What Kanye West’s “Runaway” and Elvis Have in Common: An Excerpt From Kirk Walker Graves’ 33 1/3 Book on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’


In the introduction to his book on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kirk Walker Graves acknowledges the argument that a four-year-old album should not be memorialized with a volume in Bloombury’s 33 1/3 series on classic albums. But he also makes a convincing case for why he did exactly that in the subsequent chapters, which analyze the album’s songs one by one after 50 pages of general (and brilliant) Kanye scholarship.

In the chapter dedicated to the album’s first single, “Runaway,” Graves connects West to Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Rick James, and most significantly, Elvis’s 1968 over-the-top comeback TV special as a way of asserting the rapper’s position in the musical canon. But it’s in his introduction that Graves makes the clearest argument for why a post-’00s album deserves this level of analysis at this point in time: “Kanye embodies our era’s insatiable appetite to aggregate — to incorporate everything all at once and MBDTF is the operatic sound of that insatiability set to music.”

Graves’s 33 1/3 is available as of last week. We’re proud to excerpt the “Runaway” chapter in full:

To understand [“Runaway”], to gain some rough sense of its place in the transhistorical pop republic, you could do worse than begin with a Charlotte Observer article from April 11, 2012. The piece is a local interest story and profile in miniature of Paul “Mickey” Walker and the Backyard Heavies, the Charlotte band for which Walker played drums in the early seventies. “They had a single coming out [in 1971] called ‘Soul Junction,’ and they needed something for the flip side,” writes the Observer’s Tommy Tomlinson.“They came up with an instrumental based on a piano groove and a drum lick that Walker calls ‘a funky march.’ They called it ‘Expo 83.”’ Thirty-nine years later, the band had long since gone their separate ways. Walker was a social worker dedicated to helping the mentally ill homeless population in Charlotte. He received a phone call from his old band mate Roger Branch in September of 2010. Branch had been in communication with an attorney representing Def Jam Records. A famous rapper, Branch told Walker, had sampled a drum loop from “Expo 83” in a song. Walker was unclear as to who the rapper was,“texting his wife that his drum lick had been sampled by some guy named Kenya.” The story ends on an optimistic note, with the three surviving members of the band receiving modest royalties from the revival of their old B-side, even making plans to record new material.

As an old-fashioned hymn of resurrection – that is one way to listen to “Runaway.”

Imagine yourself standing onstage at a concert in Long Beach in July 1981. You are performing before thousands of people, and the river of narcotics in your system has breached the synaptic levies. This shit is gorgeous, you think to yourself, aroused in a holy moment of contemplating how sexy you must look from out there in the crowd. You are in the middle of singing “Mary Jane,” one of the best songs from your debut album three years earlier, and while bantering with the audience you suddenly feel so good that you have to discharge some of the surplus energy before it evaporates your brain. “Look at ya!” you exclaim, parsing the ineffable high of being you into a throwaway of boisterous inclusion. You’re Rick James, bitch, the funkiest motherfucker on the planet, and though in twenty-three years you’ll be dead, tonight there is only you and this audience and the fleeting spontaneity of a joyful noise to hold it all together. Twenty-nine years later the moment is excised and transplanted in stereo into the heart- beat of the twenty-first century’s most ambitious pop song. Severed from the bonds of time, that happy exclamation – Look at ya! – is a specter that haunts its new home. No longer the sound of a cup running over, it has become an accusation. Whatever hermetically sealed sense of connection and transaction the outburst once contained is gone. What is left is an ice pick of self-disgust.

Another way to listen to “Runaway” – as the atrophy of context.

Forget Walker’s drum lick. Time is the funky march, the syncopated breakbeat played back to you at odd tempos by your memory. Time samples your life, compresses and extends and loops whole chunks of it. Time can amplify the overtones of a long gone lover’s sigh, rewrite the lyrics to your marriage vows. Manipulating the shape of our experience, time heals our wounds by changing the way we remember them. The site of today’s demoralizing collapse is the groundbreaking for tomorrow’s greatest triumph.

Kanye understands this principle, experiments with it. His best samples play with the idea of time’s weirdness, its transformative irony, discovering the sonic vernacular of the future in the scattered potsherds of the past. Those who complain his songs are recycled pop throwaways are, in a manner of speaking, correct. The drum sample from “Expo 83,” for example, forms the chassis of “Runaway,” but it does so once removed, subsumed within another sample, the breakbeat intro to “The Basement” from Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s 1992 debut LP Mecca and the Soul Brother. Time enfolds upon itself in the beat, 2010 via 1992 by way of 1971. Three separate histories are compressed into a single sonic pulse, yet this nested interdependence fosters the creation of a unique living thing, something far greater than its parts.

The pop persona in “Runaway” is heir to an amalgam of ego gestures and bravura performances stretching back at least as far as 1968, the year of Elvis Presley’s televised comeback special, and – recall – narcissism’s breakthrough into the psychiatric mainstream. Thanks to YouTube, the video repository for global collective memory, a quick search yields multiple edited versions of the special. Watching it with the knowledge that nearly half a century has passed since its recording, one seeks in vain to account for the force of the performance. In Mystery Train, his classic of American cultural criticism, Greil Marcus cites the comeback special as a high point of Elvis’s engagement with his own ego: “It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it. Nothing came easy that night, and he gave everything he had – more than anyone knew was there.”

A deity bedecked in black leather insouciance, Comeback Special Elvis understands the audience’s collective stake in his mythos. His performance is a generous egomania that, rather than viewing the world as a mirror, reflects the culture’s most vital and inchoate fantasies back to it as a flesh-and- blood fait accompli. There is a brief moment during the special, between song sets, when Elvis, sitting in a small circle with his band members and reminiscing about the world he created, has a laugh at his own expense. “Now wait a minute, wait a minute, something’s wrong with my lip,” he mumbles, a reference to his signature facial gesture. He fumbles with his upper lip.“You remember that, don’t you?” he asks, raising it in the old, archetypal way, awash in the contingent silliness of history. “I’ve got news for you, baby. I did 29 pictures like that.” The audience laughs and applauds with a reverential awe, and we understand this is not so much a comeback special as it is a revival. The ego on display is something regenerative and communal, a sublimated social wish to play fast and loose with unlimited freedom. Elvis turns a trademark into a throwaway for the sake of a laugh, and we realize the potency that a supreme American pop figure has – that it takes an Elvis to efface an Elvis, even if only for a moment.

In his eponymous hagiography of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Marcus describes the song’s opening sound – a drumstick’s rifle report on the surface of a snare – as an “absolute announcement” of something new. “Then for an expanding instant there is nothing,” he writes. “The first sound is so stark and surprising, every time you hear it, that the empty split-second that follows calls up the image of a house tumbling over a cliff; it calls up a void.” “Runaway” is a descendant of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a kaleidoscopic epic constructed with an equally keen sense of egotistic precision. Both songs are caustic valedictions. Dylan bids a fond and annihilating farewell to an ex-love amid the scene of her crumbling false ideals; Kanye pushes his lover out the door with an emotionally shambolic full-on confession of his failings. “Runaway” is an inversion of its forebear’s world-straddling bravado, however. Where Dylan’s ironic fairy tale expands and ascends with a gleeful contempt, a complete satisfaction that submerges the world beneath a flood of riotous final judgment, “Runaway” tunnels inward to the diamond-encrusted core of West’s self-pity. “Like a Rolling Stone” is the sound of an expanding universe; “Runaway” is the singularity of narcissism’s black hole. If we hear an echo of forgiveness in the boundless, timeless joy of Dylan’s “total song,” we feel, listening to Kanye’s, the frostbite of self-contempt.

“Runaway” opens with its own starkness, a single repeated note of lonely insistence. An E key sounds fifteen staccato times on a piano. The immediate feeling is one of real threat, a foreboding that the lonely E will be the only sound you will ever hear again until, mercifully, a transitional lower E is struck, followed by three D sharps. The progression is a descent, a numb walk down the soul’s Weimar staircase. “That which God is to use He first reduces to nothing,” Kierkegaard writes, and that idea is given flesh in these opening moments – an absolute reduction is precisely what we hear. In an album overflowing with fantastical embellishments of every sort, there is real pathos in the choice to open a song this ambitious with a single repetitive note. Once at the bottom of the staircase, in the serene darkness of a large room, the beat enters and it’s like someone turns on the lights. The ghostly Rick James Look at ya! encircles the room from above, both an ambush and a vulture. The effect is reminiscent of the cartoonish trope in eighties sitcoms, wherein a child’s bad conscience is depicted as the floating head of a disapproving adult. Your eyes adjust to the light and you see that the room is a banquet hall with row upon row of white linen tables and seated guests. The guests are silent, though their faces familiar. As your mind catches up to cognitively make sense of what you’re looking at, you have an awful realization: The faces belong to all the people you’ve ever wronged, hell’s version of This Is Your Life, collected here in one place to crush you with the weight of their aggregated judgment. Outmatched and outnumbered, wholly vulnerable, you do the one thing you never did in your dealings with them. You tell the truth. You own up to how destructive your solipsism has been, how toxic to everyone else. Uncharacteristically, the admission does not arrive couched in evasive gestures or grandiose rationalization. Some of the guests’ heads start to nod in recognition at the sound of your honesty. You do find fault in everything, they think to themselves. We have tolerated your behavior beyond reasonable limits. Your voice is a plea. An odd humility diffuses throughout the banquet hall, and the guests can tell that you mean it. To truly acquit yourself, however, you know that you need more than remorse. You need a grand ironic gesture, a demonstration that – though no lesson has been learned, no moral imparted – you are, in your ambivalent way, sorry. You package your basic contradiction into the shape of an apology that is not an apology, a champagne toast not to all these people you’ve disappointed, but – unbelievably – to your own shortcomings. You use the words “douchebags,” “assholes,” and “jerkoffs” in your toast, plurals all, as if your grandiosity will not allow you to seek a reprieve for yourself alone, but for the very idea of the overstepping narcissist as a type of human being.

The kicker, the part that no one except you could have predicted? They forgive you.

The final three minutes and six seconds of “Runaway” are what drive it beyond the outskirts of a potentially radio-friendly pop town and into the lawless hill country of art. The final third of the song – a wrenching and distorted recapitulation of the previous six minutes as filtered through a vocoder – alienates anyone who expects not to be alienated. As so many critics and fans noted upon hearing it for the first time, the final part of “Runaway” should in no way succeed. It is overlong and confusing and frankly unnecessary as a coda to an already stunning pop master- piece. Attempted by just about any other major artist, the same three minutes and six seconds would likely generate a week-long meme fest mocking it on Twitter and then fall promptly into oblivion. Yet it does work. It works so well that, without it, the song’s entire emotional economy would be systemically flawed; the value we extract from the first two-thirds would be the worthless currency of a failed state. The vocoder part of “Runaway” is analogous to a definitive life choice, the kind that indicates unambiguously to the world exactly who you have decided to be. As it drones anxiously over an exquisite string arrangement: It sounds like a suicidal android at open mic night. It sounds like a pilot reading the beatitudes through a broken intercom to the passengers of a doomed flight. It sounds like a dial-up connection confessing its love to a pay phone. It sounds like a warning message from the near future sent by a race of bodiless digital posthumans. It sounds like the feeling of having something vitally important to say and not having language to say it. It sounds like a hangover swearing off alcohol. It sounds like a long-in-the-tooth iPad lecturing a class of drones on empathy. It sounds like the failure of logic in a moment of distilled emotion. It sounds like a lonely person’s digitally scrambled sense of himself in a culture of total connectedness.

During the banquet scene in Runaway, a discontent Griffin gets up from the table and walks across the room to an ancient white piano. He pauses and, with the calculated impatience of a stubborn toddler, bangs his finger on a lonely out-of-tune E key twelve times. A second or so of silence persists between each note. With the sounding of that first haggard note, we become captives within the conflicted heart of who Kanye West is. As his finger repeats the note with a kind of despairing force and we find ourselves staring into another void, something remarkable happens. A flying “V” of ballerinas in black leotards comes rushing across the concrete warehouse floor to accompany Griffin and his white piano. An androgynous blond-bobbed prima ballerina quietly sidles up to the piano, extends her leg high above her head, and the performance begins. Kanye stands behind the weathered instrument crooning in his cream-colored tuxedo jacket with rounded black lapels and black bow tie, the ballet before him a choreographed expression of his basic conflict. The scene is full of an exotic heartbreak, each self-sufficient movement of each ballerina a gesture of opacity, a rendering in flesh of unknowable human motivation. Why does Kanye West act the way he does?

The Condo album cover painting of a startled, doe-eyed ingénue with a handlebar mustache wearing a black tutu, a glass of red wine in her delicately extended hand, contributes to the iconic association of the ballerina with the song. Condo’s ballerina is toasting, of course. “Runaway,” we are to understand, is a work of art as fully choreographed as a ballet. Its place on a pop music album is almost incidental to its aspiration for self-transcendence. This is because art does more than imitate life for Kanye West. Listening to “Runaway,” wholly engrossed in its nine minute apologetic of the self, we learn that art justifies Kanye’s excesses. It gives sublime context to the consequences of his worst mistakes, translates his inscrutable motives into boldly comprehensible language. Incorporating the raw material of his necrotic emotional tissue, art performs miracles of healing that no amount of public apologies, press junkets, stints in treatment centers, therapy sessions with Oprah, or trips to Paris could ever achieve. That look of astonishment on the face of Condo’s ballerina captures the experience of hearing this song for the very first time, and every time thereafter.