Music has long dealt with complex issues. The first songs were Gregorian chants, which were written to praise God and his benevolence or righteous vengeance against mankind. The oldest hymn, or chant stems back to 609 A.D. and deals with themes such as death, life, redemption, and grace. Music has been used by man to help establish systems of control, to persuade, and to help enforce or to tear down said established systems of control.
In the twentieth century, however, artists have often used music to fly into the face of tradition, and to raise questions in the minds of their listeners. They’ve often posed philosophical questions, or even questioned the established traditional system. One such song is No Church in the Wild, which is from the album, Watch The Throne. The rhetors involved are Jay-Z (Shawn Carter), Kanye West, The-Dream (Terius Nash) and Frank Ocean (Christopher Francis Ocean). Each of the rhetors contributed collaboratively to the song, and its content, which includes the themes discussed within it. Critics of the song have praised it’s complexity, for it tackles themes of existentialism, religious doctrine, and even existentialism. I feel that a full rhetorical criticism in the form of a close text analysis will reveal more than just passing mentions of these themes, but a deeper underlying theme that runs throughout the entire song. I also feel the best way to identify these themes is through a thorough textual analysis to identify first, what this underlying theme is, and secondly how it’s constructed and supported within the choices made by each of the rhetor’s involved in this particular rhetorical act.
A close text analysis is designed to look at each individual rhetorical choice made within a rhetorical act or artifact. The technique was pioneered and developed by Herman Stelzner. The goal of a close text analysis is empirical in nature, focusing on word choices, rhythms, syllables, arguments, metaphors, language, and even the amount of pauses taken, as well as where each of these pauses exist.
The chorus, sung and supposedly penned in part by Frank Ocean, opens No Church in the Wild with the words, “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?” The first thing that stands out in this particular grouping is the number of syllables used in the first two of the questioning phrases. They are each exactly six syllables, and what’s more, each of the first four groupings are separated by pauses. The pauses may be for effect, as if to add more weight to each question, or it may be strictly for rhythmic purposes, but in either case, each of these questioning phrases help establish the theme of the entire song, which is that of a subverting the traditional norms of society. In this case, the tradition that is being questioned is what’s known as the “Great Chain of Being” in which every supposed being in theology is ranked into a hierarchy. The hierarchy outlined here by No Church in the Wild challenges that very hierarchy by suggesting that a god means as much as a man does in the eyes of a non-believer. Note here that instead of the word “atheist”, the word non-believer is chosen instead. This word usage might suggest that the non-believer isn’t simply someone who questions the existence of a god in the monotheistic Christian theology, but someone who doesn’t buy into any of the traditions or trappings of society. This is reinforced by the next line, “Will he make it out alive? Alright alright, no church in the wild”. The “he” in this line may refer to the central man in Frank Ocean’s cyclical, subversive take on the Great Chain of Being. This subversion of traditional Western theology is a theme continued throughout this particular rhetorical discourse. Also of note is the statement, “no church in the wild”. The wild here may be a contrast between the ordered and structured traditional lifestyle that is traditionally advocated by religious traditions and the actual life that many actually live or practice. This, coupled with the idea that there is “no church in the wild” may refer to the life that is outside of the traditionally accepted one.
Also of interest is the music behind the opening hook, or chorus. It maintains the standard rhythmic drum section, until the line “what’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” At this line, suddenly an overlay of strings comes in, which may have been added to give the listener a feeling of sudden discovery, or of a revelatory truth suddenly coming to light. This makes what ‘s being said seem more like “truth” than the tradition it’s questioning, though in reality, this brand of logic would suggest that there really is no truth beyond one man.
At this point, the next rhetor, Jay-Z begins to speak. He starts off with a series of very visual phrases, “Tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains the Colosseum doors, lies on the lips of the priest, thanksgiving disguised as a feast.” The interesting thing about each of these phrases is that they are each separated by a brief pause. This pause, just as it did with the hook, adds a certain amount of weight to each phrase. Another thing worth noting is the grouping of the four phrases into two thoughts by means of syllables. The first two phrases both share the commonality of being eight syllables apiece. The following two phrases, “lies on the lips of a priest”, and “Thanksgiving disguised as a feast” are separated by one syllable, but are still very much similar in their delivery. And the end of each of these phrases, the hissing sound of the “s” is elongated, clarifying the grouping of these two phrases together. What exactly though is Jay-Z referring to? A mausoleum is the tomb of a king, a testament to his legacy. The Colosseum, or the Flavian Amphitheatre still stands as a testament to the greatness of the Roman empire. In both cases, they are marred by the truth, in the case of a the mausoleum, the tears of the subjects, not in grieving their king, but the pain of having to supply the funding for this last great monument in his honor. The Colosseum, as a legacy is a constant reminder of the bloody past of Rome, in which the doors were “stained by blood” so to speak. This symbolism may attest to the idea that all who were entered those doors shared in the bloodshed that was contained within.
The final two phrases are equally visual in content. Again, Jay-Z is questioning established legacies. Here with these second two phrases, though, these are legacies centric to the United States of America, and its specific ideology. The first is clearly aimed at the tradition of Catholicism, otherwise, the use of the word “priest” would be completely unnecessary. This clear targeting of Catholicism may be, in part, symbolic of the entire institution of perceived Christianity. The use of Catholicism as a symbol of a Christianity in a country that was founded on Protestant beliefs, may be attributed to the sheer age of the traditions of the Catholic church. When it comes to human institutions, there are few, if any, older or more influential than that of Catholicism. In using Catholicism to portray Christianity, the rhetor may be actually attempting to the second tradition being attacked is that of American values such as freedom, and equality. Here, the reference to thanksgiving being “disguised as feast”, questions something that is viewed as pure and incorruptible by many Americans by recalling the history behind the attitude and belief system of the first Americans who established the tradition of Thanksgiving. The first feast was to express gratitude to the Native Americans who helped the first immigrants survive in their “New World”. But as history has told us, there really wasn’t really a sense gratefulness, since the same immigrants that relied on the Native American’s to survive felt that they were “superior” to them, as well as if God had preordained the land that belonged to the Native American’s to be theirs (manifest destiny).
As the rhetor continues, he mentions yet another established tradition when he says “rolling in the Rolls Royce Corniche, only the doctors got this, I’m hiding from police”. This is again establishing a tradition which juxtaposes himself with a medical doctor. As a man with no real formal college education, Jay-Z isn’t supposed to even know what a Roll Royce Corniche is. In fact, as a black man with only a high school education, if he is seen driving that car, he is a target for harassment from the police, which is why he’s “hiding from the police.” Interestingly enough, he takes the first of two pauses here, one of which is a full measure in length, or two upbeats and two downbeats in length or the second which is only three-quarters of a measure in length. These pauses serve to both separate and connect the two phrases they sandwich. It separates the ideas within each phrase, but it clearly delineates each as specific thought. The first thought questioned is the tradition of wealth, or more specifically, the path one should take to achieve wealth. Traditionally, a successful medical doctor is seen as a person deserving of wealth, and the contrast between the rhetor and such a person encourages the listener to question the tradition, since the rhetor has things that only a doctor should. The long, full measure pause helps to punctuate this idea, and separate it from the next statement.
The next phrase, “cocaine seats, all white like I got the whole thing bleached” ties into the idea of why the rhetor is hiding from the police. The imagery chosen to describe the whiteness of the seats, specifically the word cocaine, denotes an element of crime, or something illegal. This thought ties in well with the second part of the this particular phrase, “all white like I got the whole thing bleached” which gives the connotation that there was something TO be bleached. In other words, it denotes that something had to be removed, something dark or at the very least not as pure as white. The pause at the end of this piece of rhetoric helps to emphasize it, so that the impact of it lingers a bit as the rhetor then compares his lifestyle to “drug dealer chic”. This is a play on the ideal of “chic”, which is synonymous with being “stylish” or “smart” as a function or element of fashion. Whether or not the rhetor is referring to himself and his past as a drug dealer who is now fashionable or popular, or a reference to the previously aforementioned “cocaine seats” in his Rolls Royce Corniche. The next line suggests the former more than the latter.
The rhetor then asks the question, “I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach.” This ties into the overarching themes of whether or not God exists, but also it’s an interesting question for those who placed the label of “thug” upon others. If a thug is still capable of praying to God and being heard, then this label “thug”, which is intended to denigrate those it’s placed upon as being inferior, is rendered moot. Again this is yet another instance where what is considered traditional is questioned, though in this case, that which is considered traditional is questioned within the realms an ideology of the accepted tradition.
The next line is a direct reference to the teachings of Socrates as outlined by Plato in Euthyphro. “Is pious pious cause God loves pious?” This idea may stem back to the idea that those who would levy the judgment of “thug” against others are traditionally pious, but as postulated by Socrates in Euthyphro, many of those who feel that they are righteous or “pious” could not even define the concept themselves. Again the theme of questioning tradition surfaces, and this theme is continued in the next line, “Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek?” The use of the word “bias” suggests the same dilemma faced by Socrates and Euthyphro in defining piety, since the belief that piety was anything that was loved by the gods, meant piety or goodness was subject to the whim of the gods, and the Greek gods were notoriously fickle. However if the gods loved pious because it was pious denotes that pious is an absolute, and isn’t subject to change. To determine which is true, Socrates essentially said it depended on whether you felt piety was absolute or relative, or the “bias” that you sought. In fact, Socrates himself was a philosopher known for his questioning of the normative traditions of his society, so much so that he was often referred to as “a gadfly”.
Also of note is the sudden speed used to deliver the line “Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?” This line may have been delivered speedily to emphasize the rhythmic nature of the sentence itself. Other purposes are possible though not readily evident.
The rhetor continues with the line “All for Plato, screech. I’m out here balling, I know y’all hear my sneaks.” This is a metaphor that uses onomatopoeia as a clever means of word play. Here the sound “screech” echoes the sentiment of basketball players, who in the sudden stops and turns while playing basketball produce a screeching sound from their rubber-soled athletic shoes. The metaphor is in the double entendre in play, for balling can also be a slang term for someone who is doing well financially.
The verse ends with an interesting comparison, when the rhetor says “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy he laid beats, Hova flow the Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats, preach”. This line hearkens back to the chorus, in which a god was not greater or lesser than one man. Jesus, in Western Christian theology, is viewed as either God’s Son, or God within the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus, in the gospel account of his life, was a carpenter. Here Jay-Z draws a direct correlation to his collaborating partner, Kanye West, by saying that he “laid beats”. Here beats are metaphorically being compared to bricks, which is more of a comparison than a contrast. Both a carpenter and a brick layer are responsible for creating the frame of a house or structure. In this comparison, Kanye, who is a producer, creates the framework for Jay-Z, who in this metaphor is “Hova”, which is a clear reference to the anglicized form of God’s name. This in conjunction with the idea of the words leaving Jay-Z’s mouth being personified in the form of the Holy Ghost, completes Jay-Z’s version of the Trinity. This is yet another example of a metaphor that questions the traditional Christian theology along the same framework established by the opening chorus which used cyclical logic to and rhetorical syllogisms to equate a man to a god. The theme of questioning tradition is again continued here, since what is being spoken here would be considered blasphemy within an established system of theology. The theme of theology and church is continued by the next line, “Get the hell up out your seats, PREACH!” This calls to mind imagery of “testifying” which is common in many different denominations of Christianity. The choice to use the word “hell” within the phrase “get up out your seats” is interesting in its brazenness, since the hell is clearly a theological term, but in the rhetor’s use here, it is counter to the theologically prescribed use. Also to be noted here is the pause that the rhetor places between the last sentence and the word “Preach!” which is immediately followed by the repeating of the chorus, which leads one to believe that the chorus itself is a sermon of sorts, which is a juxtaposition in and of itself with the belief that there is “no church in the wild”.
The hook happens again, and as before, once the rhetor reaches the “revelatory ideology” of a man being equal to a god, the drums become quiet or stop and a string/woodwind selection reinforces the nature of this sentence.
The next rhetor has a short piece which forms the bridge. Again the theme of religion and questioning it’s established traditions surfaces, this time by means of comparison and metaphor. The rhetor starts off, “I live by you, desire. I stand by you, walk through the fire.” Here the thought may be that the rhetor lives by desire, essentially doing what he wants as opposed to what societal standards or even religion may dictate to him. Note that the rhetor claims he stands by desire, even if it means he has to “walk through the fire”. Perhaps the rhetor feels his stance of doing what he wants despite of how society or tradition views it causes criticism or fiery opposition, or maybe this shows the extent to which the rhetor will go to get that which he desires. The latter statement seems to be supported by the line “I live by you, desire” and the following line, “your love is my scripture”, which maybe a comparison between this particular ideology and the more “traditional” ideology of Western religion. Another interesting choice by the rhetors is the same inclusion of the string/woodwind compliment which emphasizes this one particular line in the same vein as the line “what’s a god to an non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” Again this emphasis may well be an attempt by the rhetors to make this appear to be “revelatory” in nature, or an example of enlightenment.
The next line is “Let me into your encryption”. An encryption is a system designed to encode a message of some sort. This encoding then only allows those who understand it to comprehend the message. Perhaps the rhetor is asking to be allowed into the personified desire’s system of encoding, or is suggesting that in desire the system of standards is built by those who are in it, and thereby not comprehended by those on the outside of it. This supports the idea of “walking through the fire” of the criticism of those outside of the system or “encryption”.
The next line is spoken by the rhetor Kanye West, “coke on her black skin, made a stripe like a zebra, I call that jungle fever.” This is an interesting start to a verse which questions traditional norms since the established norm of what is termed “jungle fever” is traditionally a romantic relationship between a black person and white person, yet this is clearly involves a black woman and the rhetor, who is a black man. The invocation of a “jungle” and a “zebra” continues the theme of the wild, in essences recalling it to the mind of the listener. The rhetor continues with the line “you will not control the threesome, just roll the weed up until I get me some”. The theme of drugs and sex continue here, which sets up the next line of “We formed a new religion, no sins as long as there’s permission.” This statement within the context of the previously mentioned relationship of cocaine and black skin, as well as the mention of a threesome is clearly against the traditional aspects of a Western religion and theology. Therefore, as mentioned, this new religion is formed, win which the only sin is not seeking permission. The rhetor continues this thought in the next line, “and deception is the only felony, so never fuck nobody without telling me”. This is a continuation of the theme of a new religion of polyamoury, or the practice of “ethical non-monogamy”, which is also against the doctrine of Western religion. Also of note is the fact that the seriousness of deception is reinforced by the sudden stop of the music behind the rhetor as he left to speak this “truth” acapella.
The next line, “Sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real. Sun coming up at 5 a.m., I wonder if they got cabs still?” continues the narrative started in this verse. Kanye in this narrative, is taking what is traditionally called the “walk of shame”, or the walk home the morning after a one night stand. Intriguingly enough, the rhetor claims the night was “mad real”, perhaps calling the traditional ideology of Western religion and theology that he’s comparing it to as not feeling “real”, or as if it isn’t as fulfilling as his polyamourous lifestyle. The rhetor continues with his narrative of the night before, “Thinking of the girl dressed in all leopard, who was rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd.” This is a direct reference to Kiki Shepherd, long time co-host of Showtime at the Apollo, a popular television show centered around the same event that took place at the Apollo theatre. The reference to “rubbing on the wood” is a double entendre, playing on the slang term of wood.
The next line sums up all of the rhetor’s arguments so far, “two tattoos one read ‘No Apologies’, the other said ‘Love Is Cursed by Monogamy’”. Here we see themes of non-monogamous love, or even desire, being unapologetically revered in a religious fashion, which run contrary to the established system of norms already established by Western theology.
The final lines of the song before the repeat of the hook are: “That’s something that the pastor don’t preach. That’s something that a teacher can’t teach. When we die the money we can’t keep. But we probably spend it all because the pain ain’t cheap…preach!” Here we see the same repetition that occurred at the outset of the song, where syllables and pauses are used to demarcate important phrases. Here in concluding his verse, the rhetor sums up the entire song with the idea that finding “truth” or “enlightenment” can’t be taught by those who we traditionally look to for answers. The rhetor may also be suggesting that the traditional methods shouldn’t be trusted, but as he has formed his own religion each person should do the same.
Finally, Kanye West makes the same statement of “Preach!” that Jay-Z had before the final repetition of the chorus, reinforcing the concept of the chorus being like a “sermon”, which ties in with the theme of “forming one’s own religion” even more strongly.
No Church in the Wild covers many complex themes, but as a close text analysis shows, two underlying themes run throughout the song. The first is the theme of questioning traditions, particularly those of Western theology and societal standards. This theme is coupled with the ideology of creating one’s own standards of living. The second theme is existential in nature, and is carried throughout the entire song by the chorus’s cyclical logic. These two themes, while supplemented by others throughout the song, are the most dominant that are developed within the song.