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Kendrick Lamar got fans excited when in a BBC 1 interview promoting Black Panther, Lamar hinted that he would like to take a stab at playing a villain in a potential sequel. The rapper said, “He was a villain but he was loved and misunderstood, so if I could, I’d play Killmonger for sure.” He added that it was a “privilege” to be involved with the film and that it “is something that not only stands within its moments but stands within time.”
A number of hip-hop artists have tried their hand at acting over the years to great success. Obviously, Will Smith and Ice Cube come to mind, and recent, grounded turns from Method Man and Black Thought in The Deuce show that there is room for rappers turned thespians in the current TV landscape.
Lamar seems like a perfect candidate to start taking on dramatic roles. He is a natural storyteller whose dynamic, strong narrative voice has inspired a generation. A closer look at his work shows that acting might actually be a natural fit for the hip-hop superstar.
Fellow Thespians Admire Him
Shortly after the release of DAMN., Kendrick dropped the music video for “DNA,” in which he starred alongside Oscar nominee Don Cheadle. Cheadle had kind words to say about working with Kendrick as an artist and performer. Cheadle told Pitchfork he only had just two days to prepare for the part, but Kendrick assured him they could work together and improvise in order to get things just right. Cheadle said:
“As a human being, he’s pretty normal and straight ahead, but when you listen to his rhymes, he constructing ideas in ways that are no immediately understandable. It takes a deep dive to kind of figure out why one verse creates the other verse and what it comes out of and all of that. So it’s tricky to memorize because it’s so specific to the way he thinks. But when we got in there, we really just started playing. We just started improvising, really.”
Cheadle also said that he has encouraged Lamar to give acting a shot. Before they worked together on “DNA,” Cheadle says, “I maybe wanted him to try his hand at acting, which he was very reticent to do at the time. He didn’t feel like that was his lane and he said he wasn’t ready.”
He Already Portrays Characters
Lamar has developed various pseudonyms over the course of his career: K-Dot. Cornrow Kenny. Kung Fu Kenny. The “DNA” video is also significant because it is also where he brought Kung Fu Kenny to life. In the video, Lamar, dressed in Asian influenced garb, taps Don Cheadle’s Policeman on the shoulder and ends him in classic kung-fu style. When Lamar walks out of the precinct, a Chinese subtitle makes us aware that we are actually in the presence of Kung Fu Kenny.
Interestingly, the character is actually influenced a role Cheadle played in Rush Hour 2, in which he had a small role as a martial artist. “DNA” is not the only appearance of Kung Fu Kenny. Lamar incorporated a three-part short film titled “The Damn Legend of Kung Fu Kenny” into his 2017 Coachella set. He was then joined on stage by a group of ninjas.
Incorporating the Kung Fu Kenny character into “DNA” isn’t just a video stunt. The song delves deep into ideas about identity and demonstrates Lamar’s understanding of what complex elements create character. As simple as the lyrics, “Loyalty, got royalty inside by 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” may seem, they speak the complexity that comprises character.
It’s fitting the Lamar would use “DNA” as an opportunity to test the boundaries of his identity as a performer and examine both “Kendrick Lamar” and “Kung Fu Kenny.”
He Has Told His Own Coming of Age Story
While Kung Fu Kenny might be the most explicit alter ego Lamar has adopted, it isn’t the first. On his rookie 2012 release, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lamar moves back and forth from his identity as “Kendrick Lamar” to his alter ego “K.Dot.”
Prior to 2009, Lamar actually went by the stage name “K.Dot” before deciding to perform under his real name, “Kendrick Lamar.” In an interview, he has described K.Dot as more raw version of himself:
“K.Dot, this was me prepping myself, as far as the lyrical ability, and being able to go in the studio and say, ‘You know what, I want to be the best wordsmith, anyone who gets on the track, i have to annihilate them…This is the transition where [I become] Kendrick Lamar and Kung-Fu Kenny. I look at Kung-Fu Kenny as a master of the craft now.’”
It is more accurate, then, to say that K.Dot is the younger version of Lamar, or rather Lamar’s reflection on a younger version of himself. You can read good kid, m.A.A.d. city as the rapper’s evolution from “K.Dot” to Kendrick Lamar. Though the entire album functions as a hip-hop bildungsroman, “Backseat Freestyle” with “Kendrick” reflecting on his growth from “K.Dot” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” in which Lamar reflects on the pain he caused as K.Dot exemplify this character evolution.
In “Backseat Freestyle,” the intro, “Martin had a dream / Martin had a dream / Kendrick have a dream” could be read as urging “K.Dot” to become “Kendrick.”
Kendrick is a Master Storyteller
good kid, m.A.A.d city is a great example of Lamar’s gifts of as a storyteller across an entire album, but he has also shown his ability to tell complex, rich, complete stories within the confines of individual songs. “DUCKWORTH.” on DAMN is one Lamar’s greatest storytelling achievements.
In another context, “DUCKWORTH.” could have been the kind of short story the ends up in elite literary magazines. The song tells a story from his own family. Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith plans to rob a local KFC. Kendrick’s father, Ducky, is working at the restaurant. Ducky offers Top Dawg, “Free chicken every time Anthony posted in line / Two extra biscuits, Anthony liked him and then let him slide.”
Lamar goes on to muse about the cosmic implications of this small moment. How would the trajectory of the two men’s lives change from there, and how would his life have been different with the loss of his father.
“You take two strangers and put ‘em in random predicaments /
Give ‘em a soul so they can make their own choices and live with it /
Twenty years later, them same strangers, you make ‘em meet again /
Inside recording studios where they reapin’ their benefits /
Then you start remindin’ them about the chicken incident /
Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? /
Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life /
While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
Kendrick Understands Subtext
Acting in the modern era is defined by the writing of the great teacher Konstantin Stanislavski. Not only did the Russian thespian pioneer the idea of deriving a “motivation” from tactics characters employ within a scene to get what they want, but he also introduced generations of actors to subtext, or the difference between what is said and what is meant.
Words can have different meanings. Words can have multiple meanings. This is key to any literary work. A great literary work will unfold various layers of meaning as you experience it, and even on subsequent encounters. Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly is already being taught in high school and college classrooms because it contains this kind of significance.
In Brian Mooney’s essay, “Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album” the professor delves into the layers of meaning in To Pimp A Butterfly that have inspired him to teach the record. He points to various songs that carry various levels of meaning, and how his students encountered them. “Institutionalized” superficially (as Genius puts it) “is the dramatic realization that the murky past of the mad city still lurks within Lamar’s psyche.” Mooney and his students point out that the song is also a critique of various “institutions” that can make one feel trapped or crazy. Mooney writes, “one of my students points out that her skin was like “an institution” keeping her trapped in a predetermined future, much like a correctional facility, hospital, or ghetto…Kendrick is really talking about Compton, his hometown, as an institution, that keeps people trapped inside it, even after they’ve left.”
This is just one example of how much of Butterfly functions in much the same way that great novels about the African-American experience have functioned (Mooney teaches Butterfly alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye). While the album tells a number of personal narratives about Lamar, the songs also function as stories of the Black experience in America, and critiques of the various white supremacist narratives of oppression.
Kendrick Lamar has all the tools he need to pursue acting. His mastery of characterization, narrative, structure, and subtext is already greater than so many actors. All that remains is for him to decide acting is in “his lane.”
For more movie news, check out the biggest moments from the Oscars.
- Words: Brenden Gallagher
- Main & Featured Image: Christopher Polk / Getty Images