How do we respond to the violence and hatred in our world and inside of us?
“I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption
Scholars, fathers dead with kids and
I wish I was fed forgiveness
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, soldier’s DNA”
In the last post and corresponding podcast, we discussed the album’s opening track which began by presenting us with an ominous and dichotomous choice between wickedness and weakness, between life and death. We showed how this dichotomous choice was a form of prophecy that can be traced back to the words of Moses and then subsequently to the words of Jesus. Most notably, we learned how Jesus’s teachings about the Kingdom of God assert that choosing weakness through self-sacrifice is the only way for generations of humans to find life.
Given that To Pimp a Butterfly ended with Kendrick declaring himself to be a prophet like Moses and Jesus, one might think that Kendrick would also tell us to choose weakness. However, rather than giving us a clear answer, Kendrick gave us a parable in which he is shot to death after trying to help a blind woman. After getting shot for choosing weakness, it would seem that the moral of the story is that we must choose wickedness if we want to defend ourselves from the attacks of our enemies.
The story about Kendrick getting shot thus seems to be a setup for the final section of “BLOOD.” where we hear an audio clip from a FOX News program called The Five. The clip is taken from an episode that aired on June 30, 2015. In the clip, one host named Eric Bolling asks another host named Kimberly Guilfoyle what she thought of Kendrick’s performance of the song “Alright” — which aired the previous night during the 2015 BET Awards show. Rather than providing a thoughtful response, Guilfoyle simply said, “I don’t like it.”
This thoughtless dismissal of Kendrick’s performance underscored how America, particularly white, conservative America, routinely turns a blind eye to the plight of black people. Moreover, by suggesting that Kendrick’s performance was the problem, FOX News was ignoring the helpful message that Kendrick was trying to convey and effectively assassinating Kendrick’s character. Given this context, we can see how the parable about Kendrick getting assassinated after trying to help a blind woman can be seen as a metaphor for how Kendrick has been treated by FOX News in particular and America in general. Moreover, just like the parable in “BLOOD.” seemed to leave us with no other option except wickedness, so it seems that the thoughtless criticism from FOX News seems to have pushed Kendrick over the edge and caused him to abandon the way of weakness. Kendrick’s embrace of his more wicked tendencies becomes particularly obvious as the FOX News clip is abruptly interrupted by the exhibition of braggadocio rap that is “DNA.”
“I got, I got, I got, I got —
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”
While Kendrick’s verses on “DNA.” exude confidence, it is notable that this confidence is not something for which he takes credit. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Kendrick claimed that the confidence that he expressed throughout “DNA.” is something that he inherited from his father, Kenny Duckworth.
This assessment is consistent with the track’s title, “DNA.”, which refers to the molecules which carry the genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth and reproduction of all known organisms. During conception, children receives roughly 50% of their DNA from their mothers and 50% from their fathers. Thus even before birth children are also pre-disposed to embody many of their parent's characteristics and tendencies whether positive or negative.
“Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA”
In the case of Kendrick Lamar, the traits that he inherited from his father include positive traits such as loyalty, royalty, peace and joy. However, Kendrick also inherited negative traits that lead to war, poison and pain. Kendrick indicates that these more negative traits are in part influenced by the fact that his father had a history of hustling, selling cocaine and gang banging first in Chicago and then in Compton where Kendrick was eventually born. Kenny’s history of violent and criminal activity thus implies that from conception, Kendrick was predisposed to produce the same kind of dangerous life as his father.
“I was born like this, since one like this, immaculate conception
I transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua new weapon”
In the first verse of “DNA.”, Kendrick recalls how he received the flaws of his parents at conception and contrasts this to the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is not to be confused with the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the claim which is found in the biblical gospel accounts where the author tells of how God caused Mary to become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and without having sex with any man. Meanwhile, the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus’s mother, Mary, by her parents Joachim and Anna. Mary’s birth to Joakim and Anna is recorded in a second-century text known as the Protoevangelim of James. Because her mother and father were well past childbearing age, Mary’s birth had been seen as miraculous from the earliest centuries of Christianity.
However, the idea of this miraculous birth was further developed during that late middle ages when Roman Catholic theologians asserted that Mary’s conception had been immaculate, meaning that she did not inherit “original sin.” Here “original sin” — also known as “ancestral sin” — refers to the inherited tendency of individuals to commit acts of wickedness. This tendency is said to have been inherited from a person’s ancestors going all the way back to the first prototypical humans. Hence, the Immaculate Conception of Mary combined with the Virgin Birth of Jesus asserts that Jesus was born without the tendency to commit acts of wickedness and could thus consistently choose the way of weakness.
Jesus’s tendency towards weakness thus contrasts with Kendrick’s inherited tendency toward wickedness. This is a tendency that Kendrick claims could be detected when Kendrick was a baby, even from the age of one. Thus, if Kendrick wants to become a prophet like Jesus, Kendrick will need to be transformed into someone who can overcome the wicked tendencies in his DNA. This seems to be the meaning behind the line “I transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua new weapon.”
Like any physical, mechanical, or electrical transformation, Kendrick’s desire for spiritual transformation implies that he must be connected to some source of power. Fittingly, Kendrick ends the first verse by directly referencing his source of power.
“And Nazareth gon’ plead his case
The reason my power’s here on earth
Salute the truth, when the prophet say”
The three lines that conclude the first verse are dense with biblical references and ideas. To begin with, Kendrick used the name Nazareth to refer to Jesus. Nazareth is Jesus’s hometown. In Jesus’s day, Nazareth was a small, disreputable town located some 50 miles north of Jerusalem.
The Israelites living closer to Jerusalem looked down at Nazareth in part because it was inhabited by a large number of non-Israelites. Because of their negative associations with Nazareth, many of the Israelites near Jerusalem immediately rejected Jesus. One of Jesus’s future disciples even questioned Jesus’s background saying, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Hence, within the Gospel accounts, Nazareth represents Jesus's identity as an outsider to the political and religious institutions of his day. In many ways this mirrors, Kendrick’s identity as an outsider to America’s mainstream institutions — institutions that make us question whether anything good can come out of Compton.
After referencing Jesus’s lowly hometown, Kendrick then mentions how Jesus is going to “plead his case.” Pleading one’s case is normally something that occurs in a courtroom setting, particularly when someone asserts that they are innocent of the criminal charges that have been brought against them. The idea of Jesus pleading his case seems to hearken back to Jesus’s trial in which he was condemned by the combined forces of the Roman judicial system and the Israelite religious system. Rather than recognize Jesus’s innocence, these two institutions sentenced Jesus to be executed by a brutal form of capital punishment known as crucifixion.
While Jesus’s death initially seemed to mean that Jesus was someone who was powerless to stop unjust institutions from killing the innocent, according to the Gospel authors, Jesus’s death was not the end of the story. Each gospel account ends by recounting how Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples to prove to them that he had the power to defeat death.
After spending some time encouraging his disciples, Jesus then ascended to his throne in the heavens. However, before leaving earth, Jesus promised that after his ascent he would provide his followers with the power they needed to carry on his mission.
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
- Acts 1:8
Here Jesus made it clear that the power Jesus would send down upon his followers was none other than the Holy Spirit. This life-creating Spirit of God was the same power that had raised Jesus from the dead. Fittingly, the Holy Spirit would also empower Jesus’s disciples to serve as witnesses who would themselves plead Jesus’s case. They believed that by telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Jesus they could help to free people from the way that leads to death and lead them along the way that leads to life. This act of transforming death into life through a prophetic witness is exactly the reason that Kendrick’s power is here on earth.
Moreover, the idea of a spirit enabling someone to communicate a divinely inspired message is at the heart of biblical prophecy, as we mentioned during our discussion of To Pimp a Butterfly in the post and episode for S5E2. Kendrick makes this connection clear on the final line of the verse where he tells us to “Salute the truth when the prophet say.”
In addition to once again claiming that he is a prophet, Kendrick’s use of the word “truth” seems to also be a reference to one of the last teachings that Jesus gave his disciples before he was arrested and put on trial.
“When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”
“When he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.”
- John 15:26–27,16:13
Here we see that another name for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. It thus follows that those who are filled with the Spirit of Truth will be empowered to tell the truth about Jesus and thus serve as the witnesses who plead his case. This connection between Jesus and the Spirit of Truth is further highlighted in another part of the same passage where Jesus says:
“I am the way, the truth and the life “
- John 14:6
Essentially, Jesus was claiming to be the very embodiment of “the truth.” If Jesus is the truth, that means that the Spirit of Truth is the way that humans share in Jesus’s own pattern of thoughts and emotions. Hence. by telling us to salute the truth, Kendrick is telling us to salute Jesus and recognize the authority that is held by Jesus, the king who reigns over heaven and earth.
This emphatic ending to the first verse of “DNA.” might make us think that Kendrick will now follow Jesus’s example of weakness, forgiveness, and sacrificial love. However, we soon find that it does not take much opposition for Kendrick to revert to his old patterns of thoughts and emotions
“This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”
During the bridge of “DNA.”, we hear another audio clip from the same FOX News segment at the end of “BLOOD.” in which Eric Bolling and Kimberly Guilfoyle were discussing how they simply did not like Kendrick’s BET award sir performance of “Alright.” This clip that we hear in the bridge features a third host named Geraldo Rivera who boldly declares that hip hop has done more damage to the black community than racism in recent years. Kendrick apparently takes offense to this statement because he cannot even let Geraldo finish speaking before he delivers an angry rebuttal.
“I live a better life, I’m rollin’ several dice, fuck your life”
In the middle of Kendrick’s verbal attacks, we hear Kendrick tell his adversary that he is “rollin’ several dice.” Here, Kendrick seems to be depicting himself playing a game of street dice, an illegal form of gambling which for decades has been a popular pastime within black communities in urban America. There are a couple of prominent versions of street dice. One version is derived from craps, a casino game in which players roll two dice. However, given that Kendrick says he was rolling “several” dice rather than a pair of dice, Kendrick may be referring to another version of dice called Cee-Lo in which players roll three dice.
Interestingly, Cee-Lo is derived from a Chinese dice game called “Si Wu Liu (四五六)” which translates to “Four Five Six” — which itself refers to the three dice values that comprise a winning combination. Apparently, the game spread when black people in New York picked the game up from Chinese immigrants in Chinatown. Indeed, the name Cee-Lo seems to be a contraction of the name “Si Wu Liu.” This example of the shared heritage between black and Chinese communities may be one of the reasons that Kendrick refers to himself as Kung Fu Kenny throughout the album, uses the text 功夫肯尼 — the Chinese characters for “Kung Fu Kenny” — to introduce himself in the music video for “DNA.”, and also wears a Kung Fu uniform throughout the music video and concert performances.
Given the long history of dice games within the black community, it should not be surprising that these games are referenced in numerous hip hop songs. Most often hip hop artists describe dice games as a pastime for gang members and other individuals who are prone to violence. This motif is best captured by Big L’s track “Casualties of a Dice Game.”
“I parked the ride so my n-word Iroc can crash the lye spot
And I’mma gamble until he come back — why not?
Click-clack, cock the gat back, gotta be strapped
The game was mad packed, mad cats pockets was fat
They playin cee-lo, my dick get hard when I see dough
I bets nothin less than a G yo, you know my steelo
First I was losin then I started throwin headcrack
After headcrack, got my bread back, jumped in my red Ac’
I’m waitin for my nigga to come out of the spot
I see n-words startin to plot, and I’m far from my block”
- From “Casualties of a Dice Game”
In these opening lines, Big L sets up a story in which he murders two men who try to get back the money that they lost. Big L then kills one of his own friends who refused to help him and beats up the girl who the friend was sleeping with. Finally, Big L kills a cop who was trying to arrest him before getting shot to death after the cops call for backup.
The tragic and senseless violence that is depicted in tracks like “Casualties of a Dice Game” shows that by depicting himself rolling several dice, Kendrick is associating himself with violent groups of men. At the same time, this pattern of violent men engaging in street gambling may also be a subtle illusion to the events of Good Friday, particularly the moment after a group of Roman soldiers crucified Jesus.
“The soldiers crucified Jesus there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ Then the soldiers threw dice to divide his clothes.”
- Luke 23:34
As Jesus was praying for God to forgive the soldiers who had crucified him, the soldiers ignored Jesus and instead played an ancient form of dice in order to decide who would get to keep the clothes that they had taken from Jesus.
Hence, by depicting himself rolling several dice Kendrick may simultaneously be comparing himself and his homies to the group of soldiers who crucified Jesus. Both groups have shown a clear tendency toward violence. Both groups have seemingly failed to learn forgiveness. Hence, Kendrick’s act of rolling dice may be another indicator that Kendrick has “soldier’s DNA.” Moreover, the violent mentality that Kendrick received from his cultural heritage will become a central theme in the second half of “DNA.”
- “The Birth of Jesus — Gospel of Luke Ch. 1–2” video by The Bible Project
- “Holy Spirit” video by The Bible Project
- “Casualties of a Dice Game” song by Big L