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"No Church in the Wild" by Kanye West and Jay-Z analysis

I wrote this for a college class and thought, why not post this on my blog?

 “No Church in the Wild” is the opening track on Shawn Carter and Kanye West’s 2011 joint album Watch the Throne. While the song can be classified as a handful of genres, it is hip hop at its core. Carter, known familiarly as Jay-Z, and West, known colloquially at the time as Yeezy, were closely intertwined throughout the 2000s, but this was the first time they worked together on an entire album. With “No Church in the Wild,” they started things off with a bang. The song features popular R&B artists Frank Ocean and The-Dream performing the incredible vocals, with Yeezy and Jay-Z performing the rap verses.  Its theme centers around the ideas of questioning accepted conventions, the arbitrariness of things we accept as true, and the inherent disorder that is present in the supposed world order.

     The lyrics juxtapose accepted and fringe beliefs, presents rhetorical questions for the listener to ponder, and composes them in a way that the most meaningful aspects of the song are the most memorable. In doing so, the song comes off as both profound and melodically outstanding. Jay-Z and Kanye originally crossed paths when Beanie Siegel, a rapper for which Kanye had produced, signed to Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s label. The connection to Jay-Z, an already fully established superstar artist, was the launching point for Kanye’s career. They formed both a professional and personal relationship over the years, collaborating on many songs and further imposing their presence on both rap and pop culture. By the time they finally collaborated on an album with Watch the Throne, their appeal spanned across many different subgroups of music fans. From hardcore rap fans to casual music listeners, the music produced by the duo at this time spoke to all sorts of people. Adding in R&B stars Frank Ocean and The-Dream to the specific track “No Church in the Wild” further expanded their appeal, and added another layer to the mixing of genres within the song. The specific exigence for this song is not clear; the lyrics do not seem to be specific to the experiences of the duo, but rather more abstract generalizations that bring general topics to the forefront of discussion. Overall, the purpose of “No Church in the Wild” is to let us, the listeners, know that our understanding of the world surrounding us is not directly attached to anything of meaning, and that moral authority is highly arbitrary. 

    The opening chorus sung by Frank Ocean perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the song. With the bassline and drums combining together to create a catchy but haunting melody, Ocean sings the following lyrics: “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? / Will he make it out alive? / Alright alright. / No church in the wild.” In beginning with a chorus containing easily memorable lyrics and a catchy melody, they immediately establish the tone and message of the song. It is fairly simple: the inherent world order is not as set in stone as it seems. A king has great power over the masses, but if he fears god, then his life will be controlled by something above him. A non-believer’s agnostic beliefs render any god obsolete, at least on this observable planet. Whether or not the god actually exists is irrelevant, since its reach in the mortal world is dependent on the charisma of its appeal. This point circles back to the title of the song, “No Church in the Wild,” which claims that church is a social construct and not a naturally occurring phenomenon. 

    While the song makes this broader claim, Jay-Z and Kanye seem to focus on one commonly occurring instance that exemplifies the general theme of the song: monogamous relationships. Kanye’s verse makes a point to push the idea that monogamous relationships are socially constructed. Early in the verse, he says “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, ” later emphasizing this point with the line “Love is cursed by monogamy.” The first line establishes the idea that people can have different but ultimately equally valid moral codes. In this case, Kanye’s hypothetical morals posit that, as long you are not deceiving anyone, you are not doing anything wrong. This is not a bad point. When I try to think of any downfalls, or instances in which disobeying this code will result in something that I believe to be morally wrong, the root cause of these moral transgressions lie in deception. Killing someone definitely is wrong, but why? The best answer would be that the person that gets killed almost certainly did not want to be killed. Because of this, the only way to kill them is to deceive them in some shape or form. Otherwise, they would not allow you to kill them. So, after considering that example, is Kanye right? Is deception the only felony? It is a very compelling point, but I’d have to disagree. While it can definitely be argued that most bad things humans do to each other boil down to some form of deception, I would say that exclusively following this code is likely to still lead to negative actions and lessen the amount of good in society. Because of this, other forms of negative behavior have to exist, and deception is just one of many felonies. Jay-Z’s verse takes a philosophical approach as well, alluding to famous philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. 

    Towards the middle of his verse, he starts asking quite a few questions. He starts by “wondering if a thug’s prayers reach,” asking if the Christian god still listens to people who act negatively on Earth. He follows that up with “Is Pius pious ‘cause God loves pious?” The word ‘pious’ means to have piety, which is a devotion to religion. Pius was a very common Greek name, but I’m guessing that he is referring to the controversial former head of the Catholic church Pope Pius XII. With some fun word play, Jay-Z is essentially asking if people with religious devotion are that way because they truly believe, or because if God were to exist, they would ideally be in his favor. This is a much deeper question than you would think at first glance. The central argument made by proselytists is that, if you want to go to heaven, you must believe in God. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that many religious people have their beliefs because they think it will benefit them, and not because of any true faith. Jay-Z finishes with “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats,” which is a very funny, likely sacreligious line that implies that Kanye West might actually be the second coming of Jesus Christ. 

    Throughout the Watch the Throne album, a mysterious interlude that sounds something akin to slowed down circus music plays at the end of a few songs. These include “New Day”, “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Why I Love You,” and, of course, “No Church in the Wild.” I’ve read before that these songs are the more meaningful ones on the album, and their endings are a warning to the listener that the next song will not embody the deeper meaning present in the current song. Modern music, especially hip hop, is generally criticized for lacking meaning and glorifying negative things, whether it be violence, greed, or other sins. Many of Kanye’s songs contain these themes, but they often do so in a self aware way. It makes sense that he would incorporate the aforementioned interlude in an album that is as ostentatious as Watch the Throne is. In doing this, he and Jay-Z establish that the lyrics in “No Church in the Wild” are as intentionally meaningful as presented, which helps establish credibility to the central message. “No Church in the Wild” is a fantastic song that starts of Watch the Throne with music that is both meaningful and fun to listen to. Its message of subjective morality and its questioning of religious authority are both very interesting. The haunting R&B melodies perfectly complement the philosophical rap verses. This song is easily one of my favorite Kanye songs, and among the best songs I have ever listened to.