Jay-Z and Kanye West have come under quite a bit of scrutiny lately about their, ahem, “religious” and social beliefs and activities. Are they members of the Illuminati? Does Jay-Z really believe he’s God? Is it idolatrous/blasphemous for him to have J-Hova (as in Jehovah, since he’s the “god of rap”) as a nickname? Is Kanye a Christian? Should he have been nominated for a Christian music award for his song “Jesus Walks”? Isn’t he racist against white people? Doesn’t he only date white women now? Aren’t they both uber-capitalists who are now spokesman for the system? Where did their counter-cultural/black power messages go? And etcetera and etcetera…
I don’t want to get into those questions too much (though I find the capitalism question quite intriguing and multidimensional), but, instead, look at one of the most popular songs off of their new joint album Watch the Throne. The song is titled “No Church in the Wild” and it was a trending topic on twitter the day the album was released. It seemed everyone was listening to it. It is, in fact, quite an intriguing little piece of music. Let’s break it down…
[Hook: Frank Ocean]
Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God?
What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?
Each of these couplets are examples of one being/entity being proved insignificant by its comparison to another being/entity. One human in a mob of people? Insignificant. The masses to a king? Insignificant. A king compared to God? Just another piece of dust. Now, here’s the interesting part: God to a non-believer who views religion and/or the divine as a human construction or superstition? Absolutely nothing. In the hierarchy of the universe presented in the hook the one who sheds belief in a (specific) god is the most powerful being in that universe. Whoa.
Will he make it out alive, alright, alright, no church in the wild
However, there’s no guarantee that the most powerful being in the universe, the non-believer, can survive in this universe. “Will he make it out alive?” There’s no way to tell because there’s “no church in the wild.” Two things: “no church” and “the wild.” There is no set of believers that has a monopoly on truth (another instance of Jay saying he’s not part of the Illuminati?). There is no specially selected group of people with special access to the divine will (buh bye Calvinism). There is no divinely ordered structure to human society (so long Hinduism, Confucianism, and several traditional African religions). We live in “the wild.” Is Jay a “state of nature” theorist? This seems rather Hobbesian, if not Nietzschian. Jay seems to believe that there is some sense of “survival of the fittest” (does any street hustler NOT believe this?). You either win or you lose. You live or you die. In a world like this, is there room for a god? Probably not.
[Verse 1: Jay-Z]
Tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains the Colosseum doors
Lies on the lips of priests, Thanksgiving disguised as a feast
First, Toure has already done a good job breaking down Jay’s verse from a purely lyrical perspective. Go check that out. I’ll do some of that, but I’m more interested in the theological argument of the verse. Having said that, what a grand way to start a verse! Do you have the image in your head? Tears on the floor of a mausoleum? That grand testament to the greatness of a single human being sullied by tears of sadness? Mausoleums are supposed to be testaments to greatness and inspire reverence and awe, not tears. Are they the tears of family members who miss their loved one now claimed by the masses? Are they the tears of the poor upon whose backs it may have been constructed? Are they the tears of the dead king who wanted to live forever so bad he had a mausoleum built in his honor but still lies decaying underneath it? Who knows, but wow. Blood on Colosseum doors! The blood of gladiators spilled for human entertainment? This great testament to human accomplishment is sullied, from its construction to its destruction, with the blood covering its doors. These two testaments to human ingenuity and greatness proven irrelevant by the everyday human fluids of tears and blood. And then the verse gets going!
The lips of priests – those entrusted with telling the truth of God’s message to the people – are covered in lies. In today’s world we can’t help but equate this with the lies of Catholic priests who molest children for their own sexual satisfaction and sense of feeling powerful. Whoa. America’s key holiday, Thanksgiving (along with Independence Day), is the day we are supposed to remember God’s wonderful provision for our nation and the sacrifice of our ancestors to create this country from nothing. Except, oh yeah, it was done on the backs of the genocide of America’s native population. This is no event for Thanksgiving, it is an event for mourning. For lament. For repentance. But anything except Thanksgiving.
These four “beautiful” things are not so beautiful because they are tainted by tears, blood, lies, and murderous theft. This is the world we live in: even those things that we consider most beautiful are examples of the “wild” nature of human existence. And our neatly constructed world begins to shatter…
Rolling in Rolls Royce Corniche
Only the doctors got this, I’m hiding from police
Cocaine seats, all white like I got the whole thing bleached
Drug dealer chic, I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach
Ok, from a lyrical perspective this is simply nice wordplay. Jay drives a car that only well-paid medical professionals usually drive, so he’s “hiding from police” because they wouldn’t expect to find him driving in it. Why not? Oh, because he’s a drug dealer, but still dressed rather “chic.” He tells us this by describing the color of the interior of the car. In the rap world he has just bragged about his wealth, flaunted his street cred, made a nice wordplay with “cocaine seats,” talked about his fashion game, and made a reference to Tupac. In other words, these four bars cover everything you’re supposed to do in a whole verse!
The Tupac reference? ‘Pac is famous for lines like “wondering if a thug’s prayers reach.” He made a song called “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto” and often wondered in his songs if God cared about urban youths, gang members, and prostitutes. In fact, he even claimed God would overlook their sins because of the lot they were dealt in life (ala Luke 16:19-31). In the context of this verse, there is that connotation, but one also has to ask whether a thugs prayers can reach a God who doesn’t exist.
Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?
Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek?
All for Plato, screech, I’m out here balling, I know yall hear my sneaks
Jay paraphrases “The Euthyphro Dilemma”: Do the gods love pious (holy) things because they are pious, or are those things that are pious made pious because the gods love them? Put another way, does God command those things that are just because they are just, or are the things God commands just simply because it is God who commands them? This is a question that goes back to Socrates and has been a starting point for philosophers and theologians ever since. While Jay’s interpretation of Socrates answer isn’t totally on point (Socrates rejects the second option), Jay says it’s a matter of opinion. In a world like this (with sullied mausoleums, priests lips covered in lies, and drug dealers driving around like doctors) is there a point to this question? Your answer depends on your bias. In other words, the pious, holy, and just are human creations that don’t necessarily fit with what we see in the world. Jay answers Socrates’s timeless metaphysical question with a modern sociological answer: it depends on who’s answering the question and what they already have been shaped to believe about the world. There is no “final” answer to this important philosophical-theological question. We just can’t know.
Also, there have been twelve popes throughout history named “Pius,” so this line also functions as a jab at established religion, especially Roman Catholicism. Did “God” choose these men because they were pious (history says probably not – for example, Pius XII was pope during WWII and his record towards Nazism is sketchy at best), or do we declare them pious because God selected them? If the latter, bad God; if the former, blind God.
Not gonna do much w/ the Plato-screech-sneaks line other than to say that the last part is quite a nice piece of double imagery.
Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy he laid beats
Hova flow the Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats, preach
Here he goes again equating himself with God. I really like the “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats” line because it humanizes Jesus and shows that musicians create things just like manual laborers do. Also, in constructing this new Trinity Jay still leaves the question of “God the Father” unanswered. The classic Christian formulation is that God is three persons in one: Father, Son, Holy Ghost/Spirit. According to Jay, in music ‘Ye is the Son and he’s the Spirit but we don’t know who the Father is. At the end of his verse we still don’t know if there is a god, and if so who that god might be. Drawing on a certain form of the theodicy question Jay tells us that if there is a god there’s no way to know, but looking at the world it’s pretty hard to believe there is one. so, “get the hell up out your seats” and try and survive in “the wild.”
I live by you, desire
I stand by you, walk through the fire
Your love is my scripture
Let me into your encryption
With the bridge Kanye goes a different direction with “the wild” metaphor than Jay did. Whereas Jay equates “the wild” with a type of “state of nature” where in the competition of life bad things happen, ‘Ye equates it with a type of hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure.
[Verse 2: Kanye West]
Coke on her black skin
Make a stripe like a zebra, I call that jungle fever
You will not control the threesome
Just roll the weed up until I get me some
Ok, funny image, but ‘Ye does a couple things here: uses “jungle” imagery to set up his version of “the wild” the same way Jay used mausoleum/Colosseum imagery to set up his version of the wild in the first verse. Except ‘Ye’s version includes two types of drugs and two women in some sort of psychedelic sexual orgy. Okay.
We formed a new religion
No sins as long as there’s permission
And deception is the only felony
So never fuck nobody without telling me
Aha! The new religion is one that places the highest value on honest sexual pleasure and exploration. ‘Ye has long been an advocate of open relationships and here he makes it plain. For him, it is a religious value. As long as sexual partners are open and not hiding their trysts it is ok to go outside one’s primary relationship for sex. No need for monogamy because we “live by you, desire.”
Sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real
Sun coming up, 5 a.m., I wonder if they got cabs still?
Thinking ’bout the girl in all leopard
Who was rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd
Ok, ‘Ye had a crazy night with zebra girl, coke, and weed. He’s mad confused and reminiscing on leopard girl. So, he had zebra girl and leopard girl in his threesome. Sounds like “the wild” to me! Seriously, the last bar is pretty good. Kiki Shepherd hosts Showtime at the Apollo, the place where she and guests rub a piece of wood for good luck. Nice!
Two tattoos one read “No Apologies”
The other said “Love is Cursed by Monogamy”
It’s something that the pastor don’t preach
It’s something that a teacher can’t teach
Here it is: “Love is cursed by monogamy.” There we have it. Love is the highest virtue of this new religion, and monogamy kills it. So, preachers and teachers are actually hurting love by pushing monogamy on us. This is clearly a jab at established religion. Also, it makes one wonder what ‘Ye’s definition/understanding of love is. It seems to be deeply tied to sexual expression, but I’m not sure if it means more than that. The point, however, is that rigid rules hinder a life of love more than it helps it.
When we die the money we can’t keep
But we probably spend it all cause the pain ain’t cheap, preach
One of the things I like about Kanye’s music is its trasparency, honesty, and contradiction. I believe he does this better than anyone since ‘Pac. One of the things that defines ‘Ye’s music is a deep contradiction between the life he lives and his highest values. He often makes light of or defends is hedonistic lifestyle defined by fashion, sexual pleasure, parties, and good music. But there are other times, even on this album, where he recognizes the transient nature of this lifestyle and its shallowness. He ends this verse, a defense of open relationships and a hedonistic approach to life, with a recognition that material things are unimportant at one’s funeral. He says we can’t keep our money, and seems to imply we should therefore spend it all on coke and sex, but it’s not totally clear. Is his recognition that we don’t keep money when we die a recognition that we can’t take our sexual partners with us when we die too? It’s hard to tell…
So, what’s the theology of “No Church in the Wild”? It seems to me the main message is that organized religion is unable to make sense of life in our world that is so “wild.” There may be a god but the god we see in organized religion is probably not that god. God, if there is one (or many), is probably more like a guiding spirit than anything else. To survive (Jay’s verse) and enjoy (Kanye’s verse) our life on earth we have to pursue our own way outside of established religion, even to the point of creating our own religion as ‘Ye does. There is no guarantee that we will do it right (“does God hear a thugs prayer;” “we can’t take it with us when we go”), but we know organized religion probably doesn’t do it right either. So, like the writer of Ecclesiastes would say, the best we can do is enjoy our work, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die.
This is clearly something those committed to organized religion don’t like to hear, but it raises questions we must answer: What does your religion have to say to a world defined by so much meaningless suffering and injustice? How does your religion respond to the culture of sex today? Is your religion doing more harm or help in the world and in people’s relationships? At least, these are the questions Jay and ‘Ye have not found adequate answers to from the religion they’ve encountered.
So, what is the theology of “No Church in the Wild?” I’d say it’s some blend of an agnostic surivival of the fittest ethic with hedonism and a longing for something more without knowing anyway to discover it.