One Memorable Look: Decoding The Fighting Style Of Mr Kendrick Lamar
Mr Kendrick Lamar on his “Damn” tour performing at the Barclays Centre, Brooklyn, New York, 20 July 2017. Photograph by P Squared
“You’ve learnt so much, but not enough.” So the subtitles read in The Damn Legend Of Kung Fu Kenny, the short film that accompanied Mr Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 tour. “You must become stronger.” Then the wonky dubbed dialogue kicks in: “You are the one who will bring the glow back.”
First shown during Lamar’s headline set at Coachella days after the release of his fourth album, Damn, the two-and-a-half minute promo introduces Kung Fu Kenny, aka The Black Turtle, the rapper’s alter ego. Shot in punchy high-contrast colours with a grainy feel, it deliberately evokes the martial arts films of the 1970s and 1980s, the golden age of wuxia, and plays with the master-and-apprentice tropes of the genre.
For the performance itself, Lamar wore black and white wushu-style uniforms. Yellow and red tracksuits followed during the tour, a nod to the jumpsuit worn by Mr Bruce Lee in his final film, Game Of Death, and reappropriated by Kill Bill: Volume 1 in 2003. Kenny even shaped Lamar’s collaboration with Nike, his dojo-influenced Cortez. But the character tapped in to something deeper – hip-hop’s long association with kung fu movies. And perhaps Mr Don Cheadle’s role in Rush Hour 2 (2001). Here it gets a little hazy.
As any student in the way of Lamar can tell you, there is always more to learn. His path seems to have been set from childhood. Growing up in Compton, California, aged seven, Lamar famously witnessed Dr Dre and Mr Tupac Shakur filming the “California Love” video on his doorstep, which inspired him to pursue a career in hip-hop (Dr Dre later became his sensei). Lamar began working under the moniker K.Dot, but the use of his real name (or part of) in 2009 marked a shift to a more personal tone. His storytelling became expansive in scope, but intimate. Yet, who Lamar is and the exact meaning of his words are often hard to pin down.
Mr Kendrick Lamar, “Damn” tour at TD Garden, Boston, 22 July 2017. Photograph by Mr Kenny Sun
After turning Mr Pharrell Williams’ beat for “Alright” into what became the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams said that Lamar was the Mr Bob Dylan of our time. The comparison stands. Where Dylan’s lyrics have inspired university syllabuses and wormed their way into medical studies, Lamar has the 21st-century equivalent – entire podcast series dedicated to analysing his bars. (It is all too easy to get lost down this K-hole.) Two years after Dylan collected his Nobel Prize, Lamar became the first recipient outside jazz and classical music to be awarded a Pulitzer.
“Alls my life I had to fight,” as “Alright” put it, but when it comes to fighting, why is kung fu, in particular, so entwined with rap? The story goes that, in early 1970s, when the foundations of hip-hop culture were being laid, kung fu movies were a mainstay of New York cinemas. The films were cheap to get into and featured non-white characters standing up to oppressors, which made them an obvious draw in the fallout of the civil rights movement. Martial arts weren’t one of the original five pillars of hip-hop, but the signature low spinning sweep kicks were mirrored in breakdancing.
The most obvious place where this connection surfaced is in the output of Wu-Tang Clan, who took their name from the 1983 martial arts film Shaolin And Wu Tang and borrowed heavily from the genre. Kung Fu Kenny’s arrival a generation later could be seen through this prism, building on the masters who went before.
“As any student in the way of Lamar can tell you, there is always more to learn”
Lamar’s film also touches on The Last Dragon, a cult 1985 movie produced by Mr Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label. Set in New York, it follows the spiritual journey of a kid who dreams of mastering the skills of his idol, Bruce Lee. In unlocking the final level of his training, he attains a luminescent aura called “the glow”.
Is Cheadle a red herring? He appears in the video for DNA, the single Lamar released in the lead up to Damn, and was invited to Coachella at Lamar’s request. Kenny, his character in Rush Hour 2, is the owner of a Chinese restaurant who matches Mr Jackie Chan in battle. Cheadle reveals that Lamar himself acknowledged this tribute after his 2017 show.
Will we ever discover “the glow”? “Where the black is darkest, the glow will shine brightest,” we’re told in Lamar’s film. Its ultimate location is perhaps best left to the imagination (you can find out for yourself here), but in the search for clues, we could break down what we’ve been given.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “legend” as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated”, which sums up Kenny’s tale pretty well. There is, of course, another definition: someone who is at the top of their game. It’s a double meaning that Lamar, the Shaolin master of wordplay, would surely appreciate.
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