A Less than Brief Movie Review: Kanye West’s Runaway

Film Grade: D+
Music Video Grade: A-

To be sure, this is an impressive 34 minute music video, but it doesn’t function that wonderfully as a film so I was forced to provide two grades.  The music and the concept saved the project from total disaster though the acting and the script left many things to be desired.  I think Kanye should stick to making music, or in the least, he should get a good actor to play himself in his next feature and ask a real director to do the directing.

Before I jump into my commentary, let’s be clear: Kanye is NOT the first pop star ever to make a full-length music video… Michael was, of course, but the icon who first came to my mind was Janet Jackson.  I remember distinctly that all of music videos for the album Rhythm Nation: 1814 existed in the same universe, or milieu, and they were woven together by a single thread culminating in the song Rhythm Nation and its music video.

Check out the full-length Rhythm Nation film here: Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4“Alright” which I believe was the only music video in color off this album, and it is equally epic (Click on the links… ENJOY YOURSELF).

Commentary (I spoil everything…)
There were many beautiful shots, and interesting moments that felt like commentary, but slipped away into the vastness of disparate nothings when left uninterrogated.  I struggled to follow the logic of the characters or understand and follow the conventions of the world West had created.  I was given no tools to do so, and I think that’s to the detriment of the projects ability to function as a film.  Here are the moments I was like… huh?

  • The Phoenix’s “natural” comfort to be in nature and around furry woodland creatures that graze on West’s beautifully manicured lawn. Is this a statement that women and nature are bound? Is it about the naturalness of love? Where did that lamb come from? Was that Jesus? Was that deer bambi’s mom?
  • A couple dozen dark skinned black people, noticeably discomforted by West having brought “a bird” to dinner, sitting at the long white table along with the Phoenix (a noticeably lighter hue, but not white) being served by fair skinned white women. Are these privileged Black people? Or do they represent a more general, “black community”? Do they not know what’s on the menu? Do they only eat what’s given to them by these “invisible” white hands?
  • The people at the table watch Kanye and his ballet troupe’s performance.  The dancers are all fair skinned. The black people at the table seem shallow and insensitive, callous even in their consumption of the performance, the food, and in their reaction to the Phoenix at the table. They clap politely and return to the table to begin eating–mostly birds (duck, chicken, hen and a big turkey) and bread. Are they eating the flesh of Kanye’s love? Did he know what was on the menu? Why is the Phoenix (Kanye’s love) the only light-brown skinned person at the table again?  What is he saying about Blackness? Is he saying anything?  It seems like you had to think about casting choices to make these contrasts in skin tone very apparent.
  • The mixing of a “high” art, ballet (which the fair skinned women do), and “low”(folk) art of hip hop soul (which dark skinned West does). Why are all the dancers fair skinned (though a couple were visibly Asian)?  What’s with the use of color to make these contrasts between “high” and “low”?  What does the color on his own body mean? He wears nothing but white and Black.  Why? Is he saying something about whiteness and blackness as racializing projects?
  • The grief and horror of the Phoenix (bird) when she realized the folks at the table were eating the flesh of birds: her.  Besides it being kinda messed up that the turkey, feathers and all, was plopped right in front of her what does this have to do with the action of story?  Is this the climax?  What’s the discussion here of cannibalism in the context of her wanting to “burn” herself later to “return home”?  It feels like an engagement with the politics of veganism and/or a commentary on suicide, but I don’t know.
  • Phoenix says to Kanye (I didn’t realize she could talk until then) that she doesn’t like that in “this world people want to change what’s different” and asks “what do the statues mean… they are the Phoenix in stone!” What are her questions about?  Why doesn’t she talk until now? She says repeatedly “They are Phoenix in stone!” Who and what is she talking about? Was she talking about the dancers? To be made in stone is to be fixed, not changing.  In the context of her utter terror at the idea of cannibalism at the dinner table, she has to “burn” herself (roast, like that turkey) in order to return to home.  To burn something is also to change its properties.  So what the hell was she talking about?  I don’t get it.  Does she burn after they have sex? The hell is he running to or from in the opening and end scenes?

Ultimately I was left with more questions than West was able to answer in 34 minutes and my disappointment in this project as a film is that he provides you no tools to even try to answer the questions for yourself.  I’m not saying that sitting with images and sounds and not understanding them is always a bad thing, because the journey to unlocking the story’s internal logic is often very gratifying–I’m thinking about the film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey–however, you must be given the tools to unlock the secrets which according to Swizz Beats, only friends of West have.

I’m not Kanye’s friend… not even on Facebook and I can’t gchat him and ask him to explain this video to me, nor can I rely on those jokers on BET or MTV to ask intelligent questions–so help me out Kanye… help a sister out.

The saving grace: As a music video it works perfectly, because the genre doesn’t require a coherent story to be told (though many videos in the early form of the music video did tell a story and a good one).  Most of us allow music videos to stand on their own and you assume the action of the video works to highlight certain aspects of the song or to convey the mood of the album, cluing you in to how you should hear (or understand) the album.

The short film music video works. It’s been done before and has good results: Janet sold 6 million copies of Rhythm Nation domestically.  Why else would Kanye do it?  And that’s exactly why I think this project, as a music video, was extremely successful.  I know now that I need to pre-order this album.  The music is fly.

A History Lesson: Femcees

For those of you who think Nicki Minaj is the first female rapper ever… check this out.  For those of you who swear that Lauryn Hill is and was the only good female rapper ever… check this out.  And for those who just want to (re)discover some new (old) music… check this out!

Roxanne Shante is credited with having the first ever “diss” record.  It was pretty good too.

The Real Roxanne, a Nuyorican with a serious flow, was dope.  Read up on the “Roxanne Wars” and check out her video for “On a Roll” and my favorite The Real Roxanne song, “Her Bad Self”

Did you know that R&B singer Angie Stone was a rapper back in the day?  I know you didn’t.  That’s why I included a link to”Simon Says” that she did while she was apart of the group The Sequence.

Lady B is from Philly.  I swear she’s freestylin’ and did you catch that queer nugget she leaves around 2:38?  Yeah, I know you didn’t.  That’s why I’m pointing to it.

Do ya’ll remember this?  Funkdafied, the album and this single, went Platinum. The RIAA is the industry trade organization that certifies the number of albums sold. You can search all your favorite rappers and see how many albums they’ve sold.

Hardcore, Lil’ Kim’s first album went DOUBLE Platinum, and for as much as folks swear they hate her, I bet you remember the words to “Crush on You.” I left some of her freestyle below.

One of my favorite Lil’ Kim rhymes is on a Mary J. Blige song, “I Can Love You.”  I just think her flow–the delivery–is just spectacular.

Now Lil’ Kim has sold a lot of albums as opposed to an artist like Jean Grae who I’m pretty sure writes all of her own stuff (there have always been rumors that Kim didn’t author some her earlier material–I may talk about this at a later date) and Grae will absolutely rip just about anyone apart in a cipher. Check her out with this sexy single, “Love Thirst”

I think Jean Grae is pretty fantastic.  She Blogs and Tweets and I die daily from reading her stuff.  She’s amazing live, I hear.  I’ve not been able to see her live yet, but it’s on my list of things to do before I die.

And Rah Digga, remember she ran with Busta an’em.

She don’t really do that type of commercial rap anymore. Check her out now.

Speaking of little kid raps…

Without Monie Love, there would be no Lil’ Mama.

And rapper Lil’ Mama, yep the “Lip Gloss” girl and the same one that ran on stage with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys… she put together a duo with the vocals of Left Eye.

And did ya’ll know Left Eye released a couple solo projects, one with Death Row? I hope I don’t get shot for saying that.

You remember Queen Pen? Listen to her short freestyle about LIFE.

Lady Luck? Who is that?

Then there’s folks like Ebony Eyez who were on major labels, but who you probably don’t remember because her label barely supported her.

Speaking of things you might not remember:

This was one of my favorite Salt-n-Pepa songs. This and…

Missy Elliot has been far ahead of the curve for a long time. Her rhymes are simple, but everyone doesn’t need to be Rakim. She’s also sold more records than most [male/female] rappers. All of her albums went Platinum except for This is not a Test and Da Real World (both of which went gold). She makes up for it since Under Construction went DOUBLE Platinum.

There are some more interesting women like Lola Monroe, who I think is aight on the mic.

What did she say?

“Imma tell you like a queen told me/F*** these ni***s/Like I strap on the D”

No she didn’t… yes she did.

And for those of you who are more into the jazzy, Afrocentric, and conscious music — you should know Bahamadia.

Who watched Martin growing up? Remember KeyLoLo? Shanana’s friend? That was femcee Yo-Yo.  Her’s is a message of sisterhood, female empowerment, and anti-sexism. AND she did hers with a gangsta rap swag.   You might remember her in Brandy’s “I wanna be down” (1995) which won a MTV Video Music Award.

Her rhymes are educational, and at the time she was seen as very antithetical to Queen Latifah who didn’t do the gangsta rap and her image was much more regal; however, their messages don’t seem that much different. I’d have to do a linguistic analysis to know for sure, but…

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a pretty good one to get you started.  There are some great femcees out there, and they’ve been here since this hip-hop thing started, but too many turn a deaf ear to what Black women are saying.  These women have been doing and saying a variety of different things for a long time.  All you have to do is listen.

Too many of us are reliant on the radio, MTV, or BET to tell us what’s hot.  Get on the internet, do some searches. Check out what’s going on beneath the surface of commercial hip-hop and see who else you might be drawn too.  Make a Pandora station, or check out mine, and discover a wealth of great femcees.

“THANK YOU SALT-N-PEPA” Pandora Radio Station.

A Glorious G.O.O.D Pink Friday

Have you noticed that Kanye West and Nicki Minaj are dropping an album on the same day, November 22nd?  Did you know that last week Nicki Minaj announced on Twitter that the drop date had changed to November 22nd from November 23rd?  Did you notice that Nicki Minaj lends her voice, the deranged one, to the title sequence of West’s short film called Runaway?  Have you thought about the ways that they could be connected in the popular cultural deranged-milieu?  Let’s work it out…

West has a new album, a new girlfriend, and a new obsession with film.  His newest project, a full length trailer for his newest album–in the style of Michael Jackson–seems to mark his entrance into the upper echelons of the status of ICON.  Have we ever seen a rapper reach his level of pop-dum?  I don’t think so (arguably Tupac did, but only after his death).  I remember when Kanye was going to be different; a conscious commercial rapper who talked about the ways that “they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth” (“All Falls Down”) but now… he just talks about himself.  And what does Nicki Minaj have to do with this?

As of now there are about 4 female rappers (working) who are signed to major labels and Nicki Minaj is the newest; the first newcomer on the scene (on a major label) in what may actually be a decade.  Kanye West is the best rapper to come on the scene in the past 10 years and has set himself up to become the most globally recognized.  Minaj is making a dramatic entrance and has been well received by many to the dismay of many.  Like West, her entrance into rap comes by way of serious co-signing from other more established artist like Lil’ Wayne.  Though her ostentatious brand of representation is not particularly new (she borrows heavily from Lil’ Kim), she has managed to put together some bars on a couple mixtapes and everyone else’s songs that are interesting enough for her to win a BET Award without even releasing an album.  And while BET is ready to throw awards at her, I’m not ready to do such a thing without having a project of hers in my ear to actually judge.  Her first two songs off her album, “Massive Attack” and “Your Love” are catchy, but they don’t show off much skill or rap mastery, her features have been better–that Ludacris “My Chick Bad” is going down in history.  And the videos are absolutely and utterly a waste of digital space.  They just aren’t that good.

Foxy Brown came on the scene with much of the same eagerness from hip-hop fans as Minaj is.  Lil’ Kim was a beast, selling a couple million copies of Hard Core.  Da Brat even went platinum… twice.  And let’s not forget that Salt-N-Pepa stayed relevant for a decade.  And all of them did that with competition! So Minaj should sell a trillion copies cause there aren’t any rappers out right now, besides Kanye who could give her competition… So why are they dropping albums on the same day?

Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe they thought it would be fun to see who sold more?  I have no clue.  You’ll have to ask them about that, but what I do know is that Minaj and West provide something for America.  New representations of Blackness that are especially palatable to white audiences.  Both of their images borrow so heavily from whiteness–Minaj as “barbie” and West’s obsession with brand names that only the super-rich (mostly white) can afford–but they’re still recognizably Black and America has an obsession with Black icons.

There is something else I know and that’s movies and since Kanye West has gotten into the film business–he should be judged like a film maker, so look out for the next movie review post, A Brief Movie Review: Kanye West’s Runaway.