This is a God dream

Kanye West producing “Heartless” in his studio in 2008 – photo by Angel Laws via Wikimedia Commons

He is the most creative mind in modern culture. 

Kanye West defies the labels of artist, rapper, or producer. He instead serves as a conduit for cutting-edge trends in pop culture. Each of his nine studio albums explores various parts of his life. In particular, the album Life of Pablo represents his first foray into a self-proclaimed “gospel album, with a whole lot of cursing on it.” Throughout his career, West has remained open about his personal relationship with God. Despite his proclamation of faith, critics continually cite his erratic behavior and prior scandalous music as diverging from Christian moral teachings. 

West utilizes his unreplicable sampling style as he integrates multiple genres of music. He conveys deep emotions to his audience through his lyrics. The synthesis of his expansive musical mind comes to fruition with the critically acclaimed single, “Ultralight Beam.”

West assembled a diverse group of talented musicians to help him craft his prophetic vision of the ultralight beam. The most notable inclusion was fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper. In an interview with Acclaim Magazine, Chance said, “‘Ultralight Beam’ is about Kanye’s faith in God. Whenever [Kanye’s] down or feels he can’t fight anymore, he searches for the light and knows, in God’s hands, everything will be alright.” Chance, who also helped produce the song, knew Kanye wanted this idea of God as the almighty overseer to our destinies to stand out. This goal may explain why West and associate producer Derrick Watkins (Fonzworth Bentley) decided to sample a viral Instagram post from four-year-old Natalie Greene (@sheisnatalie). 

“Yes, God we don’t want no devils in the house, God. We want the lord and that’s it Hallej- hand over Satan Jesus praise the Lord.”

This sample lasts a full twenty-six seconds, an eternity on a Kanye West record. The attention to this source signifies that Kanye wants his audience to feel what Greene was preaching. Kanye layers Greene’s preaching with repeated synth stabs and melodic humming of his own. In typical Kanye fashion, he seamlessly samples and blends an Instagram post, a melody, and Swizz Beatz drums to create the most memorable hook of his career.

Watkins also knew he needed to co-produce the song with Kanye after he heard Mike Dean’s guitar chord progressions. Watkins called the chords “powerful and anointing as if they were blessed by God.” Watkins immediately joined the project and helped maximize the effect of the immense talent Kanye recruited. 

One day while working on the song, Watkins mindlessly started playing on a tambourine. It sparked perhaps the most important freestyle session for the song. During the session, the melody and unforgettable chorus “this is an ultralight beam” were sung by Kanye and Chance. Watkins even said that Justin Bieber sat in on the freestyle and contributed vocals. Bieber’s vocals were removed from the final cut.

Chance the Rapper performing in Chicago – photo by Anthony Quintano

With the hook, melody, drums, and basis of a chorus now intact, Kanye knew he needed to fill out the song with powerful soul artists. With help from The Game and a church choir, Kanye successfully crafted an emotional chorus that connected the hopefuls and hopeless to God. 

I'm tryna keep the faith
We on an ultralight beam
We on an ultralight beam
This is a God dream
This is a God dream
This is everything
This is everything

While Kanye preaches, the audience hears Mike Dean’s “powerful and anointing” chords that Derek Watkins spoke of. The innovation and creativity behind this chorus inspired fellow contributors Chance and Kelly Price to shed light on their connection with God. Price’s vocals call out to God in need. 

"So why send opression, not blessings?
Why, oh why'd you do me wrong? (More)
You persecute the weak
Beacause it makes you feel so strong
(To save) Don't have much strength to fight
So I look to the light
Hey, cause I know that you'll make everything alright
And I know that you'll take good care of your child."

After questioning God’s decisions, Price exhibits her faith in God and her willingness to look to him for healing and guidance. Upon the release of Life of Pablo, Price publicly shared her appreciation for “Ultralight Beam” by calling it “a street parable” that focused on pain and atonement. Chance continues to voice this theme of pain and atonement through his verse and utilizes multiple Biblical and pop culture references. 

“When they come for You, I will shield Your name
I will field their questions, I will feel Your pain
No one can judge
They don’t, they don’t know
They don’t know.”

The meaning behind his words remains hotly debated. Nonetheless, the most popular interpretation is that Chance describes here how he will defend God’s name from all of the non-believers. None can know God, and Chance pledges his loyalty to His will. Chance furthers the soulful vibe with:

“You can feel the lyrics, the spirit coming in braille
Tubman of the underground, come and follow the trail
I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell
I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.”

This specific part of the verse helped cement the duo that resonates throughout music culture. Chance told Genius, “The Tubman line refers to my own leadership of all other artists towards independence and freedom.” “Sunday Candy” is a single off his own album Surf. This line is a direct callback to Kanye’s song “Otis.” One of the lines in “Otis” is “I made Jesus Walks, I’m never going to Hell.” By implementing the same structure, Chance is showing his appreciation of Kanye’s work. Chance elucidates this appreciation by adding the meeting with Kanye and how he will never fail now. It basically portrays Kanye as a savior. To many, he is. Chance finishes his verse with two final biblical references. 

Kanye West performing “Jesus Walks” on a worldwide tour – photo by Peter Hunchins
“This is my part, nobody else speaks
This little light of mine
Glory be to God, yeah.”

The song “This Little Light of Mine” is a traditional gospel song that has been performed by hundreds of gospel artists but was first recorded by John Lomax in 1939. This song was sung by protesters during the American Civil Rights Movement.  

Chance’s final Bible reference comes from Genesis 19. 

“I laugh in my head
Cause I bet that my ex looking back like a pillar of salt.”

Also known as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God destroyed two cities on account of grave sin. A man named Lot was able to flee with his family, but his wife did not follow his word of caution and looked over her shoulder at the city. Immediately, she turned into a pillar of salt. Here Chance says his ex-girlfriend is salty for leaving him and missing out on a man of God and wealth.

Four minutes and forty-one seconds into the song, the audience hears the outro performed by critically acclaimed artist and minister Kirk Franklin. Franklin decides to end “Ultralight Beam” by granting Greene’s wish heard in the intro. He prays earnestly to the Lord. 

Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they're not good enough
This prayer's for everybody that feel that they're too messed up
For everyone that feels they've said ‘I'm sorry’ too many times
You can never go too far when you can't come back home again
That's why I need…
Faith, more, safe, war.

Franklin wanted “Ultralight Beam” to end with a clear message of hope. He wanted the people who feel as though God would reject them due to their flaws and failures to feel loved and accepted. God always gives a second chance. Through Franklin’s words, the audience sees that God is the all-knowing healer to put one’s trust in and to lead one to the light. 

Fans of Life of Pablo and “Ultralight Beam” have Watkins to thank for the formation of the verses. He listened to countless freestyles and, with the help of Kanye, arranged the verses to provide the smoothest narrative and flow of Kanye’s career. 

Pablo had finally found the direct connection to God that goes straight to Heaven: the ultralight beam.

Pre-release, “Ultralight Beam” was positioned as the final song in The Life of Pablo, thus marking the end of Pablo’s self-exploration. Pablo had finally found the direct connection to God that goes straight to Heaven: the ultralight beam. However, days before release Kanye made the executive decision to make “Ultralight Beam” the opening song of the album. West never explained his decision, but it can be reasonably inferred that he knew this track was one of his best and wanted as many people to hear it as possible.  

From Greene’s sample to the final preacher’s call, the audience experiences the cascade of sampling that fills their spirit anew as they seek to the ultralight beam.

Author: Chris Hyland '20

Chris Hyland is a student in the journalism seminar. His personal narrative "Her Brown Eyes" won a silver key in the Philadelphia-Area Scholastic Writing Awards. His piece "'Senioritis' diagnosis irritates strong Sixth Form" was the cover story for the February issue of The Index. Chris is the captain of the hockey team and is also part of the CMP and Notables.