In our last post, we discussed Kenny’s recognition that pride is a venomous poison that overcomes humanity, leading to death and destruction. In particular we looked at how the Hebrew word ga’own, which is normally translated with the English word “pride” — is used to refer to those who “rise up.” Moreover, we saw how humans who rise up against others invariably create injustice until God brings about their downfall. This indictment against human pride seems to lead naturally to the conclusion that Kenny —and the rest of humanity along with him — needs to become humble. However, as Kenny and Rihanna noted at the end of “LOYALTY.” becoming humble is easier said than done.
It’s so hard to be humble
It’s so hard to be
Lord knows is I’m tryin’
Lord knows is I’m dyin’, baby
- From “LOYALTY.”
Even after recognizing the destructiveness of human pride, Kenny still finds that it is hard to be humble. As we noted in the previous post, choosing love and humility will likely put Kenny at risk of getting killed. On the surface, it would seem that humans need to avoid becoming humble if they want to live. However, such a conclusion fails to see the transformative power of humility as noted by Christian writers throughout the centuries. For instance, Anthony Bloom, a 20th-century archbishop in the Orthodox Church explained humility by saying:
To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that.
The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means fertile ground. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone.
Somewhere we cast and pour our all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirty fold, sixty fold, a hundred fold out of every seed.
- Anthony Bloom from Beginning to Pray
Here, Anthony Bloom suggests that if we want to see a true example of humility all we need to do is look at “the ground.” We should then observe that fertile ground is one of the most essential resources which allows life to flourish on the earth. We plant seeds into the ground to grow trees and food. But, we also get rid of our waste by burying it in the ground.
Nonetheless, the ground never stops receiving what is given to it from above. Even as it receives that which is dead and decaying, fertile ground will work to turn all that it has received into new life — life which will then ascend up out of the ground. Fertile ground must bear with the pressures of hosting that which is foreign while simultaneously making it possible for these foreign intruders to bear fruit. Hence, the ground is considered fertile only when it routinely transforms foreigners into partners and death into life.
Fittingly, this connection between humans, the ground and new life is a central motif of the Bible going all the way back to the story of God creating the prototypical human.
Yahweh God formed Human (Hebrew: adam) from the dust of the ground (Hebrew: adamah)
- Genesis 2:7
In this passage, the author of the Garden of Eden narrative depicts God like a sculptor who uses the “dust of the ground” to form the prototypical human. Similar to the link between human and humus, we should notice that adam, the Hebrew word for human, is closely tied to the word adamah, which is the Hebrew word for ground. This connection reveals that the God presented in the Bible always intended for humans to embody the life-giving characteristics of the ground. Hence, in the minds of the biblical authors, those who want to become truly human must become like the humus. Similarly, those who want to become like the humus must become humble. Moreover, those who are humble, who allow themselves to be formed by God, are able to be used by God to bring forth new life.
Given that the foundational story of the Bible claims that humanity is meant to share the characteristics of the ground, it is not surprising that when Jesus described the Kingdom of God he also used the image of different kinds of ground. In one of his most famous parables, Jesus told a story of a farmer who went out to sow seeds. Along the way, the farmer threw seed on different kinds of ground, including a walking path, rocky ground, thorn-infested ground, and fertile ground. In the first three cases, the ground was not able to foster mature plants. It was only the good soil that brought forth mature plants. These mature plants were then able to bear fruit which contained within them many multiples of the original seed that was sown.
When Jesus first told this parable to his disciples, the disciples voiced their confusion about the parable’s meaning. Their confusion turned out to be for the benefit of later readers since Jesus went on to give one of the few parable interpretations contained in the Gospel accounts. This rare intratextual interpretation may be an indicator of how central this parable was to understanding the rest of Jesus’s message.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
- Matthew 13:18–23
Jesus’s explanation makes it clear that the seed represents Jesus’s words about the kingdom of heaven and that the different kinds of soil represent different kinds of people. According to Jesus, most people who hear his words about the kingdom of God never reach maturity either because their hearts are not open, their level of commitment is shallow or their intuition keeps them looking for ways to get money. It is only the person that has been tilled, weeded, and devoted to the purpose of bearing fruit that is then humble enough to receive Jesus’s message of sacrificial love.
Given how prominently the Bible uses the image of the ground to represent humans, it is interesting to note that 2Pac used the same analogy during his interview on “Mortal Man”.
The ground is gonna open up and swallow the evil
That’s how I see it, my word is bond
and the ground is the symbol for the poor people
The poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people
‘Cause the rich people gonna be so fat
And they gonna be so appetizing, you know what I’m saying wealthy, appetizing
The poor gonna be so poor, and hungry
You know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like
You know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be
There might, there might be some cannibalism out this muh-fu-
They might eat the rich, you know what I’m saying?
In contrast to Jesus, who said that those who hear and understand his teachings of the kingdom of God will be like fertile ground which brings forth new life, 2Pac predicted that the poor and oppressed in America would become like unstable ground that swallows up the rich and brings about death. 2Pac’s metaphor of the poor becoming like treacherous ground is consistent with 2Pac’s prediction that black people will one day follow the example of Nat Turner — the “prophet” who led an 1831 slave revolt in which black men slaughtered white men, women and children.
By highlighting Nat Turner, 2Pac joined a chorus of black thinkers throughout the centuries who have suggested that the black community must rise up against white Americans and thus needs more leaders like Nat Turner. However, this need assessment directly contrasts with the statement that Kendrick heard when Jesus appeared to him in the form of a homeless man during the turning point of To Pimp a Butterfly.
Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
- From “How Much a Dollar Cost”
On “How Much a Dollar Cost” Jesus told Kendrick that humility is the preeminent characteristic that a person must possess in order to lead God’s people. As evidence, Jesus pointed to Exodus 14, a chapter that recounts how God saved the Israelites from their Egyptians slave masters by using Moses to lead the Israelites through the Sea of Reeds.
When Moses was first introduced in the book of Exodus, it was unclear why God decided to use Moses to lead the Israelites rather than someone else. It is not until later on in the book of Numbers that we learn why God was able to use Moses. A third of the way into the book of Numbers, the author adds a parenthetical testimony to Moses’s character.
Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than any human (Hebrew: adam) on the face of the ground (Hebrew: adamah).
- Numbers 12:3
This passage suggests that Moses’s humility is what set him apart from all other humans and enabled him to lead God’s people. At the same time, it is interesting to note that in addition to mentioning Moses’s humility, the author cleverly use the words Hebrew words adam (i.e. humanity) and adamah (i.e. ground) in the same sentence. This word usage thus mirrors Genesis 2:7 where the author of Genesis stated that “Yahweh God formed Human (Hebrew: adam) from the dust of the ground (Hebrew: adamah).” This subtle connection between Moses’s humility and the creation of the prototypical human further illustrates the point that only by becoming humble can humans attain the leadership potential for which they were created.
In case anyone missed this crucial lesson about humility in all the Old Testament stories, Paul the Apostle made the point abundantly clear when told the members of a church to follow Jesus’s perfect example of humility.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in the form of a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
To illustrate his point about Jesus’s humility, Paul retold Jesus’s entire narrative as a poem that highlighted how Jesus came down from heaven and humbled himself to the point of death. As a result of Jesus lowering himself, God raised him from the dead and lifted him back up to heaven where he received more glory than he had in the beginning. This narrative arc in which Jesus humbles himself and lets God exalt him is the exact opposite of the narrative arc that we saw in so many of the Old Testament stories where the protagonists exalted themselves until God humbled them. Hence, within the upside-down dynamics of the Kingdom of God, those who want to be first should strive to be last and those who want to be high must strive to be low.
Given that Kenny’s prophetic role seems to be deeply inspired by the teachings of Moses and Jesus, we should expect that Kenny knows that he needs to focus on lowering himself. It is thus ironic that throughout the first verse of “HUMBLE.” we hear Kenny boasting about his meteoric rise to power. Kenny then ends the first verse by refusing to lower himself from the heights of his power.
Soprano C, we like to keep it on a high note
It’s levels to it, you and I know
Here Kenny states that he would prefer to stay high — much like the notes sung by a soprano. Fittingly, the soprano voice is the highest of all singing voices. The high pitch of this voice naturally lends itself to the volume and dominance, which allows sopranos to be distinguished above lower sounds. As such, sopranos are normally assigned to sing the melody, which is the part of the musical composition to which listeners normally gravitate.
By placing himself in the soprano role, Kenny is asserting that his dominant voice is the one that the people should hear. Thus, Kendrick believes that his voice should be distinguished above all other voices. Kenny, of course, sees no problem with the inequity caused by his distinguished position. After all, one cannot have music without different people producing different sounds. By analogy, Kenny concludes that humans should be composed into different strata. Of course, if Kenny is going to stay at the top, that means others are going to need to go down to the bottom.
Sit down. Be humble.
Kenny’s claim that he belongs at the top of the social hierarchy leads directly to the track’s hook in which Kenny repeatedly tells his rival to sit down and be humble. Here we should note that these instructions seem to have been directly inspired by the words of a biblical prophet named Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was the preeminent prophet who God used to confront the rulers of Jerusalem for the last 40 years of the kingdom’s existence, from 626 BCE to the conquest by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE. As the Kingdom of Judah turned further from God and toward their own intuition, Jeremiah warned that Judah would be overthrown if the rulers did not turn back to the God of Israel. However, Jeremiah’s critique of the society’s idolatry and social injustice were routinely rejected by the leaders of Judah. At one point, the leaders even attempted to kill Jeremiah to stop him from prophesying.
The Lord then warned that if the people refused to turn from their corrupt ways, they along with the kings, priests and prophets that ruled their society would be captured and sent into exile. After lamenting the fact that the people of Judah and Jerusalem were too proud and stubborn to change their minds, Jeremiah made an emotional plea asking the rulers to humble themselves.
Hear and give ear; do not be proud:
for the Lord has spoken.
Give glory to the Lord your God,
before he brings darkness,
and before your feet stumble
upon the dark mountains
and while you look for light,
he turn it into the shadow of death,
and make it thick darkness.
But if you will not hear,
My soul shall weep in secret places for your pride;
My eye shall weep bitterly, and run down with tears,
because the Lord’s flock is carried away captive.
Say unto the king and to the queen,
Humble yourselves, sit down:
for your headship shall come down,
even the crown of your glory.
- Jeremiah 13:15–18
It is interesting to note that even after being rejected and threatened by the leaders of Jerusalem, Jeremiah continued to show compassion and concern for those who had threatened him. It is from this place of compassion that Jeremiah tells the king and queen to sit down and humble themselves so that they can preserve their kingdom and their lives.
The prophet Jeremiah’s selfless concern for those who had threatened his life contrasts with the self-centered contempt that Kenny the prophet shows to any rivals who have threatened his livelihood. Rather than following the example of humble prophets like Moses, Jeremiah and Jesus, Kenny seems to have once again followed the example of the prophet Jonah.
When Jonah was given a second chance to deliver the word of the Lord to the people of Nineveh, Jonah seemed to comply. However, the message that Jonah delivered was noticeably terse. The only recorded words that Jonah spoke to the people of Nineveh are “Forty days, Nineveh overthrown”. There was no recorded explanation of God being compassionate and giving them a second chance to change their minds. There was no mention that these words come from the God of Israel. In fact, Jonah’s prophecy contained no mention of God at all.
If God meant to reveal his compassion and forgiveness to the people of Nineveh, it would seem that Jonah failed to mention such possibilities. Indeed, there is reason to believe that Jonah intentionally omitted any references to God so that the people of Nineveh would never have the chance to repent and be forgiven.
Similarly, we should note that while Kenny repeatedly tells his rival to“sit down” and “be humble” Kenny never mentions that God will exalt those who humble themselves. In fact, “HUMBLE.” is one of the few tracks on DAMN. in which Kenny does not mention God, Jesus or the Spirit. Having lost his connection to God’s Spirit, Kenny reverts back to old patterns of thought, as evidenced by the final lines of verse two.
If I kill a nigga, it won’t be the alcohol, ayy
I’m the realest nigga after all
After spending most of the first and second verses boasting about his ability to get sex and money, Kenny here completes the unholy trinity by boasting about his ability to commit murder. At the same time, Kenny asserts that being able to “kill a nigga” is what makes him “the realest nigga.” Kenny’s obsession with being considered “real” can be traced throughout DAMN going back to the first verse of “YAH.” where Kenny claimed to be diagnosed with “real nigga conditions” before deciding that “today is the day I follow my intuition: keep the family close, get money, fuck bitches.”
At the same time, Kenny’s claim that being able to “kill a nigga” makes him real can be traced back all the way to the track “Real”, the second to last track on good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Within the narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, “Real” takes place after the death of Kendrick’s friend and a timely interruption by an unnamed woman led Kendrick to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” and ask Jesus to take control of his life. This prayer and the resulting belief that it marked the start of Kendrick’s “real life” caused Kendrick to question what makes him “real.”
“Should I hate living my life inside the club?
Should I hate her for watching me for that reason?
Should I hate him for telling me that I’m seizin’?
Should I hate them for telling me “ball out”?
Should I hate street credibility I’m talkin’ about
Hating all money, power, respect in my will
Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real?”
- From “Real”
After reflecting on his prior life, Kendrick eventually realized that gaining notoriety through sex, money and murder would never make him “real.” This declaration was then punctuated when Kendrick received a voicemail from his father.
“Just calling, sorry to hear what happened to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did, homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family. Real is God, nigga.”
- From “Real”
After spending years in the streets and having his brother shot to death at a burger joint, it appears that Kendrick’s dad, Kenny Duckworth, came to the conclusion that being able to kill a man does not make someone a “real nigga.”. This of course, directly contradicts Kung Fu Kenny’s words “If I kill a nigga, it won’t be the alcohol. I’m the realest nigga after all.” The contrast between the words of Kenny Duckworth and Kung Fu Kenny suggests that we should see Kung Fu Kenny as someone who is living without the guidance of his father — both his earthly father and his heavenly father. Without the knowledge that serving God and others makes him real, it would seem that Kenny will continue to pursue sex, money and murder until he learns the hard way.
- “Image of God” video by The Bible Project
- “Justice” video by The Bible Project
- “Overview: Philippians” video by The Bible Project
- “Overview: Jeremiah” video by The Bible Project
- “Ignorance Is Bliss” music video by Kendrick Lamar