Neo, as played by the masterfully reserved Keanu Reeves, has a hard time adjusting to his surroundings upon waking up in ‘the real world’ in sci-fi masterpiece The Matrix. Which is understandable; life as he has known it has been revealed to be a virtual simulation created by machines who use humans as an energy source. He knows he is on the right path in growing to accept this reality, yet something is just not clicking. Until, after a frenzied bout of training in high-stakes simulation programs, he has a moment of divine revelation, wherein he realizes he may indeed be the One who can manipulate the Matrix at will. “I know kung fu” he exhales with both pride and awe.
DAMN. presents a new Kendrick Lamar persona at this exact stage of transcendence; a stage where his full potential is not only realized but exercised to devastating and irrevocable effect. As fate would have it, this persona is one christened ‘Kung Fu Kenny,’ and he is introduced to the world in “DNA.,” the most relentlessly hard track he has put to tape yet.
Even from an artist who has made a name for himself in creating labyrinthine statements of purpose, “DNA.” is dense. Standing in for the plethora of chromosomes are Kendrick’s identity as a black man in Trump’s America, as the most preeminent ambassador for the hip-hop community, as a catalyst acting between those two camps, as one of the most watched figures in the public eye and as an artist who has set the bar for himself almost insurmountably high. The complexities of his genetic make-up run in exact parallel to the “power, poison, pain, joy, hustle, ambition, [and] flow” that course through his veins. And he emerges from the chaos as a wizened master of kung fu would—with calm, poise and unstoppable determination.
What this translates to in a musical context is a showcase for Lamar’s lyrical dexterity that is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The song’s second half, built around an ominous, industrial beat reminiscent of another rapper’s game-changing opus, makes you question whether or not Lamar even needs to breathe; there are a full 37 seconds of sustained rapping in which there is no discernible point where he stops for air.
Discussions that attempt to champion ‘the greatest rapper alive’ often amount to little more than petty squabbling between interested parties. They are wrapped in anointing a ruler from a make that they recognize, or from a set of accomplishments all can agree are the defining traits of greatness. On “DNA.,” Kendrick Lamar shows that he is no longer a part of this game, he is not even on the same playing board. He has officially leveled up; like Neo, the game now bends to his will.
Be sure to check out our full album review of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ right here.
- Cover Image: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella