Toure took the time to analyze and decode Jay-Z’s No Church In The Wild verse off Watch The Throne. Check it out below:
Audio: No Church In The Wild (Jay-Z verse)
Jay-Z’s verse on No Church In the Wild is one of the most interesting on Watch the Throne as it combines religion, spirituality, and philosophy. I tried to unpack most of what I heard but I’m sure there’s things I’m missing. It’s a deep verse.
Tears on the mauseoleum floor
Blood stains the coliseum doors
These are great, brief images, like complex snapshots made by words—those sorts of photos that seem to suggest a scene. These give us moments of power asserting itself on weakness. In some grand, giant building, a mauseoleum, someone has been made to cry. On the door of the grand, giant stadium someone’s blood has been spilled. (Possibly many someones.) In societally-massive places someone has hurt someone else and left the mark of it behind. Thus Jay-Z slides into the song as a detached narrator, passing no judgment on these scenes, like a director starting the film with still images that tell so much but leave many questions, too. Also, really nice poetic work here rhyming a pair of four-syllable-then-one-syllable words.
Lies on the lips of a priest
Thanksgiving disguised as a feast
In the song’s first two lines, the images were literal but in these two lines the images have turned figurative. But still we have power asserting itself on weakness. Priests were once among the most powerful men in society—a time evoked by words like mauseoleum and coliseum. This lying priest is hurting the people who believe him absolutely just as the person (or people) who cried and bled in the previous lines were hurt. Also, this figurative image becomes more literal because the previous two lines were literal so he’s accustomed you to see images from the words so that when you get a figurative line you see that, too. So I visualize the lies—these malicious words sitting on his lips like diseased spittle, about to fly out to the people’s ears. The following line (about Thanksgiving) concludes the series of images with a celebratory moment that’s really a Trojan horse allowing the powerful to take advantage of the weak. Interestingly, the first three lines suggest old Europe— mauseoleum, coliseum, a place where Priests had hegemony—while the fourth line, the line about Thanksgiving, clearly evokes early America, though perhaps at the beginning of America they were still more European than American. Perhaps.
Rollin’ in the Rolls-Royce Corniche
All these lines are getting 2’s because of the overall story they’re telling and how well they fit together to build something that’s greater than the sum of the parts. Is this particular line great in a vacuum? Maybe not, though the alliteration is nice, but what makes it great is how it fits with the lines we’ve been given before. Jay’s been a detached narrator so far, giving himself no place in the story and not even passing judgment on the scenes he’s painting. Here he enters the story in style. In style linguistically—there’s an elegant subtlety to how he inserts himself into the narrative. He doesn’t say “I” but you know it’s him rolling in that expensive car. It’s almost like he’s driven into the story casually—because you wouldn’t drive that car fast. Keep this image in mind—Jay driving. He’s not just bragging. He’s placing himself as a character within the narrative. This is the moment where the verse becomes something of a scene.
Only the doctors got this, I’m hidin’ from police
Jay’s been talking about the interaction of power and weakness but here he locates himself within that conversation but he makes it unclear who’s got the power. He’s got a car that only doctors can afford, that only the rich can get, so it’s a signifier of his power but he’s gotta watch out for the police because they’re the power and they’ll stop him for Driving [An Expensive Ride] While Black. So Jay’s both powerful and not so powerful at the same time.
All white like I got the whole thing bleached
More great, precise imagery. The whole car is cocaine white, the crispest, sharpest white available. This continues the tangible, writerly detail he’s been giving us the whole song. And the bleaching is not just a reference to the car itself. “The whole thing” refers to Jay’s business and persona—he was in the streets and now he’s bleached his life. He’s clean. He’s a business, man. “Cocaine seats” puts the ghost of his old life into the air but we know there’s nothing that cops can stop him for. Except maybe Driving While Black.]
Drug dealer chic
I’m wonderin’ if a thug’s prayers reach
Drug dealer chic is what Jay’s style is all about but it’s not a line that’s blowing me away. But it links nicely with his allusions toward his coke-dealing days and his next line (I’m wonderin’ if a thug’s prayers reach) which goes back to the interplay between power and weakness and who’s truly powerful as well as launching us toward the religiosity alluded to in the song’s title and intro and discussed in depth in the next few lines. But it’s a great line in and of itself, a great philosophical question—do the prayers of an immoral criminal reach God’s ears? Does God take care of everyone or just those who are good? Keep in mind “I’m wonderin…” which may seem like a throwaway but isn’t—it’s there that the verse starts a trip into his mind. I see him cruising in his Corniche, pontificating, gettin all philosophical and shit.
Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?
This is an awesome line that deserves much more than 2. Jay’s taken the spiritual/philosophical question of the previous line to another level and dropped a deep and legendary philosophical question. This is the legendary Euthyphro dilemma in which Socrates asks “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” We’re talking Socrates now? We’re asking what is the source of what is Godly? Why are the things considered morally good considered that? How do we know what is Godly and why? In a polytheistic society, like the one Socrates lived in, this question was all the more complex: what if one god favors one behavior and another does not? This line, right after wondering if a criminal’s prayers would be answered by God, makes for a really deep pair of thoughts. In quick succession Jay’s wondered about the relationship to God of society’s moral lowest and highest. This, in a pop song?
Socrates asks, “Whose bias do y’all seek?”
Before he quoted Socrates, now he name checks him and gives us his own summary of what Socrates is saying. Whose opinion matters to you? Are you following reason or faith? This is a pop song?
All for Plato, screech
Now he’s naming Plato, Socrates’s homie. I can’t believe this sort of philosophical discussion and historical name-checking is flowing so smoothly in a pop song. But the 2 points here really goes to the seemingly insignificant “screech” which is a pivot point in the verse. It’s an onomatopoeia, of course, but it works two ways stopping two things. First it stops this line of deep philosophical discussion he’s been giving us. This is the pivot where he turns sharply and moves away from philosophy and into more classic Jay talk. But also, go back to the image of him in the car, when the Rolls enters the narrative. Jay describes the Rolls that he’s sitting in then says “I’m wonderin…” and the lines after that are a continuously deepening series of philosophical thoughts moving from a thug’s relationship with God to Socrates’s pondering the nature of piety. All these are thoughts he’s having as he’s rolling in the Rolls. It’s as if the voice of his inner monologue had been going in a voice-over. And then the car—the vehicle in which he’s having these thoughts—comes to a hard stop, a screech, and he snaps back to real life.
Go here: Toure’s full unpacking of NO CHURCH In The Wild (Jay-Z Verse) here.
Update: Afrocentric Asian goes deeper into Jay-Z’s verse on No Church In The Wild.
“No Church in the Wild” is in many ways the perfect album opener. It not only establishes the album’s general theme but it also pretty much justifies everything else that comes after it. What’s a God to a non-believer, who don’t believe in anything? asks Frank Ocean in the haunting hook. Then Jay proceeds with what I believe to be one of the best verses of his career. Tears on the mausoleum floor, blood stains the Colosseum doors, lies on the lips of a priest, Thanksgiving disguised as a feast. Tainted beauty. Elaborate, magnificent, seemingly holy surfaces that distract from the depravity, violence, decay and corruption that lie underneath. Jay then references his car, attire and past as a drug dealer, almost as if saying that he’s a part of the same historical tradition he first referenced. But it’s not until the next few bars when it all comes together. I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach, is Pius pious cause God loves pious? Socrates asked whose bias do ya’ll seek? All for Plato (play dough), screech. Woah, a rapper referencing the Euthyphro dilemma? Jay is really operating on a higher level here.
I won’t go into too much detail about the dilemma since that would take up an entirely new post. But it basically poses this question; is what society considers to be morally good commanded by God because it is truly morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God? It asks the question of whether or not there is a definitive moral standard or if morality is completely relative and subjective. Jay is addressing this from two different perspectives which lead to the same conclusion. He looks at the dilemma from the point of view of its creator, Socrates, who was referencing the gods of Greek mythology, who are known to be biased and flawed despite their power. Since society’s moral standards are coming from a biased and flawed source, those standards shouldn’t be completely trusted or followed, giving way to moral relativism. Where Jay really gets bold is his second perspective, the Judeo-Christian God who is perfect and infallible. As Frank Ocean states, these moral standards are meaningless if you don’t even believe in it’s source. But Jay goes further with his Pius/pious wordplay. There’s the actual word pious which not only means religious but also a hypocritical display of virtue. Then there’s Pius, the name of numerous Popes throughout history who often were, you guessed it, religious while showing a hypocritical display of virtue. It ties back to Jay’s earlier references of tainted beauty as well as what Jay believes to be the hypocritical nature of those in power, whether a god or man, who decide what is and what isn’t morally right.
So what’s the point of all this? It’s an outright rejection of what society teaches to be moral in favor of a move towards individualism and living a life free of boundary. Since Jay has rejected this while giving his reason for doing so, he’s now free to do whatever he wants, including indulge in materialism and drug dealing which he references earlier in the verse, two things that society deems as immoral. To drive this point further he ends his verse by comparing Kanye to Jesus and himself to the holy ghost. Blasphemous? Only to those who actually believe in who he references.
Kanye sees the lane that Jay’s carved and runs right through it with his verse, an unabashed ode to hedonism. We formed a new religion, no sins as long as there’s permission. And that’s one of the tamer bars that Ye spits. Sex, drugs rock and roll, it’s all there. And it all fits in perfectly with the point of view that Jay first established. No church in the wild, living on instinct and what feels good rather than what society deems as acceptable. It’s pretty compelling stuff for just one song.