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On a seemingly calm Tuesday afternoon this week, Don Cheadle shared a video link on Twitter with three simple letters: “DNA.” Ordinarily, a video with that title could mean a myriad of things, but this was five days after Kendrick Lamar released his latest album DAMN. — a politically charged masterpiece in which Lamar uses his expert wordplay and signature storytelling to capture what it feels like to be black in Trump’s America, among other moral dilemmas. In one of DAMN’s gems, “DNA.,” Lamar feverishly celebrates and critiques his black heritage, while making it clear it’s for him to do and no one else. At one point on the Mike Will–produced track, he’s shouting he has royalty and loyalty inside his DNA as a sample of a Fox News commentator criticizing his song “Alright,” and rap music in general, plays in the background. The black rage juxtaposed against conservative political commentary sets the tone for who Lamar plans on speaking up for on the album.
The YouTube link revealed a music video for “DNA” starring Cheadle. In the video he plays a cop interrogating a handcuffed Lamar. “Two first names, huh, what the fuck is up with that?” he scoffs before sitting down to conduct the polygraph test. It’s at that moment that the scene takes a sci-fi turn: Cheadle’s character magically becomes possessed by Lamar and begins to spit the song’s ferocious lyrics as the beat drops. It’s the Oscar nominee like you’ve never seen him, performing Lamar’s lyrics head-to-head with the rapper himself. The only thing more shocking than the scene is the realization that one of the greatest rappers of our time had tapped one of the greatest actors of our time to not only star in his music video, but to be the person to release it (Lamar’s personal account retweeted Cheadle’s tweet announcing the video, but other than that, the rapper remained mum on the promotional front).
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Some guessed that Lamar’s constant references to himself as “Kung Fu Kenny” on DAMN were the reason he decided to include the original Kung Fu Kenny in the video, but according to Cheadle, this collaboration was a long time coming. “Kendrick and I have been trying to figure out stuff to do together for years,” Cheadle told BuzzFeed News.
Cheadle said he had been talking to Dr. Dre about some musical projects he was working on and wanted to reach out to Lamar as well because he is a fan. “I told Dre I thought Kendrick could be a good actor and he was someone I’d like to talk to about doing some music stuff with, too, so he was like, ‘OK, I’ll give you his number,’ and we just stayed in touch after that.”
“Just listening to his ideas and his spirit as expressed through his music. All the skits in To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city — he’s a storyteller and that’s really what all actors are."
Cheadle revealed that he initially wanted Lamar to play Junior in his 2016 Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead. “He toyed around with the idea for a minute but he was recording To Pimp a Butterfly at the time and wasn’t ready to attempt to act,” said Cheadle. “He was also trying to focus on the epic album he created. It ultimately was a win for both of us because I got Lakeith Stanfield [to play Junior] — things happen for a reason.”
It may surprise Lamar’s fans to hear that Cheadle thought he would make a good actor, but the House of Lies star explained that the gut feeling came from the way Lamar’s mind worked. “Just listening to his ideas and his spirit as expressed through his music. All the skits in To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city — he’s a storyteller and that’s really what all actors are, “ explained Cheadle. “Functioning storytellers, bringing different parts of a story together and understanding the role you play in a larger narrative, bigger scheme. He understood story, he is obviously very smart, and clearly insightful, and gets irony, and hypocrisy, and flaws, and is honest; those are all good things. And if you can pull all those things together you can be a good actor.”
“I mean, I could be wrong, though," Cheadle added with a chuckle. "He felt at the time he wasn’t ready. I appreciated his honesty.”
Although Lamar wasn’t ready to make an acting attempt at the time, the pair kept in touch and grew a friendship from afar. “Out of the blue I’d get a text from him, like, ‘Hey, how you doing, big bro?’ and I’d be like, ‘Nothing, chillin', doing this...’ Then a month later I’d hit him like, ‘What’s happening, fam?’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m on tour, I’m working on this ...,’” Cheadle shared. “He’s incredibly curious, too — like he hit me one day because he was working on doing some portion of his life story, or doing one of the stories in the album as a movie or something, and he asked me, ‘How do you break down a story? How do you approach writing screenplay?’ so that became a long [phone] session.”
In one of those conversations, Lamar said, “Hey, I’m doing a video, you wanna be in it?” “Of course!" Cheadle said he responded. "Then I said, ‘Oh, by the way, what is it that you want me to do?’”
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The actor was as shocked as everyone else when he heard Lamar wanted him to perform his song in the video. “He sent me a video of him doing [the scene] in his trailer, and then they sent me the lyrics, and I was like, ‘How much of this do you expect me to get? Because, um, you’re Kendrick Lamar.’” But he said Lamar assured him it would be dope.
“I got as much of it as I could down and then we sort of just started playing,” said Cheadle about the filming process. “All of that back-and-forth and trading bars stuff — that wasn’t planned. That was just in-the-moment kind of improv stuff.”
Like the album, the video packs some powerful imagery. After the opening scene, the video jumps back and forth between a lot of things but mainly focuses on the group of black men Lamar joins after leaving the jail. They cheer him on as he raps to the camera, “You mothafuckas can't tell me nothin' / I’d rather die than to listen to you / My DNA not for imitation.” The video ultimately ends with a shot of the gang of men all standing still until Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment label mate Schoolboy Q starts walking across the street toward the camera, flashing gang symbols before swinging at the camera. Whether the camera represents mainstream society, the media, white people, or another gang is unclear. The message could range from a warning to leave the black community alone to a reminder that we have our own internal beefs within the community to reconcile. Only Lamar and the video’s director, Nabil, know for sure.
While some things will always remain a mystery within Lamar’s art, what doesn’t is the fact that he continues to use it to give hip-hop the kind of music it deserves in the midst of police brutality and Trump’s administration, and how those two factors specifically affect black Americans.
Cheadle is one of many in awe of what he continues to bring to the table. “He’s the nonpareil,” Cheadle said of Lamar. “He is pushing himself to scary places for himself, which is when you really get great stuff. He’s done things musically that shouldn’t work; like “For Free” shouldn’t work on To Pimp a Butterfly — he shouldn't be able to get a jazz combo and rap over it and actually have it be something that’s compelling and interesting and strong. And that to me is one of the many reasons he’s so great.”