Easter weekend 2017.
Kendrick Lamar releases his third major label album, DAMN., to near-unanimous acclaim. Based on comments made at the time by Kendrick and TDE producer Sounwave which reference the 1999 film The Matrix, countless theories begin to sprout on Reddit threads and social media, suggesting DAMN. is actually the first of two new albums.
Of course, there was never a second album, but what if a longstanding connection does exist between The Matrix, which celebrates its 20th birthday on Sunday, March 31, and Kung Fu Kenny?
Unless you’re a Kendrick Lamar superfan, you may be surprised to learn the 31-year-old Compton, California native has explicitly referenced The Matrix at least 10 times in his discography.
While it may seem odd for a rap artist who grew up listening to 2Pac to take inspiration from a cyberpunk sci-fi film soundtracked by industrial and metal artists like Marilyn Manson, Rage Against the Machine, and Rob Zombie, the connection—which extends to dozens of rappers—begins to make more sense when the environment of The Matrix itself is described.
In the film, Morpheus, a captain played by Laurence Fishburne, tells Neo, a computer programmer played by Keanu Reeves, “You've felt it your entire life—that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
He continues, “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth… That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, were born into bondage, kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.”
Perhaps now the connection appears a bit clearer. The post-apocalyptic world imagined by The Wachowskis in The Matrix is a direct reflection of marginalized America. Throughout his career, Kendrick Lamar has rapped regularly about this type of institutionalization; being stuck in an inescapable system ruled by greed (“Institutionalized”), pride (“HUMBLE.”), materialism, and racism (“The Blacker the Berry”). At times, he has found himself blissfully content in these institutions, preferring a bravado-fueled alternate reality over the real world.
Kendrick’s first reference to The Matrix appears on his remix of JAY-Z’s “Hovi Baby” from his 2003 mixtape Y.H.N.I.C. (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year). “As far as rap, I spit in the Matrix / Past reality, n**** actually, I wrote a rhyme where there was no gravity,” K. Dot brags, discarding the red pill of reality and choosing the blue pill’s illusions of riches and violence instead.
On “Backseat Freestyle,” a fan favorite from his acclaimed major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick continues to boast in his blue pill reality:
“Goddamn I feel amazin', damn, I'm in the Matrix / My mind is livin' on cloud nine and this nine is never on vacation / Start up that Maserati and ‘vroom-vroom,’ I'm racin' / Poppin' pills in the lobby.”
The bravado, the escapism, and the party life are all fronts for profound brokenness, though. When the institutional vices which at first appear alluring eventually rear their ugly heads, Kendrick is finally willing to face the “splinter in [his] mind.” The truth, however, is not an easy pill to swallow.
At first, Kendrick struggles to choose reality, as he raps on “The Heart, Pt. 3”:
“Enough pressure to make you just open the Book of David / And pray to God that ya make it or live your life in the Matrix.”
He often finds himself tempted by the promise of a comfortable life offered by the powerful institutions of society. But Uncle Sam’s offer of “a house, a car / forty acres and a mule / a piano, a guitar” proves to be a materialistic trap instead of a blessing. As Kendrick is further exposed to the system’s manipulations of reality, he resolves to act and leave illusion behind.
Just as Neo equipped himself with Morpheus’ wisdom and mastered kung fu, Kendrick began leaning on spiritual mentors such as Tupac Shakur, JAY-Z, and Nas to be reborn as Kung Fu Kenny. In this role, conscious Kendrick has re-infiltrated the “Matrix” of commercial music hoping to lift artists, fans, and communities over walls and across borders which seek to suppress and marginalize.
To this end, Kendrick denounces violence and sheds light on the sinister bond between materialism and slavery (“The Blacker the Berry”); he also warns against the evils of peer pressure (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”) and instead preaches self-confidence and self-worth (“i”). While paying careful attention to the commercial and musical elements of his music, Kendrick always works toward the larger goal of pulling off society’s blinders.
Though the agents of the system may try to silence Kung Fu Kenny’s offer of freedom, he doesn’t back down. Instead, he embraces his current situation, explaining, “This how it is when you in the Matrix / Dodgin' bullets, reapin' what you sow.”
Though dodging the bullets of endless public scrutiny is no easy task, Kenny now finds himself in his “ELEMENT.” with no other choice, resolving, “We ain’t goin’ back to broke, family sellin’ dope.” To that end, Kendrick has evolved not only into “The One,” but also a spiritual and cultural mentor, as he claims on “Rigamortus,” “I'm Morpheus; the matrix of my mind / I'm out the orbit.”
No suppressive orbit can contain Kung Fu Kenny’s vision. He fights incessantly against the barriers and stereotypes enforced by society, resolving alongside Neo in the film “to show these people what [the Matrix doesn’t] want them to see… to show them a world without [the Matrix], a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible.”
Though Kendrick likely won’t be bending spoons with his mind any time soon, he will undoubtedly continue to persevere against those mental and institutional borders. “I don't talk about it, be about it, every day I sequel,” he raps on “Alright,” a reminder that, inside or out of the Matrix, actions speak far louder than words.