In which we take a look at the overrated “Runaway” and the underrated “Pinocchio StoryÛ
We sure do love confessional songs. Maybe it’s the idea of humanizing celebrities—just as paparazzi candids of stars pumping gas allow us to peel away at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, self-deprecation allows artists to amplify their faults, revealing a person no more extraordinary than ourselves. We want our superstars humble, so much so that pop stars build entire careers off the “relatability factor.Û
But in our pursuit of pseudo-humility, we tend to forget (or willfully ignore) the depths to which good confessional art can plumb. The inherent artifice of celebrity culture is a limitless canvas, and artists fortunate enough to occupy it have the ability to dismantle it in their work. It’s not even hard to do: acknowledge your success, call out the duplicity of the industry, and show how it’s affected you. D’Angelo did it. Lauryn Hill did it. Hell, Fergie did it. But too often, confessional pop music strays from this formula, and artists give us glib admissions of stardom without actually grappling with the implications thereof. It’s not enough to just be image-conscious. What does that image mean, and who’s behind it?
This relationship between artist and art, image and self, has long pervaded the work of Kanye West. He is as present in art and design circles as he is in tabloids. This is someone who has reinvented his image and musical aesthetic countless times, only to show us that there’s no mistaking the man behind the mask. This is someone who ended his debut album with a 13-minute oral history of his come-up as a producer and MC. In the subsequent 14 years and six solo albums, West has reinvented this trope—the late-album confessional—time and time again. Inarguably, the most successful example is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “RunawayÛ. Over the track’s nine minutes, West runs the entire gamut of maximalist hip hop maneuvers, from orchestral flourishes to an aggressively stereo Rick James sample to a three-minute distorted vocoder outro (not to mention the accompanying 35-minute short film). He uses this backdrop to confront his insecurities and shortcomings as a romantic partner, and to his credit, the track is undeniably iconic. But as a piece of confessional art, it falls short.
Critics and fans alike herald “Runaway” as a revelation for Kanye, in which he comes to terms with the megalomaniacal persona he spent so long constructing. While West does acknowledge his faults to an extent (the chorus begins with the lyrics, “And I always find something wrong / you been putting up with my shit just way too longÛ), it soon becomes clear that he really doesn’t know how to atone. He goes on to open his first verse with, “She find pictures in my e-mail / I sent this bitch a picture of my dick / I don’t know what it is with females / But I’m not too good at that shitÛ. It’s not that any of West’s admissions are insignificant—they just merit further exploration than he gives them. Minus the vocoder outro and the entirely irrelevant Pusha T feature, we’re left with three choruses, two verses, and a bridge that doesn’t say much. In this light, West’s ambition as an artist compromises his ability to genuinely self-reflect. Yes, the production is strikingly beautiful, as is the film, but do they make sense for this song? Or does his decadent use of the highest-quality resources available actually undermine its honesty? Critics seemed to not mind, as MBDTF’s tribute to “the douchebags” was the most acclaimed song of 2010.
Not only is “Runaway” one of the weaker songs on the album, but it’s also one of the weaker entries in the late-album confessional canon. While there are other fine examples, perhaps none better encapsulates the misunderstood brilliance of Kanye West than 808s & Heartbreak’s final song, “Pinocchio Story.Û The track is a live recording of a freestyle West performed in Singapore in which he bluntly confronts his demons. This idea occupies most of 808’s runtime; released following the death of his mother and the end of his relationship with fiancÌ©e Alexis Phifer, the album is a melancholic, minimalistic look at the pain and responsibility West felt. But no other song lays it out so vulnerably. Here, without the armor of Auto-Tune, he bears his soul and his darkest fears. He blames himself for his mother’s death (Donda West passed away due to complications from plastic surgery, which she was only able to afford through his musical success). He tackles the confessional art form head on, singing, “Do you think I sacrifice a real life / for all the fame and flashing lights…there is no YSL that they could sell / to get my heart out of this hell / and my mind out of this jailÛ. He strips away the arrogant pretense that holds down “Runaway” and so many of his other trite boast raps. We genuinely feel that West has accepted full responsibility for his misfortunes (maybe even more than he should, in the case of his mother), and he makes no attempt to glorify them.
It’s as personal and tragic as a Kanye West song gets, but what really makes it work is his use of the live recording. As a wounded West wails through lines like, “I ask you tonight, what does it feel like / To live a real lifeÛ, the oblivious audience screams and cheers. His agonizing cries for help are drowned out by the overwhelming expectations of pop stardom. It’s a brilliant tactic—he places a low-quality live recording at the end of a highly ambitious and elaborate studio album, because what better way to illustrate the isolation that comes with fame? Though the artistic output of Kanye West is defined by its ambition and perfectionism, it’s his imperfections that make this message resonate so clearly.
This is indeed a hot take—Pitchfork named “Runaway” the third best song of the decade thus far, deeming it an “emblematic, genius pop artifactÛ, while Scott Plagenhoef’s review of 808s calls “Pinocchio Story” a “tacked-on (…) wtf curiosity at bestÛ. This is not surprising, of course. Brazen Kanye maximalism is by design built to top critics’ lists, while his more experimental work has always been polarizing. (Maybe we’d still be told that 808s is a bad album if Drake didn’t make an entire career out of phoning in the same sadboy melodrama.) And to be fair, Kanye West could spend the rest of his career reassuring us that he is a god not to be reckoned with, and I would buy every second of it. But if it’s humility he seeks, he’s best leaving set-on-his-goals-Kanye behind.