For a song that landed at #2 on MTV News' Top 25 Songs of 2010, Kanye West's "Runaway" starts awfully humbly. It will be best remembered for the epic short film that accompanied it or the jaw-dropping debut it made at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. (Or perhaps it will be noted for its four-minute Auto-Tune freestyle that caps off the album version.)
But for all that sweep and bluster, "Runaway" kicks off with a single tap of a piano key, kicking off one of the most epic, jaw-dropping, honest and thrilling pieces of music to hit the popular airwaves all year. Those single notes slowly start to string together and give way to the drums, which are all low rumbles and twitches. A vocal sample stabs its way in, shouting "Look atcha!" And then Kanye starts to croon his series of heart-on-his-sleeve mea culpas. All that goes down in the first 30 seconds, and it only gets better from there.
"Runaway" was produced by West, Emile, Jeff Bhasker and Mike Dean. The track made its debut at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, which saw West (wearing a flashy red suit) standing over a sampler and playing around, as though the audience just interrupted him in his studio. A series of ballet dancers (and Clipse member Pusha T) may have joined him onstage, but that performance was all about West's massive personality and the scope of the song.
The first verse of "Runaway" is pretty staggeringly naked, even for a lyricist as honest and direct as West. "She found pictures in my e-mail/ I sent this girl a picture of my di--," he raps in the opening line. "I don't know what it is with females/ I ain't never been too good at that sh--." But rather than sound authoritative and boastful (like he does on "Power"), West sounds resigned to the idea that he'll probably never figure women out. It's a double-edged sword, because while he's letting women off the hook because he recognizes that he's no good, he also gives "a toast to the jerk-offs" in the chorus.
In fact, the sexual politics of "Runaway" only intensify as the song rolls on. When Pusha T shows up for what has to be one of the best guest verses of the year, he lays out the compromise that has to occur whenever you get involved with a guy like West (who may have "a good girl" but is still interested in "them hood rats"). "You can leave or live with it," Pusha T raps. "Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet/ Comes with a price tag/ Baby, face it." The good life is waiting when you take West's hand, but keep in mind that his yang has a yin as well.
The internal narrative of "Runaway" isn't particularly complex, but the same can't be said of the short film that West made to accompany the track. "Runaway," which premiered on MTV back in October, tells the story of a phoenix (as in the mythical beast) who falls to Earth and falls in love with West but eventually must destroy herself because the pressure becomes too great. It's a complicated and visually stunning piece of art that will go down in history as one of the most ambitious clips in the history of music videos.
Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the most challenging and satisfying albums of this young century, and "Runaway" is the centerpiece of that album. It's gorgeous and powerful, representing both a distillation of West's psyche and an external exploration of the year he put behind him. It only got a vague whiff of the top of the Billboard Hot 100 ("Runaway" peaked at #12), but there was scarcely a song more thrilling and important released in all of 2010.
How does Kanye West's "Runaway" rank among the year's best songs? Let us know in the comments!
MTV News' Top 25 Songs of 2010 countdown continues. Make sure to keep checking back to see what song we've named #1, and don't forget to share your picks with us in the comments below!