In the same breath that “ELEMENT.” is violent, it is also passionately tranquil and serene. With K.Dot, there are layers that have yet to be unveiled and unmasked, no matter how explicit or crass he is with his lyrical narratives. Rather than accept the striking visual collage of “ELEMENT.” as just that, exploring the intricacies of each shot gives me a closer look into the dualities that Kendrick Lamar and many of us battle every day. Through the contrast of brutal, violent scenes being countered by serene shots of nuns and children being engulfed in the tranquility of nature, we are reminded that humans, in our simplicity, are composed of multitudes of stories, experiences, and truths. Stills by Jonas Lindstroem and the little homies were emulated from the late and great Gordon Parks, one of the first Black photojournalists to explore the lives of African-Americans. There are a few themes that I interpreted from the visual: the use of the four elements to explain our interconnectedness, the embedded perceptibility of generational trauma, that love is a fifth element, and that the same things we are protecting ourselves from can be the cause of our destruction.
Jonas and the little homies’ use of the four elements in the video was not by accident. Fire - the burning house - was a symbol of the deconstruction of societal norms, the house or the box we were raised in is being questioned, deconstructed, and rebuilt. There are revolutions happening. Water - the images of drowning, the hand emerging from water, the little boy being drenched in rain - symbolizes the renewal that the individual must go through, to die, to be reborn. We were born in water and we need to cleanse ourselves of our past learnings. Earth - the child lying in the grass with the bug on a leash, the little boy being covered in dust, the father on the ground bloodied and battered - portrays the idea of humility through different lenses of nature surrounding us and also by human nature and our behaviors. Air - the image of the man jumping from the building, the plane behind Kendrick- seems to represent the choice of man to either ascend or descend, the act of free will. The use of all four of the elements, and the cryptic insinuation of a fifth one, shows that no matter who we are or how we behave, as humans we are all interconnected, down to the basic compositions of existence and how they reflect themselves in our everyday lives - fire, water, earth, air.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; it fell close enough for Eve to pick it up, bite it, and open the cathartic, cryptic black hole of freewill. We are taught by our parents, but we at a certain age are given the freewill to choose our paths. A father was teaching his beautiful brown son to use his hands to protect himself in the world that does not roll out red carpets for him when he walks, but flashes blood red sirens to question his very existence. Those same brown hands extend from the wrists of another black man, but are responsible for the father’s own bloodied and battered exterior. Numerous young black boys in the video are depicted, even if inadvertently, being exposed to a life of limited choice. We are all given free will, but when you live next to a bodega that only sells manufactured dreams, sugar-coated false realities, lies as loosies, and packs of statistics working against you, it’s hard to envision a life of kale and privilege. We are all given free will, but in “ELEMENT.” I was reminded that often, as a Black person in America, the same things we are taught to protect ourselves from can be the cause to our own destruction. The boy with the gun. The boy in the backseat of the car with the window shot at and cracked. The man teaching his son to fight. The same man on the ground, bloodied and battered. At this point, where does the choice, the freedom of will, really exist?
Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, a book by M. Gerard Fromm, explores the idea that “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often onto and into the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency.” “ELEMENT.” provides imagery of young boys being affected by generational trauma, even at different vertices unforeseen to the eye: propensities of gang violence, a child coming home to his father bloodied, men portrayed as civilized practicing self-defense, a child witnessing a man jumping off a building (as suicide?), a boy no older than eight years old aiming and shooting a gun at passer-by’s. I believe Kendrick’s very own life is a Black love letter to all of us who feel influenced by those hidden fears of our own mothers and fathers. How many of us are suspicious of the unknown, for no tangible reason, other than the philosophies of what we’ve been taught, shown, and exposed to? K.Dot’s materialized story, through song and through visual, is a reminder that we are allowed to challenge, face, and stare down the traumas that have traveled across generations. In his last track to find skin through video, “DNA.”, he recognizes the gold of Blackness that resides in his make-up, as well as the opposing forces (power, poison, pain, and joy) that make it so much more clear. The images of generational trauma that come up in “ELEMENT.” are a reminder that there are truths that are ugly to bear and sour to swallow, but through the exploring of the parallels that Kendrick touches on through his music and through his visuals is how we create an element of revolution for ourselves and break the chains for the next generation.
After the first listen to “ELEMENT.” I felt a familiarity. There are people walking this earth - maybe hypersensitive, artistic, consciously aware - trying to rise above the environment that we were birthed from, all the while a product of the system at hand. Abstractly, we are all elements of a system that exists around us. Pieces to the puzzle. Numbers in the binary code. Sometimes we are out of tune with the noise of reality, or too in tune that it causes unrest in our own bones. To create peace in our life, we find things to root ourselves in: a spirit source, a relationship, a family, our work. No matter the issues at hand for Cornrow Kenny, he knows that no one can take him out of his element because he is rooted, grounded, and surrounded by love. Love for God, for his family, his work, his city, and himself. In a responsive letter written to DJBooth, Kendrick explains his fear of God and how it influences his music. It gave us a look into the truth of being a religious rapper, who is aware of his flesh and still of his responsibility to live in the ways greater than himself, reflected in “ELEMENT.” “...It made me try harder at choosing my battles wisely. Which will forever be tough, because I’m still of flesh. I wanna spread this truth to my listeners. It's a journey, but it will be my key to the Kingdom.” Love is the fifth element (shoutout to Bruce Willis) that exists as a basic composition in life. Even without religion or the talk of celestial beings, understanding who you are and being a good person is a fundamental principle. When we find that balance in our lives, when we create that foundation of root inside of who we are, our truths, and the love inside of us, no one can take us out of that fifth element we’ve created for ourselves. Even if you have to go hard on a bitch.
Each stilled image is profound in its own right, none of which are esoteric in its complexities and stories that color the frame. I’m divorcing the claims of Kendrick Lamar’s latest video being depicted simply as “violent” and standing on my personal claim of it raging with truth. If at the least, “ELEMENT.” is an autobiography of Kung Fu Kenny, a memoir to those of us who understand the soul-tugging of inner and outer realities clashing before you, a montage of psychosocial illustrations, and a love letter to Gordon Parks and his historical, prominent work. But then again maybe this is just really a dope cinematic video, none of this makes sense, and Kendrick just made it all look really sexy.