A little black girl with pigtails holds her mother’s hands. She sways back and forth, pleading for God’s anointing. Her words, familiar to children of black evangelicals everywhere, invoke the Spirit of the Lord. “We don’t want no devils in the house God,” screams the girl, “Hallelujah over Satan … Jesus praise the lord.” This video from “Natalie is Great,” a four-year old Instagram child star, provides the intro and primary sample for track one, “Ultralight Beam,” on Kanye West’s latest effort, “The Life of Pablo.” This sample is the embodiment of collaborative foundations for the work, the sacred and the profane.
These twin themes have been central to West’s work since his 2004 album, “The College Dropout.” All of Kanye’s albums have used religious themes to introduce darker subject matter. However, “The Life of Pablo” marks West’s most significant reconciliation of the sacred and the profane. “The Life of Pablo: Which/One” (the album’s full title) is about that seemingly arbitrary swing between the sacred and the sacrilegious. It’s a work of art that’s simultaneously beautiful and disgusting. It’s Kanye West’s most thematically complete work.
Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s work on the profane provides a useful explanation of West’s project. He elaborates on the connection between the profane and the sacred in his text, “What is An Apparatus?”
Agamben notes, “According to Roman law, objects that belonged in some way to the gods were considered sacred or religious. As such, these things were removed from free use and trade among humans: They could neither be sold nor given as security … Sacrilegious were the acts that violated or transgressed the special unavailability of these objects, which were reserved either for celestial beings (and so they were properly called ‘sacred’) or for the beings of the netherworld (in this case they were simply called religious.) … ‘Profane,’ is…that which was sacred or religious, but was then restored to the use and property of human beings.”
In other words, when the opening sample from “Ultralight Beam” is read in constellation with Agamben’s articulation of profanity, one can glimpse not only the sacred invocation of God’s anointing, but a uniquely profane act — the call for the restoration of the divine for human use. Natalie’s prayer asking for the Spirit of the Lord to descend demonstrates the truism that the sacred and the sacrilegious are separated by a very narrow line that can’t be articulated nor fully observed. The refrain of “Ultralight Beam”, “I’m tryna keep my faith but I’m looking for more. Somewhere I can feel safe and end my holy war” embodies this struggle.
In contrast, there is “Low Lights”, track six, which serves as the intro for track seven, “Highlights”. The track has Apostle Paul’s (Pablo) testimony in Romans 8:38-9: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The “Low Lights” iteration of the verse, “No matter what you’ve been through or where you’ve been he’s always there, with his arms open wide accepting me for who I am and I love him so much” serves as the introduction for the most memorable line in “Highlights,” “I bet me and Ray J would be friends if we ain’t love the same b**ch. Yeah, he might have hit it first only problem is I’m rich.”
The conflict between the sacred and profane is also noted in the album concept itself. The album is about the life of Apostle Paul. Before he was Paul, he was Saul. Saul of Tarsus was a Roman by birth but descended from the “the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” as touching the law, a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5). Saul actively persecuted early Christians before his conversion.
Acts: 9:1-6 notes Saul’s conversion process: “He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’”
However, unlike, Paul’s conversion story “The Life of Pablo” remains ambivalent. The alternate album cover juxtaposes the sacred act of West’s parent’s marriage to an image an unidentified white woman with what appears to be butt implants. “The Life of Pablo: Which/One” promises the redemptive revelation that the Apostle Paul had but doesn’t deliver. Each song appears to equate moments of faith to moments of frailty. “Ultralight Beam”// “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & Pt 2” and “Low Lights”//”Highlights” suggests that that redemptive moment will soon arrive.
Maybe the winner of this conflict can be found in Kanye’s actions the weekend of the album release. On Feb. 13, the night of Kanye’s momentous performance of “Highlights” and “Ultralight Beams” on Saturday Night Live, West tweeted: “Paul … The most powerful messenger of the first century … Now we stand here 20 centuries later … Because he was a traveler … He was a learned man not of the original sect so he was able to take the message to the rest of the world … He was saved from persecution due to his Roman citizenship … I have the right to speak my voice … Please forgive the profanity and give hugs and blessings to my brother Kirk for standing by me … In a few hours the journey begins … All memes are wrong … The Life of Paul … The life of Pablo … Ultralight beams … Moms dads daughters sons stand up … Let’s dance in the streets. I am consumed by my purpose to help the world.”
As Kanye West lay face down on stage while Reverend Kirk Franklin prayed over him during his performance that night, the answer appeared clear as day. “The Life of Pablo” is the life of the Apostle Paul before coming to God. Perhaps, the sacred parts of the album stand as a premonition of a Kanye West in another life, one without the loss of his mother and the emergence of Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian. But one thing about this album is sure: Kanye West is a man in turmoil — torn between the religious and profane, exceptional in many ways but completely average in one, his struggle to overcome temptation and return to God.
“The Life of Pablo” is currently only available on Jay-Z’s subscription-based music streaming service Tidal.