If you’d like to experience this article in podcast form, check out my show Watching the Throne.
Tiny, black silhouettes of Kanye West and the Phoenix rest in the frame. Rolling clouds, engulfed in a striking red hue, rapidly roar overhead, almost like the storm of the century is coming.
Yet, this is a quiet, somber moment—the moment, in fact, where Kanye West stops saying sorry, stops playing by the world’s rules, and becomes the Kanye West we know today.
“All of the statues that we see, where do you think they came from?” the Phoenix asks.
West replies, “I think that artists carved them years and years ago-”
“No,” the Phoenix interrupts. “They are phoenix 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.”
Kanye kisses the Phoenix as the camera pans to the sky, the clouds still red, still rolling. “Lost in the World”, the final song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, plays overhead. Many view the Runaway film as a promotional video for that historic album—but really, the movie was cathartic for Kanye to make. It not only continued, but expanded upon the themes of the album. He took the power and artistry and tragedy of that final track and birthed a visual representation of how lost in this world he felt in 2010.
Running through the forest, he chases after the Phoenix as she catapults into the sky, consumed by flames, drifting out of this world into space.
And all Kanye can do is watch.
In that moment, I like to think about what Kanye’s character is actually thinking about. I know it’s a movie—but it’s a movie Kanye West made. And Kanye is in the movie. So when Kanye put this scene together and acted out this part, I can’t help but wonder what relation it has to the album, to his public image, to his mission as an artist.
So let’s take a step outside ourselves for one second and step into Kanye’s shoes. How can we frame this ending, this entire film in the eyes of Kanye. What was he feeling at the time of its release, and how was he conveying everything he felt through this film? And how can this help us understand Kanye West in 2019, when he’s more controversial than he’s ever been?
This isn’t an attempt to excuse any of his behavior over the past couple years. Instead, I simply want to evaluate a man who once had a major falling out with the public, what that low point did to his psyche, and how that explains his behavior in 2018 and 2019.
A Polarizing Figure
Over the years, Kanye West’s public image has had its ups and downs. From his rant about George Bush not caring about black people, to donning the Confederate Flag on his jacket during the Yeezus rollout, to embracing Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Kanye has always stayed true to himself.
It’s what drives many people to dislike him, but it’s also what many of his fans love about him: it’s not about whether he’s wrong or right—it’s that he’s unabashedly devoted to being the maximum version of himself, which encourages others to not shy away from what we’ve been told are the “ugly” parts of ourselves. “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest,” as Kanye said on his song I Thought About Killing You.
This motivation he gives people is worded perfectly from Kanye himself during an interview with BBC’s Zane Lowe:
“Go listen to all my music. It’s the code to self-esteem. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going to make you believe you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.”
But in 2009…things were different. Because in 2009, Kanye stormed the MTV Video Music Award stage and took away Taylor Swift’s moment to accept her hard-earned award.
“Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”
And the reaction from everybody was no longer, “Oh, that’s Kanye for you…” Kanye was shunned, abandoned—cancelled, as they say these days. Fans and haters alike were turning their backs on him. Even though Kanye’s ego had made him a controversial figure for years, this is the first time it truly felt like Kanye was about to lose everything.
Of course, I can’t tell you exactly how Kanye was feeling at the time. I can’t read his mind. But as somebody who hosts a Kanye West podcast and studies his entire life quote by quote, line by line, I think it’s safe to say Kanye wasn’t concerned about people thinking he was a jerk-he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to reach people with his music anymore.
During an interview with the New York Times, Jon Caramanica asked Kanye if he regretted running up on stage during Taylor Swift’s moment. Kanye said he didn’t-in fact, it seems all he regretted doing was apologizing at the time.
“Dark Fantasy was my long, backhanded apology, Kanye said in response to Caramanica. You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.’”
That quote always blows my mind. I mean, we’re talking about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—what many consider to be the greatest hip hop album ever made. And Kanye claims that was just him “giving into peer pressure.” He even later called “Power” his least-progressive first single. It almost feels like Kanye acknowledging that he only made one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever created…because that’s what the people wanted. It doesn’t even seem like he did it for himself.
Which…is not very Kanye. He encourages people to fully be themselves, to embrace who they are. In that same interview with the New York Times, which took place three years after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, you can finally feel Kanye moving past that guilt he felt about caving to peer pressure. He’s no longer apologizing-he’s embracing who he is and how that speaks to his fans.
So when Caramanica asks Kanye if he thinks his instincts have led him astray, Kanye doesn’t respond in the way the 2010 version Kanye would have, because the 2010 version of Kanye apologized. Instead the 2013 version of Kanye responded in the way we know the 2019 version of Kanye would respond:
“It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.”
The Runaway film is the visual depiction of that birth into a new life. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye was trepidatious, remorseful, shyly tip-toeing around the fact that he didn’t regret running up on stage at all. But he felt he couldn’t come out and say that at the time.
Luckily, that’s why art exists, so artists can express themselves in visual, sonic manners; so they can tell stories flooded with themes and motifs imbued with intention and meaning. Sometimes we best understand artists by simply looking at their art. So, in the spirit of my new film podcast, I’m going to take a look at what the ending of Runaway signals about Kanye West.
Runaway opens with a shot of Kanye running through the forest. But this isn’t really the beginning-it’s the end. We actually start with the moment where the Phoenix is burning through the stratosphere and into space, with Kanye chasing after her. This is a very important framing device, as we’re shown the man Kanye will become as opposed to the man he is when he first meets the Phoenix.
But here’s the thing: at the beginning of this movie, we don’t even know about the Phoenix. We think that Kanye is running away from something, as opposed to running towards something.
But…can’t he be doing both? Running away from one lifestyle into another?
Before we even hear “Dark Fantasy”, the first song of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Mozart’s Lacrimosa dies illa, which translates to “Full of tears will be that day,” plays in the background.
This song refers to the end of Mozart’s Dies irae section of his famous requiem, with “dies irae” meaning day of wrath. Lacrimosa is the last song in this section, ending with a request of eternal life: “Merciful Lord Jesus, Grant them eternal rest. Amen.” The speaker is pleading for redemption.
I believe Kanye uses this song to reference his life leading up to the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy era—trapped (by his own doing) in the spotlight, crucified and criticized by news outlets, late night talk show hosts, and celebrities who felt the need to speak out. In his own way, Kanye was experiencing his own judgement day after the Taylor Swift incident.
Sound familiar? This is exactly what Kanye West is experiencing today.
So, if we’re using both Mozart and our knowledge of Kanye at the time as our frame of reference, we think this judgement day is what he’s running away from.
But by the end, we’ll understand what he’s running towards. And that’s where we’ll note the difference between 2010 Kanye and 2019 Kanye.
The Phoenix Crashes
Then the movie’s real story actually starts, as Nicki Minaj comes in to say:
“You might think you’ve peeped the scene-you haven’t. The real one is far to mean. The watered down, the one you know, was made up centuries ago. They it sound all wack and corny, yes its awful blasted boring. Twisted fiction, sick addiction-well gather round children. Zip it, listen!”
This opening quote from Nicki Minaj gets at the naïveté many people have when it comes to fame. It’s seen as something to covet, but that’s only the sparkly image of fame. The journey to actually achieving fame is long and arduous and can break a man in two.
But this goes far beyond fame. This quote is actually a play on Roald Dahl’s Cinderella, in which he writes:
“I guess you think you know this story. You don’t. The real one’s much more gory. The phony one, the one you know, Was cooked up years and years ago, And made to sound all soft and sappy Just to keep the children happy.”
“Fame” is just the framing device because that’s what’s consumed Kanye from the very beginning. But I think it extends to what each person pours their heart and soul into. And Kanye’s true passion is for music, for art, for creating something that will inspire people.
This quote has its own context on the album, but in this visual setup, it’s constructing the idea and lore of the Phoenix. In an absolutely breathtaking shot, Kanye zooms in on the Phoenix falling towards earth. Then as the camera pulls back, outer space and all the stars remain still, but the clouds are moving and whirling about at a rapid pace. It creates this ethereal, disorienting effect that something otherworldly is disrupting time and space on earth-and Kanye happens to be driving through the forest in that moment.
So much is being conveyed with that environment. You have the stars set in place, you have something fantastical happening in the sky, you have nature exposed and innocent—and then you have Kanye, housed in his Murcielago. As the camera pans down, we see all of these factors in play, ending with just Kanye’s car bathed in darkness.
For the rest of the movie, you’ll see Earth shrouded by the red sky, almost like this Phoenix’s crash into earth has disrupted everything. Kanye exists in this weird middle space, almost like a purgatory, where he’s caught between the promise of celebrity and the real world.
The Phoenix Questions
When Kanye scoops the Phoenix after her crash, their strange relationship begins. She is naive, and Kanye wants to show her the beauty of his world—but after she discovers how ugly this world can be, she must retreat back into the sky.
And because Kanye doesn’t feel how the Phoenix feels about society—because he feels the pressure to apologize for his actions—he must remain tethered to earth. That tension ends up being there for the entire movie.
The Murcielago Kanye drives almost feels like a coat of armor, an outfit you throw on to give off this impression that you’re well off and successful. But we know Kanye made this album as a response to the world after the Taylor Swift incident. Kanye was perceived as anything but a leader and a caretaker back in 2010-he was the villain, the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz (Wicked is one of Kanye’s favorite musicals, by the way). He was somebody who thought fame would treat him one way, and then discovered how abusive and empty it can be.
So when you think about the Phoenix’s crash into earth this way, it really strips all the heroism and maturity Kanye seemingly shows during their conversations. Visually, the environment becomes something Kanye has no control over. He tries to purport his elitism and knowledge—but really has no idea how to bring this Phoenix into his life because the abuse he takes in this life makes no sense to the Phoenix.
That’s why the first shot of the movie is also the last, because it depicts those two versions of Kanye. In the beginning, when he’s in his Murcielago, it’s nothing but a false front, something he needs to feel empowered-the final shot reveals an exposed, vulnerable, broken man who actually needed rescuing more than the Phoenix did.
This gets into what the Phoenix symbolically represents. I do see her as her own character, but moreso as a representation of Kanye—both his naïveté about celebrity and his true knowledge of the pains of celebrity. The naive side buys into the lies, but by the end, the logical version of Kanye is able to remove himself from everything and see how troubling his life is.
And the real-life Kanye is sort of stuck in the middle of it all, trying to figure everything out.
That idea of Kanye as this naive, vulnerable person is visually represented when his Murcielago blows up. Sure it looks bad-ass as he walks away from his car carrying the injured phoenix that just crashed into earth-but remember, his car was also his false front. His armor has been removed.
We’ll continue to see this explosion throughout the movie-including at the end of the movie. Another brilliant framing device, Kanye warps what that explosion symbolically represents over and over. At first Kanye positions himself as a wizened mentor, somebody who can guide the Phoenix and teach her the ways of his world.
This gets at the irony of Kanye’s situation. He thinks he’s saying something really meaningful to the Phoenix, so it’s met with this explosion to capture the energy. But that explosion happened when Kanye lost his Murcielago. And if the Phoenix is a representation of Kanye, then this is less of a revelatory moment for the naive version of Kanye and more of a revealing moment that exposes that Kanye has lost his shield.
This highlights the tension between the phoenix and Kanye. Kanye is seemingly someone who has it figured out, but the Phoenix will later expose that he’s doomed in this world-if he doesn’t burn like she does, he’ll turn to stone.
The Phoenix Burns
With this framing, the middle portion of the movie makes sense. Kanye wants to integrate the Phoenix into his world, so he plays her his song “Power”; takes her to a Michael Jackson parade and plays “All of the Lights”; and hires a troupe of ballet dancers to dance alongside his live performance of “Runaway”.
But the Phoenix, who really represents Kanye’s inner conscious, sees that Kanye is selling himself short by becoming part of the groupthink. His art can’t fully exist when he’s not truly being himself—which is where we get into Kanye in 2019.
Back in 2010, his music was a reaction to something, as opposed to dictating the zeitgeist. In the film, he dressed in white and matches the elite guests at his dinner. But those people looked down on Kanye for bringing his Phoenix friend—who really represents Kanye’s inner conscious who knows Kanye isn’t being his true self—to the dinner. They don’t jump up and dance to his art like the Phoenix does when he plays “Power”, but instead politely clap when he plays “Runaway”.
Kanye has put himself in a box, acting in the way everybody wants him to act-the opposite of what Kanye set out to do early in his career. And if the Phoenix is a representation of that childlike innocence, then she recognizes that Kanye has entirely abandoned what had inspired so many people for so many years.
And this gets into the final quote of the film that feels like it was written by Kanye in 2019:
“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.”
I’d like to think that Kanye, as an artist, sees the creation when he looks at the statue. He thinks about the craftsmanship of the artist and their intention with their art.
But he’s also consumed by what those artists represent now, as opposed to what they represented when they were alive. When living, those artists were committed to their art and what it meant to people. No matter what kind of flack or criticisms they received, no matter how wrong they were about something, they remained true to themselves. To Kanye, it’s not about being wrong or right-it’s about empowering people to not shy away from their true selves.
Far in the future, great artists will become statues. They’ll be loved and adored and discussed and written about. The motivation they give people in the present will continue to provide motivation for centuries to come. In this way, statues becomes representation of how we revere our artists once they’re long dead and gone, as opposed to appreciating them and understanding them while they’re still on Earth.
This is how the world feels about Kanye—and Kanye allowed that to warp his mindset in 2010. He allowed himself to cave to peer pressure and produce an album that made people adore him again.
But what he wasn’t thinking about was what was best for his legacy—and what’s best for your legacy is staying true to yourself, creating art that is the most honest representation of yourself.
The inner part of Kanye—the Phoenix—understood all of this. But the Kanye we saw in 2010 wasn’t ready to accept it.
And that’s really what we’re seeing in that final scene of the film. Kanye is running away from his judgement day, and running towards the Phoenix. He doesn’t want to be crucified by the public, but he also isn’t ready to burn. He existed in a purgatory where he created My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but would soon graduate into the next phase—soon, he would burn.
But in 2010, he was simply lost in this world.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.