Kung Fu Kenny’s “DNA” Video Shows Us What He’s Made Of

Kendrick Lamar’s new release DAMN. has been lighting up the airwaves and the Internet since its release last week. The record represents a departure from the jazzy, critic-friendly fare of TPAB in a few different ways, notably including the visual media accompanying the music. Kendrick Lamar’s video for “DNA” makes reference to a few standard rap video tropes – cops, girls, cars, gang affiliations. But instead of relying on these themes to carry the video, directors Nabil & the little homies use them as cultural touchstones, jumping-off points to advance a larger idea.

The piece opens with Don Cheadle (whose mere presence is a bigger status indicator for Kendrick than any rented Maybach or iced-out watch) interrogating Lamar, who is strapped into a polygraph rig and clad in a spiffy black-and-white kung fu gi. As Cheadle spits out cop-movie venom ripped straight from a Tarantino script, he hooks himself into the polygraph and begins rapping Kendrick’s own lines at him. This eventually proves to be too much for the possessed policeman, as a pat on the shoulder and a whispered repurposing of Cheadle’s character’s own words forces him to his knees.

Although the aesthetic is dark and rough, it is clearly heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy. Specifically, the juxtaposition of identities between the rapper and the actor, the mirror in the background, and the face-off between the G-man and the martial artist evoke the balance of the Dao, the Chinese philosophy of universal balance. The question of identity is prominently featured in the song’s lyrics, and there is a meta component as well, since Don Cheadle’s character from Rush Hour 2 is the inspiration behind the moniker “Kung Fu Kenny”. These, along with the many other manifestations of the harmonious way in the video, might give the viewer an insight into Kendrick’s creative process or personal philosophy.

The second half of the video is a jarring departure from the first half. Kendrick, free now, introduces the viewer to himself, his family, and his label in chyrons composed of Chinese characters. As his flow grows more intense and complex, the focus shifts off of the ostensible story of the video and onto the music. Kendrick is rapping straight to the viewer now, up in your face, shot in black and white. There are some young ladies in a car, laughing and screaming as they blast the song and swerve around the street while Kendrick tosses dice with the TDE crew. The video ends with Schoolboy Q dripping Gucci while throwing up his set, then knocking the camera out cold.

There are many layers of meaning here – too many for me to even grasp completely, let alone explain through text. I don’t really know what to make of the girls in the car, or of the repeated “Gimme some ganja” sample. What I do know is that this video is representative of the growth in Kendrick Lamar’s artistic output. There is nothing left to prove, no critic who still isn’t convinced. There’s just creative freedom, triumphant expression, and balance.