When Kendrick Lamar dropped the first volume of his series of singles “The Heart” in 2010, he declared himself “just a little nigga from Compton”. It was a year before the release of his 2011 mixtape Article.80, yet he already compared himself to rap legends with a fire and urgency that implied his fate among the gods of hip-hop was already sealed. Twelve years later, his respect within the industry is unparalleled and he is the first and so far only rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize. But gold can’t erase the bloodstains of the past, a fact Lamar openly confronts on his latest single “The Heart Part 5.”
Each new episode of “The Heart” series is a status update, a palate cleanser to prepare for the next direction Lamar will take. “Part 5” has a few more meta trends than usual. “As I get a little older, I realize that life is a perspective,” Lamar mutters over funky piano stabs and hand-drums mixed in from Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” His perspective oscillates between harrowing tales of the street-to-jail cycle to society’s tendency to numb pain with drugs to his memories of performing in Argentina the night the late California rapper Nipsey Hussle died. During the third verse, Lamar speaks from Nipsey’s perspective, posing what he might have been thinking at the time he was shot and telling his family and his brother, Black Sam, to watch over them. It’s a powerful and haunting moment.
The themes and lyrics are dense and complex even by Kendrick’s standards, and the song’s accompanying video adds even more layers. From his second verse, Lamar’s face turns into deepfakes, created by a company founded by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker – from various black celebrities of varying degrees of notoriety: OJ Simpson, Ye, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey. The persuasiveness of the deepfakes is mixed, to say the least, but they amplify Lamar’s words and serve to visualize a complicated lineage through the darkness and pressures of fame (Ye on “Friends bipolar , grab you by your pocket”, Smollett on “The streets screwed me up”, etc.)
“Part 5” is the second “Heart” entry to be paired with a video, and this time the intrinsic connection between the song and the visual is a double-edged sword. Lamar’s careful cross-references between societal issues and celebrity controversy feel less pressing when you can’t see the faces changing in real time, deflating the song’s momentum and setting it near the end of the song. “Heart” series. It is the risk of linking the two elements too close to each other, but it’s also a testament to Lamar’s ever-growing ambitions, and it goes without saying that he’s still one of the best rappers alive. Perspective is constantly changing the playing field of life, and Lamar is preparing us for what seems to be his biggest change yet.