Why we will reap what we sow
In the last post about the first verse and bridge of “DNA.”, we discussed how Kendrick depicted himself as someone who is associated with groups of violent men as a response to the conflict and opposition that he faces from his enemies. As verse two of “DNA.” begins, we see that Kendrick continues to expand on his view that we are living in a world on the verge of deadly conflict.
“This how it is when you in the Matrix
Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow”
Here, Kendrick compares the world in which he lives to the Matrix, a virtual reality system that is depicted in the 1999 movie of the same name. The main plot of the movie takes place after the intelligent machines that humans created rebelled against their human masters. This rebellion led to a war in which the machines had a clear advantage. In an attempt to defeat the machines, the humans devised a plan to cut the machines off from solar energy by releasing black particles all across the sky. This effectively created darkness throughout the whole world. Nonetheless, the machines adapted and won the war.
Because the machines needed a new source of power, they decided to enslave the remaining humans and harvest the humans’ bioelectric power. In order to keep the humans from rising up, the machines kept the humans sedated while connecting all humans to a virtual reality world known as the Matrix. However, some humans managed to escape from this mental slavery. They would then regularly go back into the Matrix to help others wake up to the reality of their enslavement by offering them a choice between two pills, one that would wake them up and another that would keep them sedated. Along the way, these free humans risked their lives as they had to avoid the system agents who were sent to kill them. In the most famous scene from the movie, avoiding the agents required the protagonist to dodge bullets.
Given all of these details, it is clear that Kendrick’s reference to The Matrix has many layers of meaning. Indeed, Kendrick has been using the Matrix as a metaphor for years, particularly during the first verse of “Backseat Freestyle” from good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
Goddamn I feel amazin’, damn, I’m in the Matrix
My mind is livin’ on cloud nine and this 9 is never on vacation
Start up that Maserati and — vroom-vroom! — I’m racin’
Poppin’ pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked
- From “Backseat Freestyle”
In those lines from “Backstreet Freestyle”, Kendrick described the Matrix as a state of euphoria in which he constantly pursued sex, money and murder — as symbolized by a naked woman, a Masarati luxury sports car and a 9-millimeter handgun. Similarly, the second verse of “DNA.” will go on to list sex, money, and murder as the three vices that are embedded inside hip hop culture and also embedded within the DNA of all humans. Kendrick’s point seems to be that these vices keep humans trapped in mental slavery while also sedating them so that they do not wake up to the reality of their condition.
All of this is a result of the fact that humans have chosen to live in darkness rather than being illuminated by the light of God. Kendrick seems to represent one human who — like the protagonist of The Matrix — has woken up to the harsh realities of this world. However, Kendrick’s efforts to help those enslaved puts Kendrick at risk and leave him trying to dodge bullets, something that he seemingly failed to do when he was shot by the blind woman in the previous track. This, of course, leads to the line in “DNA.” where Kendrick says “Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow.”
The idea of reaping what you sow may be yet another connection to The Matrix, particularly the credits which feature a song called “Wake Up” by the band Rage Against the Machine. This song fittingly ends with the lead singer yelling “How long? Not long. ’Cause what you reap is what you sow.” At the same time, this line seems to be a reference to a New Testament passage where the author writes:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap destruction, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.
- Galatians 6:7–8
This passage further emphasizes the point that those who allow themselves to be filled with God’s Spirit will receive a new kind of life. However, those who continuously focus on satisfying their physical comforts through sex, money and murder will eventually destroy themselves and others.
“Sex, money, murder — these are the breaks
These are the times, level number 9
Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way
Sentence on the way, killings on the way”
In some of the most pivotal lines of verse two, Kendrick continues to expand on the idea that pursuing sex, money and murder will lead entire cultures to destruction. He does so first by referencing a 1980 track by Kurtis Blow titled “The Breaks.” That track is famous for being the first rap single to be certified gold by the recording industry. Thus, by referencing “The Breaks” Kendrick seems to be claiming that sex, money and murder have been part of the fabric of hip hop culture, particularly within commercial expressions of hip hop.
Kendrick then follows this reference to “The Breaks” with what seems to be a reference to the ten plagues which God used to free the Israelites from slavery to the Egyptians — who in addition to enslaving the Israelites enacted a policy of killing all the baby boys that were born to Israelite mothers to kill. The emancipation of the Israelites began when God instructed Moses to confront Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
When Pharaoh refused, God sent a plague that turned all of the water of Egypt into blood. However, Pharaoh refused to listen to Moses. As a result, God sent a second plague in which Egypt was overrun by frogs. Pharaoh again refused to listen to Moses and the pattern repeated itself with God sending a third plague of lice, a fourth plague of flies, a fifth plague of livestock illness, a sixth plague of painful skin infections, a seventh plague of fiery hail and an eighth plague of locust.
Eventually, God sent a ninth plague in which darkness covered the entire land of Egypt. The darkness was described as being so thick that the Egyptians could not even see each other. Finally, God sent a plague that killed the firstborn males of all humans and animals in Egypt as an act of retribution against the society which made a policy of killing Israelite boys. It was only after the Pharaoh’s own son died in the tenth plague that the Pharaoh conceded to release the Israelites from slavery.
Much like the reference to The Matrix, the reference to the plagues of Egypt has numerous parallels to Kendrick’s message here in “DNA.” As we have discussed numerous times, Kendrick has routinely claimed to be a prophet like Moses who is being used by God to free his people from mental slavery. Kendrick’s specific reference to the ninth plague of darkness also directly parallels the darkness that the humans created in the world of the Matrix in order to win a war against the machines. With both references, the implication seems to be that humans who are motivated to benefit from enslaving others end up creating the very darkness that cuts them off from the light of God and inhibits them from seeing the humanity in each other. Lastly, the reference to the killings of Egyptian boys by the tenth plague serves as another warning that unjust societies will reap what they sow.
Initially, we might assume that this warning about retributive destruction is directed toward America, the nation that enslaved black Africans just like Egypt enslaved the Israelites. However, we must not forget that one of the central points of the bridge and second verse of “DNA.” is to show how hip hop culture, in general, and Kendrick, in particular, are deeply compromised by their pursuits of sex, money and murder. Furthermore, Kendrick will go on to end the second verse by saying “Sex, money, murder — our DNA”, which seems to imply that all of us have been compromised by our pursuits of sex, money and murder. All of us have contributed to the darkness that clouds our world. As a result, all of us have sown the seeds of our own destruction. This idea that we are all cursed to destruction seems to be one of the crucial points that Kendrick establishes when he ends the second verse by saying:
“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”
On the surface, the idea that we are fated to destruction seems to be a negative and depressing view of the world. It is thus interesting to note that Kendrick also describes destruction as being “our faith.” The word “faith” implies that we should find hope in destruction. This idea of having hope in the midst of destruction speaks right to the heart of the message behind Jesus’s resurrection and the resulting belief that those who live like Jesus will experience a resurrection from the dead just like Jesus. Hence, Jesus’s earliest followers considered the destruction of that which is temporary to be an important step toward establishing what will last for all eternity. For instance, one of Jesus’s earliest messengers named Paul compared the mortal life on earth to the life of a seed. A seed must first be buried in the ground and cease to be a seed before it is able to rise up out of the ground having been transformed into a tree.
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in destruction, it is raised indestructible. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:42–44
Of course, this idea of the human body being sown like a seed connects all the way back to Kendrick’s earlier statement that you reap what you sow. Hence, while sex, money and murder are deeply embedded in our DNA, the ultimate hope of the current track and the album as a whole is that our DNA also holds within it the potential to be transformed into a new kind of creation, one that will be a source of fresh air and life to all around us.
- The Matrix — End Credits with “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine
- “The Breaks” song by Kurtis Blow
- “The Book of Exodus — Part 1 of 2” video by The Bible Project