H.L. Mencken, a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon if ever there was one, made the following maxim: “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is some admit it. I myself deny it.” (Such mental Möbius strips are the delights of wizened minds which, even when amidst a wink of a confessional concession still conceal a provocateur’s pearl placed in your palm set off as a bomb. Or simply the conceits of someone fancifully full of shit…) In the fantasy world of Kanye West, frauds could be substituted with douchebags, the difference being the same. And, yes, I myself would deny it. Unequivocally.
We’ve all known one in our own lives – some of us have dated them, some of us are them. A reservoir of rationalizations abounds for either scenario, ultimately limitless. Hindsight can have us shaking our heads this way and that over why, and most of the time for most of us, whether we’re the ones who dismiss or wish the red flags away or the situational perpetrators surprised by and wincing from the role we’re bound to perform, we do this, while against our better judgment, because it makes sense at the time. Because we so want to believe everything is unprecedented and unique. Because nothing else feels so real, or intense. Because the human heart is like a dumb rube sucker-punched by the charms of a carnival barker. We know our friends and family who try to slap some sense into us just don’t get it, don’t see all the nuances, the little things, the gazillion considerations; for all their best intentions, they can see things only from the periphery, too far from the fire to feel its heat. And damn if we don’t need that heat, thrive and bask in it, seek it out at such cost. For after all, the world’s a cold and lonely place without it. And sure enough, there’s something beautiful in being burnt. Sure, it hurts like hell, and sucks worse than anything in the world, but somewhere there’s worth to it. Like a baseball batter stepping up to the plate for the tenth time, the previous nine strikeouts in a row all will be vanquished and vindicated if only on this swing a home run is had… “All is fair in love and war,” we’re told, but Machiavellian realpolitik seems like a poison potion too risqué to prescribe. If nothing else, how can the means be justified if even the end is ill-defined?
What interests me is when somebody makes a mistake knowing full well at the time that it’s a damn dumb thing to be doing, but are powerless to prevent from happening in the first place. Particularly a criminal act for which the perp is genuinely remorseful, weary before and woeful after. That dichotomy of contradictions, like two crumpled up balls of paper weirdly woven into a dark heart of conscience, even if or especially since it remains incapable of penetrating past that point, this has always fascinated me. Either it is extreme pathos or just pathetic cowardice. The song “Runaway” by Kanye West is a case in point, and the rest of this scribble shall be my undertaken exegesis of it. (Bet you didn’t see this one coming!)
Disclaimer: what I actually know about Kanye West could hardly fit the entire length of this sentence. Within that modicum is this: whether you like the guy or can’t stand him, he’s too interesting to dismiss altogether as a baby, or a boob, or a shallow egotist, or whatever. That he is all of these things makes his artistry all the more complex…and complicated. And therein lies what’s compelling. On whom has there been more written: Judas or St. Peter? Hell, I’m willing to bet all the other apostles combined still place a distant second after Mr Snitch Iscariot. There’s a reason why the Lotharios and Casonovas of the world capture our attention and are recapitulated in every generation. If Don Juan had penned a penitent, self-loathing memoir, then maybe we’d be dabbling in that. Or if he could rap… Instead, here’s a video:
A couple more disclaimers before the horse gets out of the barn:
1) This scribble pertains to the song and corresponding video of “Runaway” specifically, not the half hour-long film by the same name (from which this video is excerpted), all of which material is based off of the full length album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. All other songs/videos of Kanye West’s, however relevant, never mind his interviews, tiffs, spats, faux pas, and the rest, however related, shall be lumped into the ancillary category of Interesting, But Neither Here Nor There.
2) I have gotten myself in more than enough hot water, whether in this very blog or in personal conversations (typically while wagging my chin about another matter altogether yet finding myself in a testy and unenviable predicament), than to cavalierly do a caper on the third rail of race. So let me say right here and now that all associable motifs, e.g., black folks dressed in white, white ballerinas dressed in black, etc., shall be assumed to be purely aesthetic (yeah right!). Let others with better dogs in that fight write otherwise.
If you’re a sucker for simple piano chords the likes of Erik Satie as I am, then you should be already arrested by the eerie, painfully delicate key monotonously played in the very beginning. It sounds like a kind of submarine sonar or that of some bell, like in school. Gather around now, class… And the ballerinas do, a whole huge strange flock of them from out of nowhere. All seems fine and regimentally matter-of-fact enough until a “wrong” key, like a curse word slipped out by accident, really catches our attention. (Not accidental is the last ballerina nonchalantly pressing her hand down on the top of the piano at the same time – the only one in the swan’s throng to make contact with West’s persona (let’s just call it his persona). What follows are two measures of a heart-rending descending scale of notes, what sounds like some beaten hero who walks three steps, falters; struggles to get up again only to fall more pitiably. The next measure is different though, a kind of pieta full of grace. (Yes, I am a lapse Catholic – why do you ask?) There’s still a sense of imperceptible resignation it evokes, but however wounded, the hero traipses off all the same.
And then the drums and bass-synth thunder in, flashes of dissonant “Lookatcha! Lookatcha! Lookatcha!” swirl and drone from one side of the sound horizon to the other. If this beat doesn’t blow off in your chest, even if it weren’t juxtaposed with the slow-motion elegance of the ballerinas, then my apologies to you. But it’s this duality of feeling, the elegiac structure of the piano set against the raucous persuasion of the percussion, that so deftly sets the backdrop to the tough love mea culpa of the lyrics.
Even in the very first two lines of lyrics there’s a dichotomy predicated for the rest of the song: “And I always find, yeah, I always find something wrong.” In other words, I’m a helpless, selfish cynic who focuses on imperfections. Probably stems from feelings of inferiority deep within. Might want to ask a therapist about that… Incongruously (or not) followed by “You been puttin up with my shit just way too long.” Hardly a flowers-in-hand begging of forgiveness together with a promise to stop being a superficial prick. Rather, an acknowledgment of one’s own tragic flaw. And that’s both the pith and the gist of the whole song: I am irredeemably flawed, take me or leave me. Well, go piss up a rope, pal! is what such a hound oughta be told, but often isn’t – or isn’t enough – for there’s something irresistibly attractive about that kind of daft charm.
The view out the window’s bleak, the forecast abject. Unwavering and unapologetic, there is something to this indefectible cycle of being that is emotionally sadomasochistic; narcissistically hopeless, hopelessly lonesome: I hate this thing within myself destined to hurt you, and the hurt I inflict you with is part of a pathological pain that forever prevents me from attaining happiness within myself or anyone else. And yet tomorrow’s a new sin to commit, another delicious disaster. Because the only antidote to this type of boomerang torture, ironically, is finding a new victim and recapitulating the crime. And so we have the semantics of addiction (“24/7, 365”); to wit, a classic tragedy, a self-conscious self-destruction. “I could have me a good girl/ And still be addicted to them hoodrats.” (Yes, of course, I had to look up what that word means specifically!) That’s the heartbreaking confession: I recognize what is good and right, and know right from wrong, but succumb time and again to that siren song of oblivion. “And I just blame everything on you/ At least you know that’s what I’m good at.” Again, no standing-in-the-rain, I’m-so-lost-without-you, heart and sorrows worn on the sleeve. In fact, something of the opposite: you gots nothin but ya foolself to blame, cause I warned you I’mma be a dog. Lord knows this is not a glorification of domestic violence or blaming the victim. The “toast” to all the douchebags, assholes, scumbags, and jerkoffs is obviously sardonic – and meant to be funny, funny in the same vein as Dave Chappelle’s skit of the “Player Hater’s Ball,” wherein a totally ostentatious pageantry of one-upmanship slams and invidious insults is showcased in ceremonious mock. Let’s not be too literal or uptight.
Dime story analysis: rather than getting one’s shit together and just dealing, self-loathing often enough is manifested in contempt and abuse of those nearest and dearest to us. “And I always find, yeah, I always find, yeah, I always find something wrong.” “And I just blame everything on you/ At least you know that’s what I’m good at.” It’s easy perhaps to dwell on the symptoms of being a douchebag: the effects are more obvious and are an affront to the innocent. The roots of it, however – dare I say the etiology of being a fucking asshole? – are more implicit and inconspicuous, and therefore more fascinating.
For sure, such cavalier conduct and its base callousness for others’ feelings goes about as far as you can throw it. Grow the fuck up already. Or be a man for once. Or just stop being such a dick. All too true. And were the song simply a vulgar display of vainglorious exploits with which a lot of hip hop is rightly or wrongly associated, then that would be that; the fact of its transparent existence embarrassing. But it’s the persona’s confessional stature that, like it or lump it, shifts the entire context to something different, something else altogether. You could tell him to go to hell or go fuck himself, certainly. But such censorious expulsion misses the point altogether, is actually redundant: for he’s already in hell; each new lady and every lay is just a reenactment of the same’ole misery – “la petite morte” as the French say for “orgasm.” Yet there’s a weird feeling of redemption, not while on the road to recovery – which is concentrated dedication – no, just after the transgression. At no other point does a scoundrel feel closer to God than the moment after something terrible has been committed. No longer in the throes of one’s demons, the sense of self and self-control is most lucid at that very moment. Call it atonement – or, as Joyce punned it, “at onement.” Awash in the resultant repugnance of the deed done is a fleeting hope for mending one’s way from that point forward. But it never lasts. The torment perseveres, is perpetuated, again and again. What else is this state but hell?
Does he wallow? Probably. But it’s damn fine art, because what happens at 6:05 takes my breath away. The delicate piano keys are there still – always – but instead of those rolling, rollicking, knock-your-sox drums, a string section plays a thump-thump, thump-thump-thump rhythm. The choice of instrument complements the ballerina motif, while its continual loop subtly mimics what beats a bass drum would typically play in a hip hop time signature. It’s quite clever. That’s plenty nice and intellectually satisfying, but it’s not what grabs my gut and leaves me speechless. Before the stings come in, a strange rip of sound somewhere between a needle-scratch on a record and a garbled splotch of word-noise heard from a subway conductor intrudes upon the piano. Whoa! What was that? It’s succeeded by another strange sound, this one a cross between a fuzzily distorted electric guitar and a primitively grainy video game effect. (Gives a whole new meaning to “low fidelity” indeed.) What follows is an electric-mud howl that crudely croons alone to an incomprehensible void. The exquisite contrast between this raw wound of sound and the soothing tune of the strings is just fantastic. What we’re hearing is actually Kanye’s voice – just mugged by a distortion machine run amok and gone haywire. (I’m pretty sure it’s Auto-Tune, albeit sabotaged and discombobulated beyond all recognition, which is a rich irony, as it’s designed to correct a singer’s pitch.) But when I hear this and shut my eyes, what I see flash before them in my mind are two images by Frances Bacon: his Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X as well as one of his self-portraits (below, respectively).
A self-imposed scream imprisoned. For the next three minutes of music there is not a single shot of Kanye (which is notable in and of itself); just the dancers. It’s as if the voice, far beyond articulate or comprehensible and not even human anymore, it’s as if the very voice itself has become disembodied, the storm of a tortured soul flickering outwards in gnarled fiery bursts. If that too doesn’t call the concept of hell in mind, consider this: the whole point of rap is the spoken word, getting your message across to the audience. The method and flow are important, but secondary, supportive. Without making yourself understood, what you saying and how you conveying it, rap itself is meaningless. The willful act of mutilating his voice, bludgeoning the words, is powerful stuff. It’s as if the singer is condemned to cry out in a terrible bawl of electronic gibberish for the rest of time.
That the sweet, winsome dancers keep pirouetting and tip-toe twirl like wisps of whimsical grace and sugarplum fluff while this tribulation blares and bellows makes me think that all the women done wrong by a douchebag like his nibs are finally having their day, all but dancing on his grave, almost mocking him, having the last laugh.
Needless to say, all this is deliberately staged by none other than Kanye West himself. As with everything else, it’s inflated and self-important, even if he’s presenting a desecration of self. Isn’t that just narcissism turned inside out? Sure. But, again, it makes good art. The fact that this song and video has haunted me for a whole year now – by a guy who otherwise impresses me not, for whom I have to try hard to look past a lot of other things to find respect – is pretty impressive. The nightmare of an artist is not the audience’s disgust or rage; it’s the yawn of indifference, the short term memory quickly replaced by some other flash in the pan. And anything too interesting to dismiss or write off, especially today when there’s no shortage of suitors vying to woo an audience with their talents and wares, is worthy of reflection.
The title of this scribble is a nudge-in-the-ribs crib of The Stones’ hit, “Sympathy for the Devil.” The theme is common enough between the two songs: a counterintuitive narrative telling a tale we’re supposed to despise on principle, if not instinct. But (and I’m sure I’ll catch shit for this) it’s a strain to intellectualize Mick Jagger’s lyrics, which in the song chronicle a very select “best hits” from western history where the devil’s persuasion has had something to do with the course of events. It’s irreverent in a perfectly harmless, hip way; it’s Mick Jagger. And the music is quite upbeat and, well, absolutely cool in that unmistakable mien of classic rock. But I’d hardly call it a work of art. Someone else far more prodding and learned than I could probably come up with a trenchant comparison between Mick and Kanye… What I will say though is “Runaway” is a better piece of music for its very devastation. It not only transcends the facile temptation to glorify being a bad boy (though it flirts with it), but it approaches an actual penitence if not a penal sentence. It’s sad without sounding maudlin, and it’s violent without being angry. It’s the mark of maturity, even if the portrait of the artist is that of a douchebag.
Postscript: maybe I’m reading into things too much, but there’s a moment at 5:44 where the camera closes in on the bizarre bird-dressed woman, and she seems to be glowing, maybe even smitten with Kanye. I’d like to think she thinks that the point of this song is his persona setting itself apart from all those other men out there, the d-bags and the a-holes of the world. Because that’s exactly what Mencken was talking about: we’re all this way; just some guys admit to it – except me. It’s a gotcha kind of a joke, but you don’t have to be a guy to get it. It does help though…