Why transformation is essential for becoming truly human
After discussing how blood is what unites all humanity, DAMN. moves on to the second track entitled “DNA.” The title of this track refers to the molecules which encode traits that are inherent to living organisms. These molecules can be detected in the blood of animals. In the same way that scientists use DNA analysis to understand a living creature, here Kendrick uses this track to analyze his own life and the lives of all humans. “DNA.” is DAMN.’s problem statement as well as its solution rolled into one track. “DNA.” is the foundation from which the narrative of DAMN. will evolve. The track is rooted in the conflicted nature which Kendrick has inherited from the origins of humanity as well as the origins of hip hop. Fittingly, “DNA.” is immersed in some of the most foundational elements from hip hop’s genesis. Notably, the track uses the most classic hip hop structure: two verses with sixteen bars a piece, one interlude, no hook and all braggadocio rap. For comparison one can see the same structure and themes in “Public Service Announcement” by JAY-Z. In fact, “DNA.” inherits so much from JAY-Z’s work, we should first consider JAY-Z’s own reflections on “PSA”.
Braggadocio: Hip Hop’s Sonnet
JAY-Z opens his book Decoded with an explanation of his entry into the braggadocio rap canon. There he explains that he was inspired to write “PSA” after a journalist criticized him for wearing a diamond necklace over a Che Guevara t-shirt.
The subject of the first verse wasn’t blazingly unique. It’s a variation on a story I’ve been telling since I was ten years old rapping into a tape recorder: I’m dope. Doper than you. But even when a rapper is just rapping about how dope he is, there’s something a little bit deeper going on. It’s like a sonnet, believe it or not. Sonnets have a set structure, but also a limited subject matter: They are mostly about love. Taking on such a familiar subject and writing about it in a set structure forced sonnet writers to find every nook and cranny in the subject and challenged them to invent new language for saying old things. It’s the same with braggadacio in rap. When we take the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope — and frame it within the sixteen-bar structure of a rap verse, synced to the specific rhythm and feel of the track, more than anything it’s a test of creativity and wit. It’s like a metaphor for itself; if you can say how dope you are in a completely original, clever, powerful way, the rhyme itself becomes proof of the boast’s truth. And there are always deeper layers of meaning buried in the simplest verses. I call rhymes like the first verse on ‘Public Service Announcement’ Easter-egg hunts, because if you just listen to it once without paying attention, you’ll brush past some lines that can offer more meaning and resonance every time you listen to them.
The second verse for ‘Public Service Announcement’ was almost entirely unrelated to the first verse. I wrote the second verse, which opens with the lyric, I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex, as a response to the journalist. …I know that the spirit of struggle and insurgency was woven into the lives of the people I grew up with in Bed-Stuy, even if in sometimes fucked up and corrupted ways. Che’s failures were bloody and his contradictions frustrating. But to have contradictions — especially when you’re fighting for your life — is human, and to wear the Che shirt and the platinum and diamonds together is honest.
- JAY-Z from Decoded
As JAY-Z explained, braggadocio is hip hop’s sonnet. The only difference is that instead of professing love for another, the artist professes love for himself. Additionally, in both “PSA” and “DNA.”, the artist is defending himself against criticism from outside the hip hop community — the kind of criticism which dismisses the inherent complexity within hip hop. Both rappers used their tracks to state their own qualifications for greatness while exemplifying the contradictory spirit of hip hop. They acknowledged both the good and the evil of their ways. However, while “PSA” merely provided a clinic, “DNA.” dismantles the genre. Kendrick subverts the entire form, takes it apart and lays it bare for examination in light of the Kingdom of God. He performs this dissection a couple ways.
I got, I got, I got, I got —
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
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
First, while most bragging rappers attribute their success to their own brilliance and willful choices, Kendrick claims that his life potential is rooted in his DNA, something he had no part in choosing. Saying that his visible success is latent in his DNA takes some amount of humility, but it also allows him to acknowledge the other side of the coin — the fact that evil traits are just as latent within his DNA as good traits. Kendrick is fully aware of his own afflictions which result from a history rooted in pain — a history which critics and conservative commentators often ignore or claim have no impact on the modern black community. Thus, the verses of “DNA.” show that Kendrick’s outward success and thoughtful image do not negate the evil that is still inside of him. If such an inner struggle is the norm for Kendrick, one could only assume that it is the norm of all people, including conservative, white Americans. Given that 99.9 percent of human DNA is identical, it is likely that these evils are more similar between people than they are different. Using the concept of DNA is thus a clever way to level the playing field.
Forgiveness: The Missing Trait
Additionally, while Kendrick primarily focuses on the traits that he possesses, there is one instance where he reveals the trait he wish that he possessed.
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
Aw man, goddamn, all hell broke loose
You killed my cousin back in ’94
Fuck yo’ truce!
- Kendrick Lamar from “m.A.A.d city” on GKMC
Forgiveness is a characteristic that Kendrick never received from his nature or his nurture. Instead, he inherited the mindset of a soldier, ready to go to war on whatever battlefield he found himself. Nevertheless, after witnessing how old grudges systematically prevented reconciliation between warring parties in Compton, Kendrick has come to realize that forgiving debts is the only way towards life. The question then remains, how can those who carry such heavy emotional trauma change their nature to one that is able to forgive. Earlier in the first verse, Kendrick seems to point to the solution.
I was born like this, since one like this
I transform like this, perform like this
Was Yeshua’s new weapon
Which Yeshua? Which Weapon?
The first thing to clarify here is that Yeshua is Jesus’s actual name in Hebrew. Given that Kendrick is an Israelite, it make’s sense that he uses the original Hebrew name. In fact, this is the only instance in which Jesus is mentioned by any name anywhere in DAMN. The name Jesus is a Germanic rendering of the Latin form of the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word Yeshua. Outside of it’s usage as a name, Yeshua is unsed numerous times in the Tanakh, including the punctuating statement at the end of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish: “Yeshua (salvation) is from Yahweh (the LORD).” One drawback within the bible’s history in English is that the translation of Yeshua is inconsistent between the Old and New Testaments. This inconcistency masks the intended typology inherited from the Hebrew scriptures. A more consistent Anglicanization of Yeshua would be Joshua. In the Tanakh, the first Joshua — who is also called Jesus in Greek — was Moses’s successor and the namesake of the book that comes after Deuteronomy. Joshua was the person who led the Israelites into the promised land. In doing so, he fulfilled the meaning of his name: “The Lord saves”.
However, unlike the latter Yeshua, the first Yeshua was a military leader. The first Yeshua’s weapon of choice was the sword. That Yeshua led an army which brought violent retribution to the Canaanites, the prior inhabitants of the land who had turned toward evil practices including offering their children as human sacrifices to idols. The great irony of the biblical narrative is that the Israelites possessed the same evil in their DNA as the Canaanites. This shared DNA is plainly evident in the Torah, which includes a genealogy tracing both people groups to a common ancestor named Noah. Given the common traits between the Canaanites and the Isrelites, it should not be surprising that within a few centuries after entering the promised land, the Israelites themselves began offering their children as human sacrifices to idols. As a consequence, the Assyrian and Babylonian armies brought violent retribution to Israel and drove the Israelites from the promised land.
After witnessing the rise and fall of several powerful empires, those who were wise in the ancient world concluded that lasting peace would never come to earth by means of violently opposing evil with the sword. It is during this era that the latter Yeshua told his followers that living under God’s rule meant loving and forgiving one’s enemies. Jesus’s life would also display the truth that “the Lord saves”. However, the salvation that Jesus brought would not be a salvation from the outward oppression of belligerent nations but rather a salvation from the inward oppression of evil within the DNA of humans.
We are thus left to wrestle with the central conundrum of following the latter Yeshua and the conundrum of DAMN. as a whole. If the new Yeshua prohibits the use of the sword, what weapon could be strong enough to overcome evil? Counterintuitively, the weapons that the latter Yeshua chose were forgiveness and sacrificial love. These two principles were ways that Jesus told his followers to relate to their enemies in the Sermon on the Mount. Furthermore, the other gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus himself embodied these principles. In the Gospel of John, just before Jesus was arrested he told his disciples that he was going to exemplify love by dying for others.
My commandment is this — to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this — that one lays down his life for his friends.
In the Gospel of Luke, we see that even as Jesus was being tortured to death on a cross he still expressed his forgiveness toward his enemies.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Then [the soldiers] threw dice to divide his clothes…. The soldiers also mocked Jesus… saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.”
Crucifixions were the most barbaric and shameful form of execution under the Roman Empire. This punishment was reserved for slaves and enemies of the state. Essentially, Jesus died by means of a state-sponsored lynching. Yet Jesus forgave both the proud religious leaders and the Roman soldiers who were busy rolling dice for the chance to win Jesus’s clothes. As Jesus was hanging on the cross, his sacrifice appeared to be in vain. However, when Jesus died a few hours later, the earth began to shake.
Now when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were extremely terrified and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
In an ironic turn no less remarkable than that of the Ninevites in book of Jonah, a Roman centurian— the leader of the soldiers who had just tortured Jesus and rolled dice to divide Jesus’s clothes — was the first one to recognize that Jesus was the Son of God — i.e. that Yeshua (Salvation) was from Yahweh (the Lord). While we don’t know if the life of this particular soldier changed permanently, it is clear that this moment opened the hearts of many soldiers to the possibility of converting away from the evil of violence and towards the God of peace. This possibility came to fruition later in the book of Acts when another Roman centurion and his family became the first non-Israelites to be baptised and filled with the Spirit of God (see Acts 10). This groundshaking transformation was all made possible by Jesus’s weapon of forgiveness through sacrificial love.
Transforming like Mary
The weapon with which Jesus overcame evil is the same one that he offered to all citizens of God’s kingdom. However, given that these people share most of Kendrick’s DNA deficiencies and few have been fed forgiveness, it would seem impossible for others to wield such a weapon in the way that Jesus did. This problem is where the first three lines of Kendrick’s quote comes into play. First, Kendrick says “I was born like this / since one like this.” Here Kendrick is saying that he was born with all the good and evil traits he describes in “DNA”. These traits could even be recognized in him when he was just a year old. He then juxtaposes the first line with the term “immaculate conception” in the second line. The Immaculate Conception is a teaching found in Roman Catholicism. While not derived directly from scripture, the teaching holds that God prevented Jesus’s mother Mary from inheriting the evil traits of her ancestors. This lack of evil would then explain why Mary could be referred to as God’s humble servant. Due to her humility, she was able to have God’s spirit come inside of her and create a miraculously new life whom she would call Yeshua — The Lord’s salvation.
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
Mary thus became the archetype for all followers of Jesus who desired to have the life of Jesus take control of their bodies. The Apostle Paul used this typology when he described his desire for the lives of church members to undergo a metamorphasis — from the Greek word morphoō.
My dear children — Again I travail in birth until Christ is formed (morphoō) in you.
- Galatians 4:19
The transformation that occurred inside of Mary, leads to Kendrick’s third line, “I transform like this”. Kendrick is claiming that his life is being transformed into something new, just like the caterpillar travailed through a metamorphasis to become the butterfly in the narrative of TPAB. Kendrick’s transformation means that where he was once was born only from a human inheritance, he has now been born from the Spirit of God. As a result, Kendrick has begun to possess some of the good traits that Jesus possessed, including forgiveness. Nonetheless, the first verse of “DNA.” makes it clear that Kendrick still possesses many evil traits. Kendrick’s transformation is not complete — which may be why he uses the verb in the present tense. He has not fully “transformed” but is going through an active process of transforming. This was what the Apostle Paul meant when he said.
But our citizenship is in heaven — and we also eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.
Transformation by word and power
As anyone versed in physics can attest, transformations require certain procedural steps and also a source of power. Fundamental changes in state are not spontaneous. Transformation require the help of an outside force as well as the cooperation of the object being transformed.
I don’t contemplate, I meditate, then off your fucking head
Kendrick’s main act of cooperation is a practice known in Hebrew as hagah — which at its root means “to speak” or “to mutter.” Hagah is an ancient practice of muttering words quietly to oneself while pondering those words. In English, this word has been translated as the word “meditate” — a word somewhat confusingly used to describe a wide variety of practices among Eastern religions. Because meditation in the West has primarily been seen through the lens of a few forms of Buddhist meditation or the derived Western medical practice of mindfulness, one might think that meditation implies silence and and emptying of all thoughts. However, in the Ancient Israelite practice, meditation is centered around speaking intelligible words to oneself and filling oneself with thoughts related to those spoken words. This begs the question, upon which words are Israelites meant to meditate? According to the book of Psalms — the ancient prayer book of both Jews and Christians — the person who desires to be blessed and live in delight should meditate on God’s Torah.
Blessed is the those who do not walk in the advice of the wicked,
nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in the seat of scoffers.
But their delight is in the teaching (Torah) of the LORD,
and on God’s teaching (Torah) they meditate day and night.
- Psalm 1:1–2
In this first Psalm, the author contrasts the life of those who follow evil with the life of those who follow God. Those who follow evil speak scornful words just like the soldiers who mocked Jesus. Those who follow God speak prayerful words as revealed in God’s Torah. Here, Torah can specifically refer to the first five books of the Tanakh or generally refer to any teachings that God has given his people. Since Kendrick is an Israelite, both meanings are appropriate. Unlike many modern Christians who avoid reading the first five books of their Bible due to the challenging work required to read an ancient text, Kendrick has been reading these books to form his identity as an Israelite. At the same time, as a follower of Jesus, Kendrick has also meditated on the teaching that Jesus gave during the Sermon on the Mount.
The Transformative Power of God’s Spirit
While meditating on scripture has been an important part of Kendrick’s transformation, it does not seem to have been sufficient for a complete transformation. This insufficiency can be seen in the fact that after meditating, Kendrick then proceeds to decapitate his enemy with a sword. Kendrick’s tendency to reach for the old weapon is still strong. The problem here is that transformation does not happen instantaneously in the vacuum of one’s own mind. Transformation requires an ongoing process sustained by a constant source of power. Kendrick realizes this need for a higher power, which is why the last two lines of the first verse refer to Kendrick’s power source.
The reason my power’s here on earth
Salute the truth, when the prophet say
The first line seems to indicate that while Kendrick’s power is on earth, it is not from the earth. This power is from heaven. As Philippians stated, this heavenly power is the very thing that will transform our humble bodies, including our DNA. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul clarifies that this power is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and enabled Jesus to bless those who follow him.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.
I pray that you will know what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of his immense strength. This power he exercised in the Messiah when he raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in heavenly places.
- Ephesians 1:3,19–20
Furthermore, Paul’s other writings show that this power is God’s Spirit himself.
Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you.
- Romans 8:11
From these references, we see that God’s Spirit — God’s invisible energy — created Jesus, resurrected Jesus, transforms citizens of the kingdom and promises to resurrect these citizens just like it resurrected Jesus. Thus, with the Spirit of God inside of them, citizens of the kingdom are able to forgive their oppressors and offer sacrificial love just like Jesus did. By doing so they offer an opportunity for those same oppressors to recognize the oppressed as that the God’s sons and daughters and to join the oppressed in the process of transformation. This transformation through suffering is exactly how the Good News that Jesus’s kingdom spread for the first 300 years of Christianity — just as the Paul recounted during his journeys throughout the Roman Empire.
For our Good News (gospel) did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction
- 1 Thessalonians 1:5
The last line of DNA’s first verse thus shows the function of God’s Spirit: to enable Kendrick to be a prophet who speaks the truth. Kendrick realizes that the truth he possesses is not from himself. The truth is from God. In fact, the Truth is God himself. This relationship can be seen in the promise Jesus gave to his disciples during his last discourse before being sacrificing himself.
If you love me, you will obey my commandments. Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever — the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you.
- John 14:14–17
According to Jesus, the Spirit of God is synonymous with the Spirit of Truth. Jesus promises that the Spirit of Truth will reside inside of all those who love Jesus and obey his commandments. Kendrick realizes that having the Spirit of Truth inside of him is what enables him to create the inspired albums that have brought him to prominence. This realization is the same one that 2Pac expressed during “Mortal Man” when 2Pac said that the invisible energy Kendrick felt on stage was from spirits. Both Kendrick and 2Pac recognized that truly inspired work does not originate from the artist himself but from some other shared pattern of thought. For 2Pac these inspiring spirits were the spirits of his dead homies buried under the ground. Kendrick also has plenty of dead homies from which to draw inspiration. However, Kendrick also has access to a higher source of power. The Spirit of Truth is who Kendrick relies on to empower him as a prophet. Still, everyday Kendrick must choose whether to rap from the Spirit of Truth or from the other spirits which influence the world of hip hop.