Hip-hop philosophy in “No Church In The Wild”.
By: Devin Creed
Featuring: Aaron Schreck and Forester McClatchey
It is our express interest to treat rap lyrics as texts worthy of respectful academic attention. Generally speaking the literary intelligentsia shrug off rap lyrics, if they acknowledge the lyrics at all. Rap is considered outside their purview. Our purpose here is one, to redeem in the eyes of Hillsdale the unfairly maligned genre by disinterring the serious discourse it can contain, and two, to lead you, the reader, on a life-affirming one-way journey to funk-town.
Lil Clatch, D-Crizzle, and The Real Schreck Shady.
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.
The Real Schreck Shady
Frank Ocean’s ethereal voice looms over “No Church In The Wild” like a battle standard raised above an advancing army. Adorned in furs and jewelry, Yeezy and Hov sit atop their throne and survey the splendor of their legions. This opening track provides a window into the world of Watch The Throne, where personal strength and self-aggrandizement reign. Frank Ocean’s opening hook introduces the essential hought experiment of this fabricated universe: Can human beings escape the bonds of social and religious hierarchy and live as Yeezy and Hov do—atomistic and detached from any ethical constraint external to their will?
Ocean’s first two lines provide a framework for the traditional socio-political hierarchy, or church, from which the song proposes an escape. The individual “human beings” come together and form “mobs” which in turn rally under “kings” who receive their authority from an omnipotent “god”. An individual’s identity and morality depend upon the divine as mediated by societal myths—the “lies on the lips of a priest” which Jay-Z decries.
Into such a framework, the song introduces the “non-believer who don’t believe in anything.” Can such a man break these chains of social and existential dependence and enter into the wild—a Hobbesian landscape of radical freedom and radical disorder? Kanye further develops this idea in his verse, rapping that “we’ve formed a new religion, / No sins as long as there’s permission.” These lines depict the usurpation of religion’s universal moral authority by the individual will. There is no church out in the wild to establish ethical standards for all people; as a result, individuals determine the rightness or wrongness of any given action in a purely relativistic manner. Thus, each denizen of the wild must become his own god and lawgiver. Perched upon their throne, Hov and Yeezy serve as models of this personal apotheosis.
But for all this, the central purpose of the song is not to merely envision or even recommend life outside the church. Rather, it questions whether such a life is possible—if the “non-believer” can venture out into the wild and “make it out alive.”
As the synths fall away from the galloping guitar, Jay Z’s flow introduces the listener to the stark poetic vision of a nouveau riche “thug”. His cryptic verse explores the issue of racial and moralistic oppression of the “thug”, and asserts the power of this individual. The first two lines, “Tears on the mausoleum floor / Blood stains the Colosseum door,” establish a dichotomy between kings and slaves: while society weeps in a king’s tomb, it applauds the death of the gladiatorial slaves, easily understood as “thugs.” Through this dichotomy Jay reintroduces the first of Frank Ocean’s questions, “what’s a mob to a king?” and as the verse progresses it becomes clear that Jay Z identifies as both a king and a member of the mob—he grew up hustling cocaine in the projects of Brooklyn, but since then he has become a “king” in rap and pop culture.
The next two lines of Jay’s verse use the reality of racial oppression to expose the morality of the “church” as hypocritical. He spits, “Lies on the lips of a priest / Thanksgiving disguised as a feast.” Here Jay attempts to demythologize the pleasant revisionist narrative of the first Thanksgiving by calling it a “lie” propagated by “priest(s)” which serves as a “disguise” for the uglier truth of Colonial America’s violent and oppressive posture toward Native Americans, a minority group with whom Jay implicitly aligns himself. The fact that a priest utters these “lies” suggests that the “church” is morally bankrupt enough to perpetuate a racist myth. This suggestion implicitly encourages the listener to doubt the moral integrity of the church as a social structure.
Having questioned the morality of the church, Jay begins to critique the society that views him as a “thug” despite his “king” status. The lines, “Rolling in a Rolls Royce Corniche / Only the doctors got this, I’m hidin’ from police,” seem to articulate Jay’s indignation that he still experiences racial discrimination despite his monetary success. The “Rolls Royce” signifies his immense wealth and the “doctors” are his aristocratic (presumably white) peers. By saying that “only” they “got this” while he still “hides from police,” Jay suggests that he must deal with a type of discrimination alien to his peers. In other words, society still views him as a “thug”, part of the “mob”, and treats him accordingly. Extrapolating from this perception of social discrimination, in the line “I’m wonderin’ if a thug’s prayers reach,” Jay wonders if his lingering “thug” label taints him in the eyes of God. This line also implies Jay knows that the moral code espoused by society and religion condemns his hedonistic thug image. He responds to this condemnation by questioning the very basis of the morays that inculpate him, alluding to Plato’s Euthyphro with the paraphrase “Is pious pious ’cause God loves pious?” In the full text, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explore “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” Jay clearly chooses the latter, and questions the objectivity of the gods’ judgment by asking “whose bias do y’all seek?” By diminishing morality to a subjective “bias,” he escapes from the damning shadow of the “church” and renders himself free to remain “out here ballin,” living according to his individualist creed as the thug king.
While Jay describes his life as the romanticized thug king who has risen phoenix-like from his sordid past, Kanye embodies the life of the unabashed hedonist. With frankness that oftentimes borders on the obscene, he opines, “You will not control the threesome / Just roll the weed up until I get some.” Ye claims that he has “formed a new religion” where there are “no sins as long as there’s permission.” But the only permission that matters is his own (“so never f— nobody without telling me”), because he is the omnipotent hedonist king. Ye holds the power over his own life and the lives of those around him.
Jay compares Kanye to Jesus, and indeed, this is a parallel that Kanye embraces in his album Yeezus. Though they preach radical individualism, Jay and Kanye have become the kings that Frank Ocean decries at the start of the song. They have become part of the system of deception that inhibits the supreme freedom of the individual will. Subtly assuming their roles, they end their verses with “Preach”, acknowledging that they have become the priests of the new religion of the individual.
But Jay and Kanye are false prophets, for hedonistic individualism is only a lifestyle for the wealthy and elite;
it is only possible for the powerful to successfully enter the wild. The pleasures that Jay and Ye sing of (“Rolls Royce Corniche”, “coke”, “weed”, prostitutes) can only be continuously enjoyed by those already in the upper strata of society. Creating your own moral standards is only fulfilling when you actually have power to do so. The average member of the “mob” does not hold this power, because the mob is kept down by the god-king-mob hierarchical power structure.
Although Kanye has led the life of a king, he realizes the transience of his existence and the meaningless inherent in materialism. The last two lines of his verse “When we die, the money we can’t keep / But we prolly spend it all ’cause the pain ain’t cheap” articulate a resignation to nihilism. He understands that even those with power can only numb the pain of life so much. Kanye’s individualist materialism struggles to make him happy in this life, but he thinks it the only way to live.
Can man enter the wild and “make it out alive”? Kanye’s answer is both to lambast the church and bemoan the meaninglessness of the Wild.
Devin Creed is a senior studying English and economics.
Aaron Schreck is a junior studying English with a minor in mathematics.
Forester McClatchey is a junior studying art and English.