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Still from Kanye West's 'Runaway'via Genius

Revisiting Kanye’s ‘Runaway’ and how it resonates today

With his feature-length 2010 visual, the rapper established some of the themes he’d explore over the coming years – six years later, it feels more relevant than ever

For Kanye West, the realities of fame – and the pressure and scrutiny that comes with it – came to light this year in a very public way. After his hospitalisation for exhaustion following the cancellation of his Saint Pablo tour, one of his first public acts was to visit Donald Trump at Trump Tower. That was the cap on a very turbulent year that saw him release and constantly update his album The Life of Pablo, debut a new Yeezy Season show to a mixed reception, get into a public feud with friend and partner Jay Z, incur the wrath of Taylor Swift’s mass fanbase, and, most shockingly, learn his wife was robbed at armed gunpoint.

However, Kanye has always been one to wear his emotions and his private life on his sleeve. As his popularity has grown, he’s primarily explored the superficial bubble that fame creates around individuals, with the themes of celebrity isolation and mental health referred to most prominently throughout The Life of Pablo. In 2010, he dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album more refined in sound and with a clearer artistic direction than anything he’d done before. The album’s themes vary from his post break-up woes with his ex-partner, Amber Rose, to the perils of fame and the stress mounted on his shoulders as a result.

Runaway, the film he released to accompany the album, encompasses both of these themes, acting as both a catharsis and swansong for Yeezy’s past relationships. Six years since its release, the message he delivers resonates even more strongly.

We took a look back through the film – the genesis of Kanye’s belief that he could break out the restrictions that had been thrust upon him – and how it rings true with the man he is now. 


Kanye recently described his former self as a “backpack n***a with luxury taste buds” in his ferocious “No More Parties in LA”, and the contrast between his indie/underground background and ‘luxury’ tastes has been a major theme throughout his work. The beginning of Runaway shows Kanye’s celebrity bravado, driving through the woods in his Lamborghini Murciélago, wearing shades and jewellery while “Dark Fantasy” plays, the lyrics ringing through: “Fantasised about this back in Chicago / Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago / That’s me, the first year that I blow.” 

On Kanye’s early records, materialism and self-esteem are inextricably linked. “The people highest up got the lowest self-esteem / The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to riches and diamond rings,” he raps on early cut “Self Conscious” (the lyrics were later reworked for “All Falls Down”), while on “Through the Wire” and “Good Life” he talks of how he’s deserving of fame and fortune. Kanye is in a constant battle with his authenticity as an artist and his desire for status. Vince Staples recently mirrored this concept in his track “Lift Me Up”, where he raps: “Fight between my conscious and the skin that’s on my body / See I need to fight the power but I need that new Ferrari.” Kanye feels he is owed a luxurious lifestyle for his work, but is aware also of the superficiality that comes with this. 

During the scene he crashes the car, coming across the film’s other primary character: the bird. The bird acts as Kanye’s love interest; she’s beautiful and graceful in her appearance, and has birdlike wings and clawlike jewellery. The bird is Kanye’s opposite, fragile and scared of the world she has found herself in. When the bird is watching the news at ’Ye’s house, he tells her not to trust the media: “First rule in this world, baby, don’t pay attention to anything you see in the news.” In an interview with MTV, he described writing this line with director, screenwriter and collaborator Hype Williams. “Every day on the news there’s some new bullshit about me or about everything going on,” he said, “Once you’re on this side of the camera you’re like, ‘Aw man, none of this stuff is actually real.’” Kanye is giving us a taste of the lifestyle he leads while telling the bird to ignore the negative side of his celebrity. 


In the film, Kanye takes the bird to what looks like a parade with a huge Michael Jackson cast being wheeled through amidst fireworks and the effigies of a black and white angel. The scene is soundtracked by “All of the Lights”, a bass-driven banger that includes a mention of Jackson within its lyrics. While the parade seems like an homage to one of Kanye’s favourite musicians, Runaway was released only a year after Jackson died, revealing a dark undertone when men dressed in KKK hoods are shown to be leading the parade. The parade represents the power of white supremacy within culture, with Jackson wheeled along in mourning by the very people that opposed him and exploited him for his entertainment. Kanye and the bird don’t pay attention to this, too busy wrapped in the stardust or ‘lights’ of the event.

Kanye also uses the scene to explore the idea of ‘mental jails’. At the beginning of the scene a child runs through holding a torch which, according to Kanye speaking to MTV, “represents his thoughts and ideas”. By the end of the scene, the child has been cultivated in a Klansman hood, walking slowly holding the torch. West explained this, stating, “It’s the way society has set people up to be able to control them: slave mentalities.” The scene presents a theme Kanye has regularly spoken about with dissatisfaction – the repression of his creativity and the restriction of his ideas by the media. Kanye is frequently described in the press as ‘crazy’ for both his ideas and his opinions, and it’s often followed up by the word ‘genius’ (a problematic concept in itself). To combat his ‘mental jail’ he often embraces this idea, as he announces with gusto on The Life of Pablo’s “Feedback”: “I can’t let these people play me / Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” By breaking free of these mental jails, we’re able to tap into true creativity and create something revolutionary.

The dinner party is all-white-themed, with the table and guests dressed up in their finest white clothing and the ballerina performers wearing black. The inspiration from this scene came from Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian artist and regular collaborator with Kanye, who later worked on his Yeezy Season shows. Her piece VB65 features a table of 20 African immigrants in suits eating chicken and drinking water without platters or silverware, in a scene parodying the last supper. Projecting this on to Kanye’s piece, the guests at the table are all black, while the entertainment and servants are white, with Kanye at the centre of the table. Kanye is attempting to shine a light on the contradiction of black wealth (seen later in his work with “New Slaves”: “You see it’s broke n***a racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’ / And this rich n***a racism, that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more”).


Kanye and the bird enter the dinner party while “Devil in a New Dress” plays. It’s a braggadocious moment, Kanye showing off his girlfriend while decked out in the finest jewellery and clothing. All eyes turn to her as they enter. They begin eating and all is normal until Kanye is spoken to by another guest. “Your girlfriend is really beautiful… Do you know she’s a bird?” The guest tells him, “I mean, like, leave the monkey in the zoo.” Kanye is in love with someone who doesn’t belong in his circle of celebrity. This line evokes the overall message of the film – that the element of fame is what removes individuals of their character and morality. Kanye is too involved in his own situation to remove himself from it, and so rather than defending his love interest or leaving the party, he proceeds to perform the title track “Runaway”, a song riddled with the torment of loving someone while knowing you’re no good for them. In the film, Kanye refuses to break decorum for the sake of his girlfriend – but by this year’s “Freestyle 4” he’s drunkenly losing his inhibitions, talking about having sex in the middle of a “Vogue party”, asking, “Would we be the life of the whole party?

The turning point for the bird comes when the main course arrives at the table. A bird is brought out to the table on a platter to eat. Kanye’s partner is horrified by the sight, unfolding her wings and screaming as the other guests flee. Kanye is left sitting at the table hanging his head. The bird brought out to the table is a metaphor for the consumption of women and the greed of the entertainment industry. The character of the bird is beneath these people and deemed good enough only to be consumed. The woman is depicted as a bird to highlight her hyper-femininity and her vulnerability within a male-dominated culture. Kanye has continued to invoke animal imagery when addressing the crippling nature of the media: in “Wolves”, for example, he speaks protectively of his daughter coming into a dangerous world for women in the entertainment industry (“Cover Nori in lamb’s wool, we surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves”).

During a scenic moment towards the end of the film, the bird asks Kanye where he thinks statues come from. She claims they’re phoenixes turned to stone: “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”.

These lines speak volumes of the world of celebrity Kanye has found himself in. The bird uses the analogy of a statue to represent the downfall of a person’s character after fame. To be famous is to be stripped of your freedom and individuality under a demand of decorum and carefully maintained appearances. A person’s character is torn down and ‘turned to stone’. To burn like a phoenix is to be born again and to be free. The bird is an innocent and free-thinking individual, but Kanye feels he can never be free like the phoenix. Kanye wakes up to find the bird gone, while “Lost in the World” plays as Kanye runs to find the bird flying away. 

Both Runaway and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy marked an introspective turning point in Kanye’s career, where his attentions turned more towards his own catharsis. The project’s message of instability and pressure is definitely one that resonates today, with The Life of Pablo tracks such as “FML” and “Real Friends” all alluding to the mental health issues brought on by fame. When an artist such as Yeezy reaches godly status in mainstream media, there are expectations placed on them to be unbreakable. This is the sum of the project’s message: after all the glitz, glamour and excess, how much of a person is lost and how much of their character stays intact?