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.

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse, by Burlee Vang

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse‘ is a poem by teacher, poet, and filmmaker Burlee Vang.

As with any analysis of a poem, it should start by reading the poem in its entirety (some would say at least twice). Here it is:

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse
Burlee Vang

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.
As if it still matters. As if someone

is trying to recall a dream.
Believe the brain is a cage of light
& rage. When it shuts off,

something else switches on.
There’s no better reason than now
to lock the doors, the windows.

Turn off the sprinklers
& porch light. Save the books
for fire. In darkness,

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon,
across the periphery of a gun scope—

the flicker of shadows,
the rustling of trash in the body
of cities long emptied.

Not a soul lives
in this house &
this house & this

house. Go on, stiffen
the heart, quicken
the blood. To live

in a world of flesh
& teeth, you must
learn to kill

what you love,
& love what can die.

Setting the Scene

The title is doing a lot of work to situate the reader. Without it, the zombie-apocalypse setting could be missed. The poem could be read as describing the experience of a survivor in a war-zone. There is an overall feeling of disorientation, fear, violence, and animalistic survival in an unraveling society. But the zombie elements, with the exception of the title, are not so pronounced.

The clues are there: words like “brain” and “rage” evoke the zombie mythology, as does “a world of flesh / & teeth”. But these could just as well be interpreted only as evoking our violent natural instincts. The boys in Lord of the Flies could be said to have lived in “a world of flesh and teeth” in this sense.

Sometimes I like having to work a bit to pull the meaning out of a poem. But in this case, I think the poem works better with a title that firmly situates us in the zombie apocalypse setting.

One of the features that I find interesting about this poem is the way it continually keeps us off-balance and disoriented. This effect is felt more strongly if we begin from a firm footing and are knocked from it. For this reason, I appreciate the scene-setting work that is done by the title.

Disorientation and Disrupted Expectations Through Line Breaks

The poem uses line breaks to disrupt our expectations and keep us off-balance. Because of this recurring formal element, the reader feels the chaos and confusion of the speaker.

Nothing is certain in this poem. Things change in an instant. We feel disorientation, a need to continually find our footing. We are lost in the confusion of the fight for survival, along with the speaker. This effect is achieved in large part through the judicious use of line breaks.

Consider the first line:

The moon will shine for God

This is most readily interpreted, prior to the line break, as meaning “for the sake of God” -until this interpretation is disrupted in the next line:

knows how long.

Our brain is forced to backtrack, to re-parse the words, and amend the meaning of “for” to indicate duration (God knows how long) instead of a beneficiary (God). This backtracking knocks us slightly off balance and gives a subtle feeling of disorientation, compounded by the certainty of our first interpretation to the doubt of “God knows how long”.

It is also interesting that this backtracking effectively erases “God”, who turns from an entity prior to the line break, to a dead metaphor across the threshold of the line break; in the first line there is a “God”, and in the second line “God” is gone.

A similar effect is achieved by the line

[…] Save the books

which, prior to the line break, means to preserve knowledge. It implies the importance of preserving books, and all with which that is associated: our cultural, social, and intellectual heritage. That line is followed, across the line break, with the words

for fire […]

We are forced to backtrack again to reinterpret the words we have just read. Again, we feel the disorientation as we move across the line break. And again, something important has been lost: the value of books has been destroyed across the threshold of the line break.

The first line showed us God, then erased God across the line break. These lines show us our cultural, social, and intellectual heritage, and then destroy it across the line break.

A similar disorienting effect is achieved with the lines:

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon

In the first line, we are given the suggestion that the survivors will pick up the pieces of their society, to rebuild the intellectual fabric of society, until the line break disrupts this hope: they are learning to survive in their new world, and to kill.

Contrast of Light and Dark

This poem makes great use of sharply contrasting images and, in particular, a contrast between light and dark. In the first stanza we have the glow of the moon. In the second we have the brains described as a “cage of light” that shuts off. The porch-light is turned off. A fire is lit, for just two words, before we return to darkness. Shadows flicker.

I really feel the darkness in this poem, and I think that is in part because it is contrasted so sharply with the images of light that appear earlier: the moon, the fire, the porch-light, the “cage of light” that is the brain.

All the images of light becoming darkness are symbolic of the zombie mythology. Through its use of contrasting light and dark, the poem embodies the transformation of human to zombie.

Final Words

I hope you enjoyed this short look at some of the elements in Burlee Vang’s poem, “To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse”.

I write posts on poetry and craft once a week. Check back soon for more posts like this one.

Thanks for reading.

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.