Riot Like You’re in the 99 Percent: Kanye’s ‘No Church in the Wild’ Video
Oh, you thought Jay and Kanye were going to be in the video? They’ve got stuff to do. Jay’s warming Blue’s bottles and Kanye’s eating ice cream with Kim Kardashian at Cannes. Who gon’ stop them, HUH? Kanye obviously saw the video for M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” and shot his MacBook Air because he was so angry he hadn’t come up with it himself. Then he presumably called up director Romain Gavras to demand he do one of Watch the Throne‘s videos, and this is the result. As the first track on the album, “No Church in the Wild” sets the tone for Watch the Throne‘s ominous proggy extravagance. Its creepy burbling guitar line interpolates a song by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, the drums sample Spooky Tooth, and the possessed wail is James Brown.
Having just shown up as an aural signifier of modern decadence in the campy trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, the “No Church in the Wild” video itself aims for high-minded pomp and edgy energetic coolness. The Czech Republic–filmed clip shows a battle between young rioters and a police squad. It features Gavras’s signature approach of gritty violence stylized until the chaos attains a classical beauty. The video is full of imagery designed to provoke Illuminati conspiracists. Depending on your point of view it’s either a watered-down version or sequel-like building on Gavras’s 2008 video for “Stress” by Justice. While “Stress” and the ginger genocide of Gavras’s video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” had a more obviously tongue-in-cheek feel, “No Church in the Wild” lacks the humor of its forebears and therefore feels more ham-fisted. Tear gas and fire hoses are deployed just like pyro effects.
The giallo-lit Greco-Roman statues are the most direct reference to the song, going off Jay’s Plato and Socrates bars. Classical antiques are also relevant for Kanye, as he will eventually be surrounded by his art collection on a spaceship alone, Citizen Kane–style. (Citizen Kanye?) Does anyone else get the feeling that Kanye is so in love with the idea of Kim Kardashian and the two of them as a power couple that the reality of hanging out with her all the time is doomed not to live up to his dreams? He’ll end up marrying that vocaloid robot Hatsune Miku and writing an album about their wedding with an accompanying film that projects on 24 screens simultaneously in an effort to outdo the Matthew Barney and Björk whale jelly movie.
And so we get a video that nudgingly promotes the idea of violent social revolution without specifying what we are revolting against or toward. Is it a commentary on Trayvon Martin? The riots in England last year? Arab Spring? The 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots? Or is it just pure fiction, a spectacle of masculine aggression or a continuation of the postapocalyptic narrative from “Run This Town”? It’s all very somber verging on silly, and then there is an elephant at the end to stomp on your head with “Welcome to the Jungle” (you’re gonna die) subtext. How does that compute with private listening parties at the Natural History Museum and attendance at the Met Ball? Are you the 1 percent or not? The video is beautiful, and the flaming cop car crashing is a particularly gorgeous image. Any larger points about police states or profiling are blurred into dumb awe at expensive special effects. The riot is glamorized, and you’re obviously not rooting for the cops. You can’t occupy Wall Street in a Rolls-Royce Corniche with the coke-white interior. HUH?