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.”