Even by hip-hop standards, Kendrick Lamar thinks he is special. Consider this section of “DNA,” from his 2017 album DAMN.
I got hustle though, ambition flow
Inside my DNA
I was born like this, since one like this
I transform like this, perform like this
Was Yeshua new weapon
I don’t know if Lamar really believes he has a genetic link to God. But I do think that there is a core element of his work—his artistic DNA, if you will—that reveals something important about the nature of the Creator. And you can hear it in this song.
I’m talking about Lamar’s“flow”—the patterns, rhythms, and rhymes that make up his lyrical delivery. If we put aside the meaning of his words for a moment and simply consider the way Lamar organizes his verses, we can perceive a powerful reflection of a key characteristic of God’s creation: the principle of variation.
Although God delights in diversity—after all, the world includes both sea cucumbers and mountain lions—creation is in fact rigorously ordered. DNA is the key. It is a shared blueprint, a basic structure that is common to all life on the earth. But when the DNA sequence of one creature changes slightly, the result—magnified over the eons—is extraordinary, resulting in the teeming variety of the living world. God’s creation is not scattershot.
As in the biological world, one of the most important principles in music is that of “variation.” When composers apply the principle of variation, they repeat a familiar musical idea while introducing a slight change. Just as small changes in one creature’s genome can have expansive effects, a composer’s creative use of the technique of variation can lead to a musical landscape of dazzling variety.
It only takes a few seconds of listening to “DNA” to recognize that Kendrick Lamar is just such a composer. In the first 88 words of the song, we’re hooked, thanks to his use of variation: he make small changes in his flow in order to keep us interested, while maintaining clear patterns that reveal an underlying logic. As in creation, the song’s complexity and variety emerge out of simple building blocks that tie everything to each other. Just like in DNA.
Let’s dig in to Lamar’s “DNA.” If we listen to the very beginning of the song, we hear a sentence (a musical “phrase”) that has 15 syllables: “I got loyalty got royalty inside my DNA.” Each syllable lasts one quarter of a beat, resulting in the most basic rhythm one can imagine: a constant stream of pulses going by (it reminds me of the evenly-spaced “rungs” on the DNA’s ladder-like structure.) But just as in DNA, it is the patterns of basic elements that really matter. In the song, the last syllable (the “A” of the word “DNA” in each phrase) lands on the fourth beat of the bar. This happens three more times. Because we hear this pattern four times in a row, as well as the word “DNA” in every phrase on the exact same beat, we hear these four phrases as one unit. In short, we perceive a deep and logical rhythmic order that governs the widely varied words and images in the lyrics.
In the next phrase, Lamar makes two changes that further develop the richness of the song. The most obvious is that he discards the refrain of “DNA,” which signals to us that we are now in a new section of the lyrics. The rhythmic structure is different as well. The fifth phrase (“I was born like this, since one like this / immaculate conception”) has 16, not 15, syllables. This is not a small, abstract difference; we can hear it easily in the word “conception,” in which the last syllable falls slightly after the fourth beat of the bar instead of directly on it, as in the first four phrases. The sixth phrase also has 16 syllables (“I transform like this…”), but in the seventh phrase, he returns to the 15-syllable pattern (“I don’t contemplate…”) The result is a subconscious question in the listener’s mind: which pattern will come next, 15 or 16 syllables?
In a brilliant move, however, Lamar gives the listener neither pattern. Instead, the eighth phrase of the song is made up of two shorter phrases. The first is seven syllables in length―ending in “bed,” which rhymes with the previous final word (“head”)―and is then followed by a recapitulation of the introduction of the song (“I got I got…”). This in turn springboards us into the second “paragraph” of the song. It’s an additional curveball that keeps us guessing all the way to the end, like a cliffhanger that vaults us into the next chapter of a mystery novel.
Lamar’s use of the musical technique of variation allows us to sense that there is an order undergirding the complex and often contradictory descriptions of his character. Though we are dazzled by his flow, its variety never overwhelms the logical order that lays beneath it. I'll leave it to others to debate the religious implications of his lyrics. What I’m certain of is that his delivery, his flow, is an amazing reflection of the beauty and intricacy of God's created order.