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:

Starboy, by The Weeknd

“Starboy” is a song by musical artist The Weeknd, and featuring Daft Punk. The genre, I guess, is R&B.

I would like to consider the lyrics as poetry.

I didn’t say R&B is poetry. That’s a boring claim, which says less about R&B or poetry than it does about one’s own conception of the boundaries of poetry. It also subtly implies that the art form’s value depends to some degree on whether we can convince the right authorities that it counts as “Poetry”. That’s a game of definitions to disguise a claim of aesthetics.

But the phrase ‘R&B as poetry’ says something different. It says that R&B lyrics can be viewed with the same critical eye that we take to poetry; That if we treat the lyrics with the same care and attention with which we treat poetry, they will give something back.

If there are stodgy conservatives who reject the claim that R&B lyrics could be considered poetry, for whatever aesthetic reason, then Starboy, by The Weeknd, might be the perfect case study for them. It is meant to have a superficial exterior that affirms prejudices and stereotypes of the lives of celebrity artists.

Here’s the first verse, eight lines.

I’m tryna put you in the worst mood, ah
P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah
Milli point two just to hurt you, ah
All red Lamb’ just to tease you, ah
None of these toys on lease too, ah
Made your whole year in a week too, yah
Main bitch out your league too, ah
Side bitch out of your league too, ah

We might start by noticing the rhymes. Ignoring the obvious “ah”, we’ve got rhymes on the end of every line, with mood/shoes/you/too. But there’s also the slant rhymes on worst/church/hurt and tease/lease/week/league. (As it turns out, the rhyme on church/hurt might be the most significant, though we’ll have to wait to see why).

But let’s think about the content. It looks very much like shallow braggadocio. He is posturing. He brags about his sports cars (his P1 McLaren and his red Lamborghini), his stockpile of money, his income, and his multiple sexual partners (who he doesn’t seem to respect a great deal).

Allow me to suggest there is a deeper meaning here. Yes, I am serious. We should look more closely, in particular, at the second line.

P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah

This is an odd comparison to make. He hasn’t chosen to focus on the cost of the car, its performance, its speed or its power, but its cleanliness. And of all things, he has compared it to church shoes. Cleanliness connotes devotion, and is also associated with moral purity. To make this comparison is not just say that his car is clean, but to imply that the other person’s shoes are at least a little bit dirty -that their church shoes have been neglected. The subtext is admonition for a failure of religious devotion.

We might also wonder: who is this person whose church shoes are being criticised? Who is the Weeknd talking to in this way? It is a strange thing to pick on someone’s church shoes. Not everyone goes to church. The speaker must know this person enough to know that they will be cut by a criticism of their religious devotion. Indeed, the speaker does know this person very well. Because he’s talking about himself. This is a song about internal conflict. It is about someone suffering under the surface of their celebrity, because they have sacrificed their religious identity for fame.

Not convinced? Let’s move to the pre-chorus.

House so empty, need a centerpiece
20 racks a table cut from ebony
Cut that ivory into skinny pieces
Then she clean it with her face man I love my baby
You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade
Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

First of all, I love how well this works on both levels. This section, too, can be read straightforwardly as superficial bragging. It uses the language of drugs and wealth to construct a perfect veneer of shallowness. Unless we look closer, we could easily miss it -that’s actually the point. But the moment we exert any kind of critical pressure, it falls away.

House so empty, need a centerpiece

Okay, so he has a big house. But what an odd way to brag about it. One doesn’t usually brag about a house by calling it empty, or saying that you need a centerpiece. That line drives at the essence of the song. It is about his own emptiness, his own need. And there is the question of whether “centerpiece” was used for its homophonic double meaning, “center peace”.

You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade

One part of his conscience struggles with the other. The “starboy” is responding to accusations that he has sacrificed his religious identity for fame. He can’t refute that charge, but instead makes an admission: he is blind and deaf to the concerns of his religious self.

The following two lines make this more clear.

Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

Here, the “starboy” aspect of his self says he is willing to do whatever it takes to be famous. To “take any lane”. Even though he knows, ultimately, that it won’t make him happy. He ends the pre-chorus by admitting, in no uncertain terms, that he is in pain.

We get to the chorus, when his religious-self responds to the starboy-self.

Look what you’ve done
I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy

He is, of course, blaming himself. The tone is most clearly accusatory, not congratulatory. It is derisive. to be a “motherfuckin’ starboy” is not presented as commendable. It is contemptible.

By repeating the title in the chorus here, it is invested with the energy of the song, making it stand as a symbol for the artist’s conflicted self. The “starboy” is a celebrity with all the superficial trappings of fame, but is suffering from spiritual emptiness. This theme is enacted perfectly by the form -superficial on the surface, but hiding something else below. The shallow, materialistic bragging hides his spiritual emptiness and his pain.

Give the song a listen, with this interpretation in mind.

Final Words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post and found it interesting. I update this site regularly (once a week), so check back soon. Also, you should check out the other posts. There are articles on craft, and more poetry analysis.

Thanks.