Kanye West brings a different kind of surprise to the VMA's

September 15, 2010

One of the best things about no longer working for the daily dead-tree media is the freedom from soul-sapping assignments such as chronicling the annual MTV Video Music Awards on deadline. Now I can catch up afterwards at my leisure on the off chance that the endless show did contain a nugget of interest.

MTV's annual orgy of self-congratulatory hoo-ha never really has been noteworthy as news -- the prizes clearly are rigged in a closed-door boardroom to suit the network's whims -- and it hasn't succeeded as mere entertainment, either, at least in the last 10 or 15 years. (Witness this account by my successor at the Sun-Times, Thomas Conner, who endured the show on Sunday, poor bastard.)

About the only thing the VMA's have accomplished in the last few years is to generate the occasional much-hyped but ultimately meaningless controversy, from Britney Spears and Madonna making out, to Kanye West bum-rushing the stage during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech to say that the prize really should have gone to Beyonce.

I for one believe that 'Ye was right on point last year with that observation, just as I think he was spot-on during that Katrina benefit when he claimed that George W. Bush doesn't like black people. But in the former case, it nonetheless seemed rude for the most successful rapper and producer that Chicago ever has produced to express himself at that particular time and place at the expense of such a fluffly little robot kitten, giving us another tawdry piece of evidence to build the case that, choose one:

A. West is a narcissistic, out-of-control egomaniac who throws a tantrum whenever he isn't in the spotlight.

B. West is melting down in public, spiraling out of control thanks to the pressures of fame, the end of his engagement, the death of his mother, the phases of the moon, and any number of other factors.

C. West is a prime example in this pathetic era of self-obsession and the desperate quest for celebrity of the kind of tone-deaf idiot who'll attempt any moronic reality-TV or "Jackass"-like bid for attention because he mistakenly believes that there is no such thing as bad publicity, or...

D. All of the above.

The sad thing about all of West's antics is that they make it far too easy to dismiss his music, which continues to be some of the most extraordinary on the current pop scene or in the history of hip-hop. And that includes "Runaway," the new tune he premiered on Sunday at the VMA's. (You can watch the VMA performance in the official MTV video here and put up with the annoying commercial and stupid introduction; you can hear that live audio on YouTube here and skip the visuals, or you can stream a new CD-quality studio version of the song here, apparently leaked as an appetizer from West's forthcoming fifth studio album.)

Musically, "Runaway" continues the stark, minimalist settings of West's brilliant left turn of a last album, "808s & Heartbreak" (2008), with an insistent mid-tempo groove and a repetitive single-notes motif on a grand piano. But a subtle orchestral surge that's like a low-key version of his earlier "Jesus Walks"-type productions starts to build midway through, dark and dour but offering a hint of melodic redemption, and mirroring the sentiment of the lyrics.

And, oh, those lyrics! "Let's have a toast for the douchebags," West sings in the choruses. "Let's have a toast for the a -- holes/Let's have a toast for the scumbags/Every one of them that I know/Let's have a toast to the j---offs/That'll never take work off/Baby, I got a plan/Run away fast as you can."

At first blush, you might think that sing-along refrain is in the same spirit as Cee Lo Green's much-buzzed Internet phenom, "F--- You." But that track soon registers as simplistic naughty button-pushing on the part of Gnarls Barkley's front man, with an unsettling undercurrent of misogyny emerging the more you listen to his whiny "girl done did me wrong" kiss-off.

West is doing something else entirely, a rare move in pop music generally, but virtually unprecedented in the chest-thumping world of hip-hop. The troubled 33-year-old workaholic, perfectionist, and neurotic not only is admitting that his behavior often has been reprehensible, he's laughing at himself with sad resignation; seeking solidarity with anyone who's ever screwed up just as badly (and, really, who hasn't?), and concluding that he might ultimately be unlovable, warning anyone who thinks otherwise to run the other way.

West consistently has been fearless in baring his soul and confessing his human failings even as he boasts about being a chart-topping Superman. But he goes further here than he ever has in the past, creating a song that's unique and unforgettable. And I'll certainly drink to that.