Sacred Terrain: Kanye West's Ultralight Beam Delivers Boundaryless Gospel for the 21st Century (Part I)

By the time Chance, the Rapper delivers his first verse on the inspirational introductory track of Kanye West’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo (2016), the listener should recognize they are entering a new and sacred musical space. On the seventh day, the Lord rested. Yeezus, however, is determined to put in work on his Sabbath-album. And while a number of the tracks on the album require deep analysis and interpretation, it’s the first that might just be the best example of Kanye’s still-developing musical genius. “If music get you choked up / this is the tree and the rope,” Kanye mused on Talib Kweli’s “Get By (Remix)" in 2002. Almost fifteen years later, he seems to be living up to that boast.
       The track begins with a sample ready-made by (and for) the digital age. Straight from the social media Instagram account of a four-year old, black Southern girl named Natalie Green. If you hadn’t already encountered little Natalie in your email inbox or Facebook newsfeed, the first time you hear the high-pitch of her four-year old voice mid-prayer, you might be shocked by her ability to summon a spiritual maturity well beyond her years. “We don’t want no devils in the house, God / we want the Lord,” she beseeches, with her mother’s voice countering the call by supplying the proper “yes, Lord / yes, Jesus / yes, God” call-and-responses as common to the amen corners of yesteryear’s storefronts as they are to today’s mega-churches. This sampling of voices, and tongues too (as the little girl slips into a momentary soliloquy of indecipherables—sampling from a rich black Pentecostal tradition herself), is put on loop and then quickly melts into the first synthesized chords of “church organ” that provide the song’s primary musical backdrop. With little Natalie’s opening prayer echoing underneath those chords, the choir joins in. Hopefully by now you’ve grabbed a seat close to the front, because clearly it’s time for church to start.
      What is unique about this Kanye track from the rest of his oeuvre is not the presence of its religious undertones and gospel influences. We’ve seen all that before—as early as his first album with tracks like “Jesus Walks,” “Spaceship,” “Never Let Me Down,” and “I’ll Fly Away.” What’s unique (and exceptionally different) here is that Kanye no longer wants to distract us from those influences. Neither is he simply offering them up as musical asides. Now there is none of that dressing up the organ with layer upon layer of extraneous production and samples. No hiding the sanctified vocal texture of the choir (and the inclusive heteroglossia of its multiple soloists) beneath the call-and-repeat structure of the chain-gang work song. No cotton candy, four-part barbershop harmonies meant as relief from the soundscape rather than as a development of it. Gone are the marching bands and boys’ choirs being drowned out by pounding Dr. Dre drum-samples. These were nice gimmicks early in his career. They allowed Kanye to borrow from a black gospel tradition in ways that paid homage to that tradition without his having to work to add anything substantially original to it (and definitely nothing capable of redefining The Tradition itself).
      In “Ultralight Beam” Kanye has entered a new space, the innermost circle, just beyond the temple veil. This is sacred terrain. He is taking us with him and, by song’s end, we might find ourselves and the holy shroud rent asunder forever. As a gospel or gospel-inspired track, “Ultralight Beam” is more mature than Kanye’s previous efforts; more soul-searching than soul consuming, so to speak. Here, he has not given us another club banger or radio jam produced specifically for repeated airplay (though it may be that someday too). He is no longer the hungry young producer begging, borrowing, stealing, and sampling his way through a myriad of preexisting musical sources in attempts to catch lightning in an mp3. Now he is Moses. Not of the Hebrew scripture, but of black folklore. He is Zora Neale Hurston’s Man of the Mountain, the Great Emancipator of Music, a Hoodoo conjurer, come down from on high to deliver to us the commandments of a new symphonic order.
      “Ultralight Beam” is the first of those commandments. Thou shalt love no other song above this. Sacrilege. I know. But on this track Kanye has produced a sound so genuinely serene and reverent as to capture the esoteric spirituality of the black church and pulpit; all while pushing past the traditional boundaries that restrict gospel to those sacred spaces and standards exacting artists to maintain explicitly religious content and expression. As Kanye said in a radio interview before the album’s release, “…[t]his is a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing…but it’s still a gospel album…the gospel according to Ye.” His conception of this album, and opening song, in the gospel tradition, is a nice sentiment, but a bit inaccurate. “Ultralight Beam” is gospel, but it is so much more. Here, the strict boundary between the sacred and the profane in the black gospel and secular musical traditions is important to consider. Kanye isn’t the first artist to bounce back and forth between these boundaries. Recently, and perhaps most memorably, Ray Charles, the “High Priest of Soul” (and so aptly named), in the 1950s worked within the tradition, blending jazz, blues, country, rhythm & blues, and gospel to create the new musical genre we now call, Soul. Almost antithetically to Charles, Kirk Franklin, Kanye’s requisite in-track pastor on Ultralight Beam, at the end of the 1990s worked to bring gospel more up to date by incorporating aspects of soul, r&b, and hip hop into the music.
      Kanye’s venture is a wholly new enterprise. In “Ultralight Beam,” he takes us to church, but one unlike any we’ve visited before. A church where testimonies include cultural references like, “treat the demons just like Pam / I mean I fuck with your friends / but damn, Gina” right alongside traditional exaltations of “this little light of mine / Glory be to God, yeah.” And this is what gives the album’s opening track its power to affect us—to usher us into the consecrated soundscape created by Kanye’s crazy amalgamations. It is this insistence that we might come face to face with the sacred without leaving the little comforts of the profane too far behind.
       In detailing the drastic changes in twentieth-century black cultural production in relationship to the development of new sound technologies, professor and literary critic, Alexander Weheliye, acknowledges, “beginnings and introductions are occasions for sonic events” (Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity). As the first and introductory track of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam” registers as a sonic event on the seismic level of black music and its future(s). That the earth’s original tectonic shifts are directly referenced by Chance, the Rapper in his invocation of ‘Pangaea’ is fortuitous, if not also prophetic. Black musical artists have always used the power of recorded sound to transport listeners on a journey into new aural environs. Sometimes this sound production and listener transportation has served black culture well in times of great political turmoil. Think, here, of Billie Holiday’s haunting performance of “Strange Fruit,” James Brown’s empowering “Say It Loud,” or Marvin Gaye’s passionate “What’s Going On.” In addition to black sonic creativity circulating as a wake up call to America —via vinyl records, tape cassettes, compact discs, and now in multiple digital formats—the music has had the added benefit of exposing intimate black cultural practices to those audiences beyond its communities.
      All this to say that the participation of Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” in this tradition of sharing black cultural and musical practices, specifically those tied to the sanctity of the black church and gospel, beyond its communal borders offers ways of understanding the popularity of recorded black sounds more broadly; particularly as they recreate and reconstruct sacred black spaces of sound around uninitiated audiences. On “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye does so not by transporting his audience, black and white alike, up into those sacred sound spaces of the black church, but by dragging that gospel down from the pulpit, past the pews, and out of the sanctuary into the streets for all of us. Throughout his career, Kanye has shown an ability to deal deftly with America’s rich musical traditions. With “Ultralight Beam,” we get our first look into a new stage of that development. The track begs for a tradition—an album just isn’t enough—and Yeezus finally seems ready to step up into his anointed role as ordained musical director of black experience; still just an executive producer cred, but with swankier robes.


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