For the last day of February, and to close off our week of hip hop, we’ll be looking at an example of its powerful potential as a medium when put into the right hands.
So far, we’ve looked at hip hop from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The difference between the two eras was significant, but not more than the leap to contemporary hip hop today. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five pointed out the struggles in their lives. Biggie Smalls seemed satisfied with his own success, and sharing that with his community.
What we get from Kendrick Lamar in “DNA”, however, is raw anger at an unjust system that has carried on for too long. In it, he adopts several different voices, pivoting from celebrating, critiquing, to exploring his black culture and heritage.
Even if you’re only obliquely aware of the world of hip hop, there’s little chance you missed the dropping of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album, “DAMN.” It came out in April, 2017, and debuted at the No. 1 spot on the US Billboard 200. “DAMN” won Album of the Year for the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards, as well as the Grammy for Best Rap Album.
The music video for “DNA” shortly after the album dropped, and entered at No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song was Kendrick Lamar’s second highest-charting song as a solo artist after “Humble”. The music video also features an appearance by Don Cheadle, supposedly playing a police detective interrogating Lamar.
In the music video, Kendrick is hooked up to a lie detector. But when Cheadle turns it on, the music kicks in, and we hear Kendrick’s passionate voice coming from the original Kung Fu Kenny (shout out to Rush Hour 2).
As Kendrick answers and the two trade barbs, we see Cheadle begin to succumb to the realities being pointed out. Both men find common ground in seeing first hand the perils of living in post-Trump America (not to say that things were perfect before). Kendrick speaks of them both living with “soldier’s DNA”, while remaining citizens within the U.S. beast.
“I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption
Scholars, fathers dead with kids and
I wish I was fed forgiveness”
The second half of “DNA” is divided by a Fox News clip of Geraldo Rivera criticizing Lamar’s lyrics to “Alright”. “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”. After this clip, a new beat kicks in, and Kendrick launches on a tirade in response.
The second verse is filled with the difficulties facing Kendrick’s personal life, “Only Lord knows I’ve been goin’ hammer / Dodgin’ paparazzi, freakin’ through the cameras”. But as he reaches the end of the verse, Kendrick widens his scope.
“Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate
Gonna be your fate, gonna be our faith
Peace to the world, let it rotate
Sex, money, murder—our DNA”
Kendrick Lamar’s technique and flow on “DNA” are peerless. His sheer display of virtuosity is by itself incredibly impressive. But when you consider that “DNA” is also a meditative and emotional expression of identity, you can’t deny that it is the work of a master at the top of his game.
While Kendrick is a master of hip hop, he also pays tribute to the ones who came before him, and gave him inspiration. In “DNA”, he makes one reference to Kurtis Blows’ “The Breaks”, one of the first hip hop songs. He has also attributed inspiration to 90’s rappers like Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Biggie Smalls.
That about wraps up our week of hip hop. Next week, we’ll be back with another genre or theme, in an effort to continue to give these articles a little more cohesion.