we cannot feel his pain enough to truly empathize with him.

The video works to accentuate this mood of alienation and distance. Kayne remains far away from us, because in his grief he is already distant from himself. The video is shot in extreme widescreen, and mostly in white. Kanye wears a white shirt and jacket, and off-white pants. His apartment is also nearly all white — both furniture and walls — in an elegantly minimalist way. This washed-out white seems to convey a sense of blankness and loss (rather than racial whiteness). First we see Kanye sitting on the couch, and then moving slowly to the window; he looks out through the white slats. Later we see him leaning back against the kitchen sink in his elegant kitchen. Still later, we see him crouching, nearly motionless, in a corner. And at the end of the video, he is back on the couch, curled up on his side, almost in fetal position. All the while, the camera observes him from a distance: from behind, or from the ceiling, and then pans away from him, and over the apartment towards the window. It pans slowly away from him, across an empty white wall. This is where the other figures in the video come in. They are dancers, warriors, and musicians, all dressed in ceremonial African garb. They were presumably shot against a green screen, but they are composited in so that they appear against the white walls. The crowd of dancers increases in size every time we return to them during the video. There are also individual dancers, shot from a closer camera, who pose or move slowly in time with the rhythm of the song. Their appearance is less bleached-out than that of Kanye’s apartment, but the color palette remains subdued – until two female dancers enter the video, entirely covered in body paint: bright blue, against which reddish abstract patterns stand out. Their vibrant brighness is startling in the context of the rest of the video. (There are also some brief shots of an object that I cannot identify, but part of which is bright red – it has been suggested that this is a spaceship, and that the whole video, with its white-on-white, is an homage to the final sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001). The video resonates strongly with the way the music is a sad ballad amplified by its rhythmic reverberations. The dancers, and especially the two women in blue seem to open the prospect of a new vitality. But the video leaves us in Kanye’s mostly empty apartment; though he is huddled in fetal position, we don’t get to see anything like a cosmic metamorphosis and rebirth (such as happens at the very end of 2001). Maybe the video, with its African references, points toward such a rebirth — but we are left still waiting for its accomplishment.

Kanye West, Monster (Jake Nava, 2011)

Monster is a song from Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF), but he released a video for it that stands entirely separate from the Runaway long-form video (or short film). The director is Jake Nava, who also directed a number of videos for Beyoncé, as well as (subsequently) Shades of Cool and High on the Beach for Lana Del Rey. The video was controversial, denounced for misogyny and banned for a time from MTV and YouTube. The song is a noisy, growling banger. Besides Kanye’s own verses, there are guest raps from Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj. The song takes a long-time hip hop tradition — boasting that ‘I’m the best’, and dissing the competition (other rappers) — and heightens it by systematically including horror movie references and metaphors. Hence the repeated chorus, “Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster.” The line evidently refers both to Kanye’s rapping prowess, and to his own self-lacerating self-investigation (a them throughout MBDTF). The video is dark and murky; it is saturated with images alluding to famous horror movies. For instance, we see zombies outside the window (as in Night of the Living Dead), mutilated, hanged, and decapitated women’s bodies (as in the early 2000s Saw franchise), as well as mad-scientist and vampire stereotypes that could have come from many sources. The tortured and murdered women, of course, are what sparked charges of misogyny against the video. And these charges obviously have considerable validity. Except that Nicki Minaj’s bravura performance, both of the song and in the video, changes everything. Monster is structured like an old-fashioned rap battle: Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj are all in a contest to see who can top whom, and who is the baddest rapper of them all. Most listeners have considered Minaj to be the victor; and this is true visually as well as sonically. Minaj appears in the video as both the vampire/torturer AND as her female victim. Minaj is known for adopting multiple personas in her raps; here, as the vampire she is “Roman Zolanski” (an aggressively unhinged, sometimes male and sometimes female alter ego, here dressed in black latex, with outrageously high heels, with fangs, and brandishing a sword), and as the victim, with the pink wig and wearing a wedding dress, she is “Harajuku Barbie” (the softly feminine alter ego; the name, of course, refers both to the well-known doll with its exaggerated feminine features, and to the fashion district of Tokyo). These personas exaggerate cliches about gender identity, and blast them into hyperspace. As Minaj’s vocal and visual performance switches back and forth between the two personas, it is hard to tell whether Roman is going to bite Barbie with vampire fangs, decapitate her, or have sex with her.

Kanye West, Fade (Eli Linnetz, 2018)

The song seems to be about the waning of a love affair (“I can feel it fade…”). It is composed around an incredibly funky bass line, together with brief vocal fragments, mostly from 1970s bands. The song is razor-sharp and filled with discontinuities, as various fragments either fade in and out with lots of reverb, or start and stop unexpectedly. The music video is dance-oriented, rather than striving to represent the lyrics in any manner. The dancer is Teyana Taylor, a singer signed to West’s record label. Her dancing, choreographed by Jae Blaze, Derek Watkins and Guapo, is extremely visceral. She dances amidst gym equipment, and a lot of her moves seem like bits and pieces from exercise routines. The movie Flashdance (1983) is an obvious reference point. But the director Eli Linnetz (interviewed here) mentions other reference points, and says in particular that he also “pulled a lot of references from ’70s and ’80s porn… That was less about the imagery and more about the texture of the skin, the oiliness.” And indeed, as we watch the video, Teyana Taylor’s skin is lovingly illuminated (something that usually only happens in the movies with white women). We also see her sweat. This accentuates the physicality of her dance performance. She is really butch, and she really commands the screen: this is in sharp contrast to the usual portrayals of sexy female backup dancers in hip hop videos, and indeed to the general ways women are objectified in Hollywood films. At the end of the video, we see the aftermath of the work-out: Taylor is nude in the shower, in some shots by herself, and in other shots sensually entwined with her real-life husband, the basketball player Iman Shumpert. Then the enigmatic final shot shows Taylor with a (prosthetic) feline (lion) face, alongside Shumpert, and with their baby (eight months old at the time), amidst a flock of sheep. This shot has been much commented but never explained; your guess is as good as mine.

Kanye West, Famous (Eli Linnetz, 2018)

I won’t say much about this video aside from noting how it is really a conceptual art piece. The song is just about three minutes long, while the video runs for almost 11 minutes. The song is notorious because of West’s line about Taylor Swift, referring to the altercation when he disrupted her award presentation at the Grammys: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” There’s a recording of a phone call West made to Swift, in which he supposedly got her permission to use these lines (but he didn’t tell her he was going to call her a “bitch’). The video created its own semi-scandal with its portrait of a huge bed in which West and his wife Kim Kardashian are sleeping, alongside Taylor Swift, West’s ex Amber Rose, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Rihanna, and Chris Brown, among others. These visuals were a take-off on a 2008 painting called “The Sleepers,” by New York artist Vincent Desiderio. The most interesting thing I have read about the video is Desiderio’s own account of being summoned to meet Kanye and see the video prior to its public release, which you can read here. There is also an informative interview with Desiderio here. In short, Desiderio loved how West had sampled and remixed his art.