Since the release of his critically acclaimed major label debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar has shied away from embracing the visibility that comes with being famous. Instead, in between projects, he lives a quiet life distant from social media with his fiancé and kids. If it wasn’t for the album artwork for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers — his latest project which is set to be released on Friday May 13 — we would still be wondering how many children he actually has or what they look like.
His separation from celebrity-ism and the hold he has on his privacy benefits both Kendrick and his fans. The obscurity allows him to experience real life, and those moments then turn into great musical content.
“While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next,” Kendrick said in “nu thoughts,” the open letter he wrote to his fans in August 2021 under the moniker oklama.
Often touted as one of the best rappers of our generation, Kendrick is well known for offering thought provoking lyrics that are riddled with nuance. In the past he has explored, examined, and critiqued Compton’s hood politics, America’s complicity to systemic racism, police brutality, anti-Blackness, morality, faith, and religion. Now, on “The Heart Part 5,” the fifth installment of his “The Heart” series and introduction to the new album, Kendrick looks at the people around him — his people — in order to make necessary arguments about the negative influence and impact “the culture” has on Black communities, specifically Black men.
There isn’t a physical destination or even an agreed upon definition of what “the culture” consists of. The phrase is synonymous with Black or hip-hop culture and, at times, is simply used to point to Black people. Generally speaking, in hip-hop songs, discourse about “the culture” is intended to uplift and show unity or common ground between the artist and his/her fan base. Think, West Coast artist Radio Base’s 2018 “Do It For The Culture,” Migos’ “Culture National Anthem,” and JAY-Z’s famous line “I do this for my culture” on the Kanye West-produced track “Izzo (HOVA).”
The second verse of “The Heart Part 5” references this line from the Brooklyn MC. Kendrick puts his own spin on what it means to “do it for his culture”; instead of being inspired to show other Black folks what material items could be gained by success (i.e. driving a roaster), Kendrick brings attention to the necessity of having a bullet proof range as protection against intraracial violence.
The entire first half of the song unpacks the desensitized emotions and cyclical violent acts that occur within Black communities.
“I come from a generation of pain, where murder is minor… Desensitized, I vandalized pain, covered up and camouflaged. Get used to hearin’ arsenal rain,” he raps. According to Kendrick, there is no loyalty in gang culture or reward for one’s participation. The only two options are death or in jail. Though his experience growing up in the violent, gang-affiliated neighborhoods of Compton informs the personal perspectives steeped in his music, the recent RICO charges brought against rappers Young Thug and Gunna heightens Kendrick’s critique of “the culture.” (The 88-page indictment cites the YSL rapper’s lyrics and social media posts as evidence to support the prosecution’s argument.)
The chorus on “The Heart Part 5” features the sampled voice of Marvin Gaye and delivers a simple message. Kendrick yearns for the hood to love him/us back as he sings, “I want the hood to want me back” — but that’s not how “the culture” or hood politics work.
One of the most powerful aspects about the way he critiques “the culture” are the visuals that complement the song. Using deep fake technology, Kendrick morphs into and directly addresses O.J. Simpson, Jussie Smollet, Kanye West and Will Smith, four men whose public behaviors have been regarded as problematic and unhealthy. Before he presents his argument, the TDE rapper levels the playing field by including two well intended sentences: “I am. All of us.” Those words, along with his rift on varying perspectives he provides in the intro, remind listeners that Kendrick is not above the critiques he gives. (It’s also been theorized that Kendrick’s new moniker, “oklama,” has indigenous origins which translates to “my people,” which adds to him positioning himself in community with the people he critiques.)
The deep fake technology used in the video also allows Kendrick to address two other notable Black men: the late Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle. However, it’s the latter one that listeners have focused on most, with Kendrick rapping from the perspective of the beloved Crenshaw rapper. At the end of the second verse, Kendrick revisits the emotions he experienced after hearing about the loss of Nipsey (who he shared a friendship with). He raps: “new revolution was up and movin’. I’m in Argentina wiping my tears full of confusion / Water in between us, another peer’s been executed. History repeats again. Make amends, then find a nigga with the same skin to do it. But that’s the culture.”
Kendrick’s observation is spot on. Since the senseless killing of Nipsey Hussle, rappers Pop Smoke, King Von, Mo3, and Young Dolph were all murdered in a similar manner as Nip within a three year span, and up until now, no one has offered a critique of the culture.
The final verse of “The Heart Part 5” shifts away from a set of critiques. Instead, Kendrick taps into his skill as a storyteller to present a beautiful monologue that, at times, applies to the lives and accomplishments of both Kobe and Nip. The last few bars present a posthumous self-reflective Nipsey as the speaker who, from Kendrick’s point of view, doesn’t blame the hood for his death. The overall message that Kendrick outlines reminds us that in order for “the culture” to move forward, individual healing has to take place.
The topics that Kendrick addresses — Black death, gang violence, mental illness within Black communities — on “The Heart Part 5” can be viewed as an extension of previous conversations he has had in interviews, or through the music he’s released since his mixtape days. In his critique of the culture, Kendrick demonstrates a collective care for Black communities, sternly — but gracefully — providing what we need to hear on a track that hopefully foreshadows what’s to come with his new album.
Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where, as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, Grammy.com, and Scalawag Magazine.
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