The song No Church in the Wild is a collaboration by hip hop artists Kanye West and Jay Z. In this post I analyze the lyrics of this song.
This prefatory note could be made of any poetic analysis, but for whatever reason, I felt like I wanted to talk about it now: this isn’t going to be an exhaustive analysis. That’s impossible. A work of art ultimately has to speak for itself, since any analysis will always leave something unsaid.
There is a story (I can’t remember where I heard it) about a man who, enthralled by a ballet performance, asked the dancer what the dance meant, and received the answer: “if I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” All art is an act of expression, and the form is chosen because of the needs of the content. So the essential nature of what is expressed by any work of art must be given by that artwork itself.
So what then is the point of analysis? Not to paraphrase the content. Instead, it’s a way to engage more deeply with the work; to walk around it and look from different angles; to gain an appreciation of its nuances and subtler shades of meaning. But, in the end, we have to return to the work itself.
The theme of the song is expressed by the title. It is an expression of nihilism. The “church” stands for “meaning, value, or purpose” and “the wild” stands for “the world”. So the title literally means “there is no meaning, value, or purpose in the world”.
The central image is not really an image at all, but a negation of an image: “no church”. This complements the message of the song; we feel the loss of value more strongly when contrasted with the image of a church whose existence has been negated. The term “the wild” functions similarly, by implication -the “wild” is a negation of social order.
One might ask whether “the wild” really means “the world”; couldn’t “the wild” literally mean the wild? In another context, sure. But not in this song, which goes works to dispel the illusion of power and reveal the emptiness of our social structures:
Lies on the lips of a priest
Our religious institutions are empty;
Thanksgiving disguised as a feast
Our rituals and celebrations are empty;
Tears on the mausoleum floor
Blood stains the Coliseum doors
These lines evoke violent rebellion and struggles for power, calling to mind the fall of Rome, and illustrating the transitory nature of social order. As powerful as these institutions may appear, they are ephemeral.
And, the first verse cuts straight to the heart of the matter with these lines:
Is Pious pious ’cause God loves pious?
Socrates asks, “whose bias do y’all seek?”
Here, the lyrics reword the Euthyphro dilemma: do the gods love pious things because those things are pious, or are those things pious because the gods love them? What decides ethical value, ultimately? The next line provides the answer: nothing. Everything is just a bias. We decide our own values.
The chorus is a beautifully crafted rhetorical expression of nihilism.
The first line reads:
Human beings in a mob
Superficially, this could be talking about some particular humans who have formed a mob. But this is really a statement about the human condition. We exist as a mob; we are on our own, doing whatever we want to do, without a ruler or governing structure.
The following lines read:
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?
The first three of these lines are all rhetorical questions: “What’s a mob to a king”? (nothing); “What’s a king to a god?” (nothing); “What’s a god to a non-believer?” (nothing). The fourth line is a double negation; “don’t believe in anything” means “believe in nothing”. If we strip away the rhetorical clothing on these lines, they read something like:
believe in nothing
The following lines superficially offer some kind of a response to this nihilism:
We make it out alive
All right, all right
To “make it out alive” is a cliché idiom that means that we’ll get through it, and “all right, all right” seems to be trying to console us -don’t worry, it’ll be alright. But the lines feel half-hearted, empty, and they don’t make us feel at ease.
The use of the cliché “make it out alive” on its own is enough to make the consolation feel dead. But even more striking is the ironic use of “make it out alive” to mean “get through life” -you don’t get out of life alive. That’s the whole point. You die.
In case it was not clear enough that we are meant to be left with the resounding feeling of emptiness, the chorus ends with a repetition of the title line: “no church in the wild”. At the end of the song, this line is repeated four times.
Struggle with nihilism
The lyrics don’t merely call attention to nihilism and wallow in the lack of value. The second verse enacts a struggle within that nihilism, a dramatic evolution as the speaker tries to find purpose in their own way. (Of course, these efforts are doomed to failure, representing, necessarily, the particular bias of the speaker).
I live by you, desire
This line seems to suggest that hedonism is an appropriate response to nihilism.
Your love, is my scripture
This line seems to suggest that love provides a better source of meaning and value than religious institutions.
No sins as long as there’s permission’
This line promotes a worldview where morality is not determined by a religious authority, but by whether you are trespassing on other people’s autonomy.
I hope you liked this analysis of No Church in the Wild. Now might be a good time to listen to the song.
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