The release of Romain Gavras’ powerful protest-themed video for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s existential anthem “No Church in the Wild” has sparked a resurgence of interest in the track. One of the most powerful numbers from the duo’s superb and oft-misinterpreted Watch the Throne collaboration, the song is full of meaningful, evocative lyrics and thoughtful meditations on philosophy, history, morality, and religion — plus a dirty joke or two. Below, five of our favorite moments:
5. “Thinking ’bout the girl in all leopard/Who was rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd” (Kanye)
Ye’s verse on this tune is nowhere near as thoughtful and wide-ranging as his rap big brother’s. However, he does have some strong moments, such as this pun on “wood”. Shepherd is the long time co-host of Showtime at the Apollo, a show where performers famously rub a section of the legendary Tree of Hope that the theater owns for good luck before performing. Kanye, of course, is referring also to a more naughty interpretation of the word “wood” here. He may well have been inspired in this rhyme by Redman, who wanted to “make girls like Kiki Shepherd get naked” on his debut album. Even more directly, OutKast’s Big Boi rhymed “Kiki Shephard” with “ho in a leopard /Print” on “So Fresh, So Clean” over a decade ago. Wherever Kanye found inspiration, though, the “rubbing the wood” double-meaning makes the Beavis in us chuckle every time.
4. “We formed a new religion/No sins as long as there’s permission/And deception is the only felony/So never fuck nobody without telling me” (Kanye)
While conspiracy theorists the world over hopped on these lines (especially the first two) as proof of Jay and Kanye’s submission to some imaginary Illuminati cult, Kanye’s real meaning is far more interesting. In these lines, he stresses a relationship based on communication and consent, without the restraints of conventional monogamy. While he is certainly not the first public figure to advocate for polyamory (perhaps most prominently, popular relationship/sex columnist Dan Savage has been talking about “monogomish” couples for years), it is a welcome and thoughtful departure from the standard player/pimp pose that dominates so much of the genre. The lyric also touches on the religious themes and imagery that work their way through all of Watch the Throne (the threesome that Kanye is involved in during this verse nods to Jay’s verse-ending Holy Trinity reference, for example), and makes explicit the song title’s rejection of codes of conduct imposed from on high.
3. “Is Pious pious ’cause God loves pious?/Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek?” (Jay)
The rap icon deftly sums up the central dilemma of Plato’s Euthyphro in only a few words, with an extra nod to the dozen or so Popes named Pius and their piety or lack thereof. We’re definitely letting Jay take our Philosophy 102 final for us!
2. “Lies on the lips of a priest/Thanksgiving disguised as a feast” (Jay)
One of the things that sets Jay-Z apart from many rappers is that he understands the importance of restraint. Since his very first record, he’s gotten that a weary “Believe you me, son/I hate to do it just as bad as you hate to see it done” is far more menacing than any number of “I’ll shoot you point-blank”-type exclamations. Here, he uses beautiful, alliterative (“Lies on the lips”) language to call up a range of associations about trust, betrayal, religion and its misuse, and America’s promise and threat. The latter topic is also dealt with masterfully on Watch the Thone’s “Made in America”.
1. “Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy he laid beats/Hova flow the Holy Ghost, get the hell up out your seats, preach” (Jay)
We would be remiss if we didn’t include this verse-ending couplet. Jay’s setting himself and Kanye up as right up there with the real God’s Son (no disrespect to Nas) proves a powerful boast in the context of this song’s heavy use of religious imagery. It also sets up the album’s central theme of our dynamic duo wrestling with their status as members of a black elite class, a concept that is, in America, almost completely new. Last but certainly not least, the “get the hell up out your seats” sets up both the imagery of a church congregation rising to its feet and a stadium audience doing the same thing. The latter scene, played out night after night on the duo’s tour, was a stunning effective AND affecting spectacle.
Read a complete breakdown of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” Lyrics over at Rap Genius.