Alright, alright… Life of Pablo is old news, I get it. But to be completely honest with you all, I never tuned into the ever-developing album until after I attended a Chance the Rapper concert about a week ago. Chance performed “Ultralight Beam” and the rest was history. I should also say, I have not listened to Pablo fully. Ultimately, it’s hard for me to support Kanye because he’s a Trump supporter and overall douche. But his music is complex — especially given his political standing and aforementioned personality.
So, I wanna write about it. More specifically, I want to write about “Ultralight Beam” and what it means for Kanye — someone who constantly compares himself to God-like figures in talent and standing — to write such gospel a song. As well as what it means to feature Chance the Rapper, whose album Coloring Book can easily be categorized as a religious album on the iTunes charts.
What initially struck me about “Ultralight Beam” was the black gospel choir that supports Kanye throughout the entire song. It was not necessarily the presence of their voices, but rather the reminder of how heavily-used the powerful, guttural voices are in pop music. Which has caused a sort of diminishing in strength and movement, specifically when degraded to backing vocals. However, the choir’s strength is truly called upon in this piece since the song is so heavily influenced by gospel, the choir has grounding and purpose again.
In case you haven’t caught on already, it should be noted this song is incredibly religious — from the repetition of “This is a God dream” to Chance’s verse, which translates his feeling of guilt and responsibility surrounding success after the loss of a friend to gang violence. Yet Kanye himself is incredibly narcissistic and has often called himself a God. For me, it is very hard to separate that Kanye from the Kanye asking for guidance and hope. The Kanye praying to God — does Kanye believe himself and this God to be equals? or is there a difference in standing that only he can understand? (I still have no answer to this, but think it’s important to ponder).
The night Life of Pablo was released on Tidal, Kanye performed the opening song live on Saturday Night Live. Surrounded by a choir dressed in white, modern clothing, Kanye, wearing a Balmain jacket that must have cost thousands of dollars, sings as if he is in pain. His voice cracks, and he does not hide behind auto tune — however falling towards the mic occasionally. There’s a new vulnerability mixed with his traditional ego.
And then Chance walks out. Unlike everyone else present on stage, Chance does not wear white. Instead, he is seen in a blue flannel he will soon wear as he takes over the Grammy’s stage. Compared to Kanye’s performance, Chance is confident in is verse. Each word and moment is precise and coupled with tense arm movements that enunciate every emotion. The choir also remains quiet for most of his verse, no longer a vocal crutch.
Chance embodies the song. He is confident with words of forgiveness, hope, and praise on his tongue.
While the entire song seems to be about those three themes, Kanye just does not fit the bill. Honestly, the song is a bit misplaced on the album.
During the final moments of the song, Kanye lays down on the ground in the shape of a cross. It is as if he is being crucified. Once again, comparing himself and his embodiment to the Lord.
After the final gospel notes — faith, more, safe, war — finish, Kanye immediately jumps from the floor and shouts the album has been released to Tidal. Sure, the entire performance is one of absolute vulnerability, and there seems to be hope for a new, more externally aware Kanye, but then it’s back to the money, to the fame. While Chance puts his vulnerability out for free, Kanye releases it to a very seclusive site where patrons must pay for access.
The discrepancy between Chance and Kanye is quite large. Huge even. Their relationship is incredibly complex, with much of it on display in Ultralight Beam.
During his 2016 MTV Video Music Awards speech/rant, Kanye confidently names Chance as the “future.” Which is a beautiful sentiment that caused Chance to fold into himself modestly as a huge smile paints his face.
Kanye’s complement is not lost on Chance. It never is. Yet they could not be more different, both musically and morally, which creates a confusing relationship.
In order to truly divulge into their relationship, we need to start with this song and break it down. According to Spin.com, Chance’s verse is an “Out-of-body realization that dreams and fulfillment don’t have to be mutually exclusive.” His essence is one of violence and survivor’s guilt — after watching a close friend of his be murdered — while being grateful for the blessings that have come his way. The humble roots directly contrast with Kanye’s persona that he puts into this world, which is one of privilege and selfishness.
Chance’s verse brings the listener’s focus back on the humanness of performers and artist. He concentrates his entire being into humility and grace, asking for an understanding that only God can exhibit.
Perhaps the most powerful lines in the whole verse come right in the middle, as Chance sings out: This is my part nobody else speak / This little light of mine / Glory be to God. By asking the crowd, artist, human to be quiet, Chance is left on stage beneath his “little light” — his spotlight. And what does he use his part, his spotlight for? He uses it to praise God. Chance is using his fame as a megaphone for humility in the face of God.
So what exactly does it mean that Kanye called Chance the future of rap?
Well for one, it means Kanye may see the future of rap as being humble and religiously-focused (since Chance’s latest album Coloring Book can really be boiled down to Gospel). It also hints that Kanye may be seeing some personal growth (however little since he did come out saying if he had voted in the election he would have voted for Trump).
And the fact that the album was still being tweaked long after it’s initial release reveals a vulnerability within Kanye that would be more expected out of an artist like Chance. The developing album shows a different side of Kanye, one where not everything he produces is set to be perfect, one where he is not confident all the time and is evolving artistically. Which, as a consumer, I prefer to see.
It should also be said that Kanye has been struggling with mental health issues recently, and was even hospitalized for his condition. This song could easily be a prayer to God asking for help and guidance — that would explain Chance’s presence, as well as how it is certainly the stronger voice.
In the end, Kanye’s preaches do not seem to follow his actions. And this could very well be because he is unsure of himself. However aware he may be that he needs help, I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for someone like Kanye, with the level of fame he has, to seek that out.
Chance is the future of rap — I agree. He is musically susceptible, forever exposed with his lyrics as the only source of protection.
It would be a breath of fresh air to see Kanye commit to such a transformation.