Music

Kanye West’s pop artifice

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The singer will do whatever it takes to get people talking and that may be his downfall

Kanye West has always attempted to posit himself as being bigger than the media that he creates. From releasing an artfully Auto-tuned R&B album in a commercial climate that hadn't heard anything like it, to getting drunk and interrupting Taylor Swift during a meaningless award ceremony, West prides himself on being among the fringes of the pop world. In promotion of his upcoming album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he has again subverted our expectations.

His GOOD Friday series has the distinction of being both underwhelming and overwrought. Featuring a laundry list of collaborators, West has been releasing a free song online every Friday for the past few months. Ironically, the most fully realized song was also the first track he leaked via Twitter, "See Me Now," a breezy co-production between him, producers Lex Luger and No ID featuring Beyonce as a perfect counterpoint to West's bravado.

As scattershot as those releases have been, the concept is valuable. There isn't even a prompt to buy the product, but then again, why would there be? West has made a business of telling us he used to be poor but now he's rich and what the differences between his divergent lifestyles are. This likely informs his awareness of what works for the common audience member and why he knew how to roll out a video for "Runaway" that would make waves.

Luckily for West, he is the only person in music who could do something like this and have it matter today. Long-form music videos like this used to be the domain of Michael Jackson, in a time when having a music video take up major real estate on MTV mattered, as evidenced by the recent West rhyme, "The day that you play me will be the same day MTV play videos." With the live presentation of "Runaway" being simulcast on MTV, Much and online, Kanye has rediscovered pop music's event-viewing potential.

Filmed in Prague and written by rap video impresario Hype Williams, West, Vanessa Beecroft and Jonathan Lia, the short film itself is unique for the same reasons West is. It amalgamates a rap background (extended shots of the protagonist driving a MTX Tatra V8 around deer and foliage, a rare instance of MPC drum programming in a film), an interest in high-brow art (West gave nods to Fellini and Kubrick on the MTV interview that followed the live presentation) and a sense of enlightened populism. It uses elements of nine different songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in creative, enticing ways and presents a camera in love with colour and bizarre images (a marching band pantomimes to "All of the Lights" while flanking a giant papier-mâché Michael Jackson head).

Unfortunately, "Runaway" also reflects Kanye's poorer traits. It's light on narrative, self-indulgent, pretentious and seems separated from its influences in a way that reflects West's "personal shopping" approach to his artistic discoveries. Like most of the GOOD Friday songs, the 35-minute "Runaway" is overlong. An exercise in style over substance, another in a line of forced epics (the aforementioned "All of the Lights" features John Legend, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Tony Williams, Charlie Wilson, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Rihanna and Elton John). He naturally casts the insanely striking Selita Ebanks as his character Griffin's fallen-phoenix love interest. The loose story seems to revolve around cool images, Kanye looking cool and thinly-veiled extended metaphors explaining why what Kanye is doing is cool.

Which is actually fine, considering the product. Clearly, through a feedback loop of our acceptance of his behaviour and reinforcement of his musical brilliance, Kanye will now do anything that will get us talking. It's no small task capturing the imagination of a generation with short attention spans and broadband interests. This makes "Runaway," and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by extension, a potential last glimpse of a star in control of his powers. The Icarian overtones are too obvious to overlook. V

Roland Pemberton is a musician and writer, as well as Edmonton's Poet Laureate. His music column appears in Vue Weekly on the last Thursday of each month.

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