It’s 2009. You’re slouched on your couch watching the MTV Video Music Awards. Taylor Swift wins Best Female Video. You’re unsurprised. Suddenly, a man wearing a leather shirt and sunglasses snatches the microphone from Taylor and claims that she doesn’t deserve the award (Beyonce does). If you’re most people, you’re indignant. Who does this asshole think he is? This guy sucks! If you’re a rap fan, you’re probably not all that surprised, but you cringe nonetheless. Oh no.
The decision to march on up that stage defined Kanye West’s career for the next few years and set in stone the braggadocios public persona he maintains today. No longer the earnest newcomer of The College Dropout or the vulnerable lover of 808’s and Heartbreak, Kanye was now — and for many, still is — the douchebag. At the moment, as Pink said, “Kanye West [was] the biggest piece of shit on earth.”
The thing is, what looked like an egotistical rejection of social norms was actually a plea for attention and admiration amid the wash of fame that carried Kanye all the way from the release of The College Dropout to that stage. Drowning in a tsunami of backlash and online hate, Kanye wanted to prove that he wasn’t really the asshole everyone thought he was. His solution: to use his artistic genius, thousands of hours, and millions of dollars to create the masterpiece that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The album is, put simply, Kanye’s expose of fame and the destruction that follows. While it’s certainly not an apology for that fateful night, it often presents as an explanation. It was Kanye’s attempt to regain the sympathy of the public.
He was successful: at the very same awards show one year later, Kanye debuted the single “Runaway” — arguably his best song ever recorded — to a standing ovation. In “Runaway,” Kanye gets as close as he’s ever come to asking for forgiveness, singing to the audience “let’s have a toast for the douchebags.” Two months later he dropped MBDTF to heaps of praise. While he’s still often seen as the asshole, he had largely won back his reputation, and he had at least proved to the world yet again that he’s goddamn good at making music. But there’s still more to the story.
In conjunction with MBDTF, Kanye released a 30-minute short film, Runaway, that contains most of the songs on the album. In the film, Kanye reveals that the story behind MBDTF is not all that meets the ear; it exposes something that to blatantly share with the world would’ve been detrimental to his public revival. MBDTF, while complex, doesn’t paint the full Kanye picture.
The nuance is that his desire to rehabilitate his image after the backlash he received after the VMAs goes hand-in-hand with his destructive desire for fame. In Runaway, Kanye reveals that it’s not just his relationship with fame, but also the stifling judgement of everyone around him that is the problem. So yes, perhaps being a “douchebag” to Taylor Swift was not the right move, but neither is subjecting yourself to the whims of society. While, in the background of the film, MBDTF deals with Kanye’s realization that his search for fame and status is destructive, Runaway deals with the closely related idea that his acknowledgment of public opinion is detrimental to his creativity.
The film opens with Kanye running frantically away from something. The camera is pulling away from him. He’s in a forest: smoky, dark, muddled. Mozart’s Lacrimosa dies illa plays, alluding to a judgement day. Kanye’s judgement day. Sound familiar?
The title screen plays and the music transitions into “Dark Fantasy,” the first track off MBDTF. Nicki Minaj recites the words:
You might think you’ve peeped the scene
You haven’t; the real one’s far too mean
The watered down one, the one you know
Was made up centuries ago
They made it sound all wack and corny
Yes, it’s awful — blasted-boring
Twisted fictions, sick addiction
Well, gather ‘round, children; zip it; listen
Kanye is warning you he’s about to pull the wool off of your eyes. Fame is not all that it’s cracked up to be. My possible overreading is that Kanye is also hinting that those who think they’ve “peeped the scene” by listening to MBDTF are missing the “real” story. The story told in Runaway.
As Minaj speaks, the title screen transitions into Kanye again in the forest. However, this time he’s in an extremely rare Murcielago. This time, he has his shield of wealth and status. The shots suggest that what would usually be a scene of braggadocio and glory is streaked with the self-doubt seen later in the film. In almost every shot the car is tucked into the corner of the frame. The woods are dark and huge, looming over the twists and turns of the road.
Fittingly, in “Dark Fantasy,” Kanye foreshadows the darkness of the rest of the album when he rhetorically questions his status: “Can we get much higher?” Kanye knows he’s at the peak of his career, it’s only downhill from here.
Interspersed with the shots of the car are shots of a brilliant comet hurtling towards the ground. It becomes increasingly clear the car and comet are on a colliding trajectory, and the shot ends in a crash. In the next shot, we see Kanye step out of the Murcielago, unharmed. On the ground in front of him is something feathered. As the camera follows him walking over to the thing, we see it’s the mythical creature featured on the cover of MBDTF: half-phoenix, half-woman. The camera then centers over the creature, pulling up and away, highlighting her bright plumage and long fingers; she is not of this world. The important mythology surrounding the phoenix is that the creatures live forever, but only because they cyclically burn in fire, rising again from the ashes.
The next scene shows the top half of the phoenix lying down on a couch in Kanye’s house. As she rises and her whole body enters the frame she twitches in a fashion reminiscent of a hatching chick. She then starts watching the tv that’s playing next to her head until Kanye shuts it off, telling her “First rule in this world baby: don’t pay attention to anything you see in the news.”
It is beginning to become more clear what the phoenix represents: Kanye’s artistic expression. She crashes down from the heavens, a gift. She is unique and bright and colorful. She hatches in Kanye’s home. She goes through a cyclical lifespan of death and rebirth. And she finds it hard to ignore what’s on the news. This scene serves as the introduction to the main point of tension in the film: Kanye’s artistic expression vs. the pressures of public opinion.
In the scene’s background song — “Gorgeous” — Kanye explains his disturbing relationship with fame: “Ain’t no question if I want it, I need it.” His desire for the approval of his art functions in the same way.
If the symbolic extrapolations made there are not convincing, the next scene should be. Kanye literally revitalizes the phoenix by playing around with his drum machine. His desire to make music — in this case “Power” — resurrects his creative energies.
As the music transitions into “All Of The Lights”, Kanye and the phoenix arrive at a Michael Jackson parade. In MBDTF, Michael Jackson, a figure who went from being arguably the most popular musical artist ever to dead from an overdose, is the ultimate symbol of the destructive nature of fame. The scene is a montage of cuts between the parade/fireworks and Kanye and the phoenix looking up in awe.
Interestingly, while Kanye and the phoenix are standing next to each other, the camera only focuses on one of them at a time. Perhaps this is implying that Kanye’s artistic side is reverential of MJ’s musical mastery, while Kanye himself is more focused on MJ’s heights of fame. Perhaps that’s reading into it too much.
In the next scene, the phoenix attempts to drink tea in a “proper” way. She twitches as she attempts to look human, a motif in the film. The phoenix cannot naturally fit into the mold of humanity. While she does this, the camera pulls back and we see Kanye on the other side of the table, standing. He’s staring intently at her. The framing and his posture implies he put her up to doing this human action, but as she struggles he simply looks curious, not troubled.
The climactic scene of the film comes next as “Devil In A New Dress” begins playing. The camera is focused on a large ceiling, panning down to reveal a dinner party set in a warehouse. The high-class clothing and dining table clashes with the stained walls and bare air conditioning vents. Yet again, it’s implied that the things which seem so illustrious are underpinned with something darker.
The scene — a fancy dinner party — serves as a fitting microcosm for societal judgement in general, so when Kanye and his date — the phoenix — are greeted by shocked stares and whispers, we feel what Kanye feels when he attempts to innovate in his music and life: singled out, a little ashamed, vulnerable. So we can’t blame this Kanye when he breaks into a performance of the song “Runaway” for the same purpose he does in real life.
As he begins the song on the piano, ballet dancers in black rush in behind him. They begin to dance in a mass of limbs and heads. The frame is often filled either by the entire group or disorienting cutoffs of a fraction of the group, but never a full individual. Although each dancer alone is practicing a beautiful art form, together they are a writhing, painful mass. It’s ugly, like a storm brewing. Kanye reveals in this scene that no matter how beautiful it is, “Runaway” — and the entirety of MBDTF — is forced and unnatural. He’s putting on a show for the people at the table.
Only when he transitions into the endlessly poignant wordless vocal section (note: he did not do this part at the VMAs) does the camera start showing individual dancers. Only when Kanye displays nothing but unbridled emotion does the mass split up. This is perhaps the only honest part of the entire album. When it’s all over he receives nothing but limp applause, strikingly reminiscent of the final seconds of MBDTF.
In the final shot of this scene, a dead turkey with plumage very similar to that of the phoenix is placed in front of her as food. We see this from an aerial view, so we must guess at her horrified reaction until the camera focuses on her, screaming, wings unfolding.
The final scene of the film is a return to the introduction: Kanye running in a dark forest. This time, we know he is running towards something — the phoenix. She has left this world which does not appreciate her beauty. As she says:
“Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different, you try to change. You try to tear it down. You rip the wings off the phoenix and they turn to stone. And if I don’t burn, I will turn to stone. If I don’t burn, I can’t go back to my world.”
She knows she must burn to evolve, but Kanye isn’t ready. He chases after her, desperate to stop her from burning to ash.
Recently, Kanye has said:
“Dark Fantasy is almost like an apology record. ‘Power’ was the least progressive song that I ever had as a single…People want to talk about how much they love that like it’s Thanksgiving dinner. But how long has Thanksgiving dinner been cooked for?”
Today, Kanye is able to express this belief explicitly, but at the time of the album’s release, he was too eager to win back public approval. The genius in the synthesis of MBDTF and Runaway is that Kanye uses the combination to subtly reveal how stifling the album was. You just have to pay attention.
In one fell swoop, he regained the recognition he so coveted while managing to express his artistic suffocation. But the beautiful, dark, and twisted thing about the project is that it doesn’t resolve. It’s this duality that Kanye is torn between at the end of the project, both running from judgement and rushing to stop the phoenix.
By releasing his album, Kanye has neither turned to stone nor leapt into the inferno; he’s running from the suffocation of public judgment yet cannot turn his back on public appreciation. He won’t let his artistry evolve. Kanye is left lost in the world.