This hip-hop hymn finds Kanye West rapping about wrestling with his faith and looking to the divine power – the titular Ultralight Beam. Ye knows in God's hands, everything will be alright.
West has touched on spiritual matters before, most famously on his 2005 single, "Jesus Walks
." However The Life of Pablo
is the Chicago rapper's most faith-based album to date. He told US radio host Big Boy: "This is a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it, but it's still a gospel album. It's the gospel, according to 'Ye (Kanye). It's not exactly what happened in the Bible, but it's a story of this idea of Mary Magdalene becoming Mary."
The soulful anthem opens with an audio of a 4-year old girl named Natalie who was captured on Instagram praying in the backseat of a car. West then follows suit, praying for Paris and parents with singer-songwriter The-Dream before R&B songstress Kelly Price contributes a gospelly verse. The track culminates in an euphoric choral crescendo featuring gospel artist Kirk Franklin.
The-Dream has worked with West in the past on songs like the Jay-Z collaboration "No Church in The Wild
" and his own "Walking on the Moon." It the first time that Kanye had recorded with Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin
The bluesy, gospel track was written by Kanye West with Derrick "Fonzworth Bentley" Watkins, a rapper and producer who is also closely connected with OutKast and regular collaborator Mike Dean who has also served as a regular guitarist and keyboardist for the G.O.O.D Music leader at his live performances. Legendary producers Swiss Beatz and Rick Rubin are also credited.
The track had already been around for a while when Price got a call from Fonzworth Bentley, who is a mutual friend of West's and hers. She recalled to Billboard magazine: "When the song started, 'Ye was on the track, Dream was on the track, and it was Fonzworth who called me and was like, 'Listen, are you in L.A.? I need you in the studio right now.' I'm like, 'No, I'm in Atlanta.' And he's like, 'Ugh. I gotta get this done. It's this track that's kinda gospel-y but I just need people to feel God when they listen to this. I need your anointing on this track.' So that's how I got involved."
"That's how Kirk got involved, too," Price added. "It was really Fonzworth, who was one of the producers on the song. Kirk already knew 'Ye from years ago but it was like a reconnection for them to come together on this track. It was just one of those moments that was preordained, like it was already written that it was gonna happen."
Fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper also contributes a fiery verse. He references West's famous line from "Otis
" ("I made 'Jesus Walks', I'm never going to hell") twisting it to his own: ("I made 'Sunday Candy
,' I'm never going to hell. I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail.")
Price recorded her portion before Chance the Rapper had laid down his verse. She said: "Derrick was like, 'Write what it makes you feel.' What I sang is what I felt when I got the track and so when I heard what Chance was saying - which wasn't until after I'd written, sung and recorded my part - I was just like, wow, it meshed. You would've thought we were together when the song was coming together."
West performed the song on Saturday Night Live backed by a gospel choir. He was joined by Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin.
The dance DJ duo DJDS co-produced this track. The pair formerly known as DJ Dodger Stadium, comprise Samo Sound Boy (Sam Griesemer) and Jerome LOL (Jerome Potter).
DJDS contributed to five tracks in total on The Life of Pablo, but they told Billboard magazine this one was their favorite. Samo Sound Boy explained: "It was one of the ones that really came together from scratch in the last couple weeks before the album came out and we kind of got to lay down the foundation for that with Mike Dean, who's Kanye's longtime right-hand man and also does a million other things on his own. He's just somebody we love and we were in awe of getting to work with so that one, being able to kind of form the root of that one together with him was pretty cool for us."
Jerome LOL added: "I think for me as well, to see that kind of come into fruition - just the message and the positivity. It's such a powerful song, powerful message and everyone's on it - Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Kanye of course, Mike Dean, The-Dream - that's a dear song to my heart."
It took Kirk Franklin just ten minutes to arrange the choral section. Co-engineer Andrew Dawson recalled to Billboard magazine: "When Kirk Franklin came in with the choir, they actually cut that at my studio across the street from Ameraycan. So he came in and got his choir going and was listening to the song, and in about ten minutes - maybe even less - of him just listening to the song and figuring out the arrangement on the piano, he sat down his choir and he goes, 'Tenors, here's your line. Altos, here's your line. Sopranos, here's your line.' And he had the whole arrangement worked out in his head in less than ten minutes. And obviously when you hear the result, it's a great choral arrangement, and the choir adds a super impact to that song."
Justin Bieber delivered a freestyle that didn't make the final cut but helped shape the song. "I called Poo Bear, who's from College Park and wrote a lot of Justin Bieber's album. And he was with Justin at the time," co-producer Fonzworth Bentley explained to Fader. "I'm from Atlanta, Poo Bear is from Atlanta - so Poo Bear comes up and catches the vibe."
"Justin hops on the phone and is like, 'Tell Yeezy whatever he needs I got it'. So Justin comes through and we vibed on that," he continued. "And then Ye went right in. Ye was like, 'Let's all catch a freestyle'."
"In his freestyle he said, 'This is an ultralight beam'. He sings that and was singing the melody," Bentley added. "Then Chance [The Rapper] catches the vibe. A lot of what ended up in his verse was from this freestyle - as far as his patterns and some of the words."
Kanye West released an updated version of the song titled "Ultralight Prayer
" in honor of Easter 2016. The two-minute hymn features Kirk Franklin spoken word sermonizing backed by Kelly Price's vocals and a choral arrangement.
The-Dream told Billboard magazine about his contribution to this track:
"'Ultralight [Beam]' was such an easy record to write. The chords were there. I wrote the hook right on the spot. I didn't have to go anywhere or do anything. Chance was in the other room working on his rap. I just felt like it needed something gospel in it without pretending to be something that we're not.
We all have this feeling of gospel in us. It's a feeling and tone that some will always get. It's embedded in us. It's part of our culture. I wanted to make sure I delivered that, because I had never done that before on anything, especially that wide. That was an easy thing to bring out. I just thought of my childhood, my grandfather and the deacons at church, singing hymns. It was easy to bring to the forefront and add that piece of my soul."
community voted this their Best Song of 2016. They said:
"Amongst all the tragedies and divisive events we endured this year, there was always music that could make us feel better. No other song exemplifies that better than 'Ultralight Beam.'"
Though West's people did approach Natalie's biological mother, Alice T Johnson, for the sample of her praying in the back of the car, he still found himself in litigation trouble. According to TMZ
, a lawsuit was filed by the little girl's adoptive parents, Andrew and Shirley Green, claiming Johnson didn't have the authority to allow the child's voice to be used on the record.