No Church in the Wild

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.

Exhaustive Analysis?
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.

Theme

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.

Chorus

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:

nothing
nothing
nothing
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.

Final Words

I hope you liked this analysis of No Church in the Wild. Now might be a good time to listen to the song.

If you liked this post and want to thank me for writing it, or if you want to see more posts like this in the future, please buy me a coffee:

Student Anthology: Sonic Spring

book cover front

My ESL students at Newton International College have put together an anthology of their poems, stories, essays, and art, called Sonic Spring. It’s available in paperback and kindle editions.

If you’re interested in seeing work from my students -they are all ESL students studying abroad- then grab a copy. I am sure you will find something you like in there. Among the many creative products you’ll find stories, poems, and essays that are funny, sad, engaging, clever, sensitive, and insightful. Just don’t expect perfection, and everyone please be kind and encouraging in your reviews.

Bitter Knowledge, by Yannis Ritsos

“Bitter Knowledge” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990). It can be found in the collection “Late into the Night: the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos”.

Consider reading my analysis of Ritsos’ poem “Maybe, Someday” before this one. These two poems can be read together, and it makes more sense for the other one to come first.

As with any analysis of a poem, we should begin by reading it in its entirety first, and appreciating it as a whole.

Bitter Knowledge
by Yannis Ritsos (translation karlóvasi, 6-30-87)

Stay in this sheltering half-light with folded hands.
There’s nowhere for the lame night-watchman to sit.
The chairs were sold off two weeks ago. Out front,
they’re hosing out some large barrels. Barges
lie beached in the harbor. The newscaster’s voice
carries from across the street. I don’t want to hear.
I sweep the charred moth wings off the table
from the night before, knowing only
that all their weight is in their weightlessness.

Tone

The tone is depressed, wistful and resigned. A number of images point to giving up or feeling powerless: the “folded hands”, the “lame” watchman with nowhere to sit, the charred wings. The images also create a deep feeling of emptiness or lacking purpose: The barrels, being hosed out, empty; The watchman, nowhere to sit; The barges beached on the harbor, inert; The moth wings, discarded, burned, brushed from the table. The images in this constellation all show loss: a loss of purpose or function.

The overall impression created is one of sadness, emptiness, and loss.

Watson’s tone analyzer confirms this reading, identifying sadness and fear as the prevailing moods.

Interpretation

Ritsos is talking about his life as a poet. He is the “lame night-watchman”, powerless as death (“night”) approaches. The “bitter knowledge” of the title concerns his life’s work.

Late into the night of his life, he is reconsidering his contributions, weighing the value of his life’s work. The charred moth wings “from the night before” are the totality of his life’s work: insubstantial, charred, fragile, crumbling at the slightest touch. Their value: nothing, except proving their “weightlessness”.

Ritsos devoted his entire life to poetry. He hoped that he might share the beauty of the world as he saw it, through his poetry. This was his driving passion: to end the loneliness of living in his private world; to bridge the divide between separate beings; to commune with others through his craft. At the end of his life, he came to dismiss his life’s work -sweeping it from the table- as a total failure.

Short story Ngu’Tinh available as standalone eBook

My short story “Ngu’Tinh” is now available as a standalone eBook.

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This is a military/horror/action story about a group of Navy SEALs fighting a supernatural threat in the jungles of Vietnam. It was first published in the SNAFU: Hunters anthology by Cohesion Press.

In its first draft, the story was called “Hunter’s High”, because it featured a monster whose psychic-hunting abilities didn’t work on people who were high on heroin. Now it’s named after a mythological creature known as “Ngu’Tinh”.

The story is priced at .99USD, 1.33CDN, or free for Kindle Unlimited readers. It will also be free as a promotion this weekend (Friday June 2 through Sunday June 4) for all readers. If you download a copy, please give the story a review on Amazon; These are much more valuable for me than money.

Thanks for your support, and I hope you like the story.