Limiting the Light: Kanye West & “All Of the Lights”

February 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm, by

On “All Of the Lights” from his 2010 comeback album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West is just one of about a dozen famous voices who barely shine through.

If you listen really carefully, you might hear The-Dream, Fergie, Elly Jackson, Elton John, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi, John Legend, Ryan Leslie, Rihanna, Tony Williams, and Charlie Wilson. But you probably won’t.

The recent 2012 Grammy winner for Best Rap Song reflects on light, but this light’s not always seen in a good light.

West the wordsmith reminds us how we might dance in the “strobe lights” or sing in the “spot light,” but fear will make you run away from “cop lights” and their “flash lights.”

For West, it was too much light in his own career–too much spotlight–that led to an “overworked state of mind,” which led him to his overreaction in September 2009 when Taylor Swift got an award he thought Beyoncé deserved.

Kanye needed to step out of the light.

So, he flew to Hawaii and placed himself in exile from fame.

And then he came out with an album.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy focuses on the darker side of the limelight, and “All of the Lights” is the album’s centerpiece. (Literally. Following a gorgeous instrumental introduction, the song appears about midway through the album, and then gets referenced near the end of the disc in “The Blame Game.”)

In his first words of “All of the Lights,” West’s terse words suggest that, when you need a break from the light and you keep pushing yourself into it, you can end up “gone” and “dead” like Michael Jackson.

Sampled over and over, a double-digit of celebrities sing the words “All of the lights,” but the stage upon which each star stands is lit up by the spotlight of another singer. All of their voices are combined into one aggregate, non-human voice. You can no longer distinguish who’s who on Kanye’s celeb guest-list.

Light is a nice thing. But at a certain point, light can be dehumanizing, it can be terrorizing, and it can be deadly.

Maybe it’s just because I consider myself moderate, but I always think of Judaism as a religion that is most meaningful when preaching and practicing moderation.

In Shacharit, the daily morning prayers, the Jewish credo of the Sh’ma is preceded with the following blessing (among others):

Blessed are you Lord our God, Master of the Universe, Designer of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace and Creator of all.

For Jews, morning enlightenment is never enough for the soul. The body cannot rest when all there is is light. A human must find sanctity in the darkness that sets the scene for slumber. In fact, one of the very first blessings recited in the morning reads as follows:

Blessed are you Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who has given discernment to the animalistic heart* to distinguish between day and night.

The ability to know when it is time to bask in the light and when it is time to sleep in the dark is a very sacred gift of moderation. Without distinguishing each day from the next, life would just be one long day: one overbearing light.

I believe that this concern with “too much light”–the inability to distinguish light–stands behind some of the ritual customs of Hanukkah candles. In the Shulhan Arukh, it is stressed that one must be able to see exactly how many lights have been lit on any one night; otherwise, the Festival of Lights just looks like one big indistinguishable fire (Orah Hayyim 671:4; also check out Moses Isserles‘ gloss here where he permits one particular manner of lighting “because each candle is quite separate from its neighbor”).

Yet, just like Kanye does, the scope of Judaism bears witness to lights–sometimes safe, sometimes dangerous–as a gateway towards revelation. In Bereshit Rabbah 39/12:1, the ambiguous word doleket (meaning “luminous” or “burning”) appears in the following teaching from Rabbi Yitzhak:

After having traveled from from one place to another place, a certain person saw a particular castle that was doleket. This person asked, “Could it be that this castle is without a leader?” The master of the castle peeked through and said, “I am the master of the castle!” So too it was with our ancestor Abraham who said “Could it be that this universe is without a leader?” The Holy Blessed One peeked through and said, “I am the Master; Lord of the Universe!”

Depending on how we translate doleket, the quintessential story of Jewish revelation is a story of a wary traveler coming to see a light so great that it is hard to imagine anyone controlling it, or it is the story of a wary traveler witnessing a great and luminous fire that would consume the soul were nobody to have controlled it. Yet, despite all odds, the great luminosity is under control.

Kanye West is a star with a lot of light, and it is hard to imagine him not burning himself out. It is his unusual stroke of genius and workaholism (combined with some faulty misogyny, violence against photographers, and other vices) that makes him a brilliant artist and also a fairly laughable celebrity (for examples, check out Josh Groban’s musical tribute to Kanye’s tweets, or The Onion‘s faux article about Kanye’s self-validation finally permitting his hard-earned retirement).

Kanye’s “All of the Lights” begs us, the way Jewish moderation might, not to get trapped in too much light. Sometimes you don’t really need all of the lights. You wouldn’t make it out alive.


*Fun Fact: A good long conversation for another time is the way to translate “lassekhvi” (translated here as “to the animalistic heart”). One translation of the word would understand a “sekhvi” to be a rooster, and another translation of the word would be “heart.” In my own personal prayer life, both of these are meaningful ways to describe my instincts and consciousness, so I chose to translate the word both ways here. (I’m a pluralist at heart. Drum-hit!)

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2 Comments So Far

  1. Interesting read. It’s interesting to me that the Zohar calls Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – the great lamp. Human beings don’t just live in light, they can be the light. Do we still need moderation not to shine too much?

    Roni, February 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm #
  2. Thanks!

    I must admit that when it comes to Zohar and mysticism, this theme of moderating light might be not prevalent. Yet, I think it’s false to say that Zohar and mysticism are separate from the Jewish body–or, at its core, a much later addition. I think Scholem, in his Origins of the Kabbalah, does a remarkable job of showing mysticism’s early roots (though some of these roots may have branched off in funky directions).

    Yet, I am not sure that moderating light is absent from Zohar and mysticism. I think that there is something to be said that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the Great Lamp, does extinguish at the end of the Zohar. And furthermore, I am not sure that there will ever be a Lurianic Kabbalist who says that we are living in an age of light. To a certain extent, I think the modern mystic has to be satisfied with accepting that there are so many more shards of light that need to be restored in order to repair our broken universe.

    Roni, what sayest thou?

    Jonah Rank, February 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm #
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