Ahead of the release of his highly anticipated fifth studio album Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar has released his first new solo music since 2017’s DAMN. “The Heart Part 5” is the latest instalment of an ongoing series of “The Heart” tracks. These tracks have become known as promo singles in which Kendrick raps in a stream-of-consciousness-style flow, usually off-topic from his strongly thematic and conceptual albums.
In other words, he’s rapping straight from the heart.
On “Part 5”, Kendrick uses the street level experience of community trauma, betrayal and in-fighting as an indictment of a culture at war with itself. Imagery of broken systems, disenfranchised youth, gangs, prison time, sex, money, and murder abound.
Analyze, risk your life, take the charge
Homies done fucked your baby mama once you hit the yard, that’s culture
Twenty-three hour lockdown, then somebody called
Said your lil’ nephew was shot down, the culture’s involved
I done seen niggas do seventeen, hit the halfway house
Get out and get his brains blown out, lookin’ to buy some weed
Car wash is played out, new GoFundMe accounts’ll proceed
A brand-new victim’ll shatter those dreams, the culture
On a lyrical level, Kendrick once again flexes his ability to craft a multi-layered narrative worthy of any piece of Pulitzer literature. However, the accompanying music video elevates it to whole other level of critique.
Kendrick uses the song as a way to explore the African American experience in the public eye. In the music video, deepfake technology is used to morph Kendrick’s face into that of six prominent Black celebrities. These are in order of appearance: OJ Simpson, Jussie Smollet, ye, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle (as highlighted by this Tik Toker).
So why these faces? And how does it line up with the song’s lyrical content?
Part 5. Pt 1.
The track can be divided into two main sections. In verses 1 and 2, Kendrick raps about crime, gangs and the trappings of clout and money-chasing. However, he also takes aim at celebrity culture and how it has a tendency to breed toxicity and animosity amongst people.
The men and the crimes Kendrick references are:
- OJ Simpson – a high profile murder suspect from the 90s who was acquitted but later jailed in the 2000s for robbery;
- Jussie Smollett – disgraced actor who faked a hate crime during peak Trump era. He was then sentenced to jail;
- ye – was denounced by his fans and the hip-hop community for supporting Donald Trump (amongst other controversies…). In 2021/22, ye’s split from Kim Kardashian and his children prompted an ugly dispute with the former’s new lover, causing ye to further alienate his fanbase and even lose close friends such as Kid Cudi along the way;
- Will Smith – assaulted Oscars host Chris Rock in the infamous slapping incident, leading to a 10-year ban from Academy events. The event also drew attention to his ongoing marital issues.
These four men, besides being prominent Black performers in the US, have one thing in common – a very public fall from grace.
Kendrick highlights the way the culture cannibalises itself for the sake of clout. Artists such as these mentioned above have benefited from ‘the culture’, but fall victim to the very machine of fame and ‘culture’ that helped them succeed.
Kendrick is frustrated and condemns the non-stop cycle of celebrity gossip and social media hunger for attention (it’s no surprise then, that Kendrick largely maintains social media silence between major album releases). Ultimately, such an entertainment- and celebrity-obsessed culture inevitably leads to perpetual cycles of pain and broken men.
Intertwined with Kendrick’s hallmark take on race politics in America, he builds this first section of the song to a climactic closing statement:
Enemies shook my hand, I can promise I’ll meet you
In the land where no equal is your equal
Never say I ain’t told ya, nah
In the land where hurt people hurt more people
Fuck callin’ it culture
Which brings us to the second section.
Part 5. Pt. 2
After morphing into these troubled personalities, Kendrick has to literally stop to take a few calming breaths.
Now, however, he takes on the appearance of two other prominent Black celebrities – Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle. This time, the connection is not about public disgrace, but rather the opposite. Both men were titans in their fields, and sadly, both met untimely deaths that were somehow related to the very work they were doing in their communities.
- Kobe Bryant – died in a helicopter crash with his daughter and her teammates onboard. They were on the way to her basketball game in the local youth league.
- Nipsey Hussle – gunned down in front of a clothing store he owned in south LA. He used businesses such as these to fund community programs.
Thus, this second half of the song serves as a calming rebuttal to the anger and frustration Kendrick expressed in verses 1 and 2. Rather than letting celebrity or the toxic culture overtake their lives, Kendrick references Kobe and Nipsey as two men who managed to work their own way to influence the culture. In a cruel twist of fate however, it would seem that the paradoxical, self-destructive nature of celebrity and Black success in America, led to their early deaths.
However, Kendrick takes on the persona of Nipsey, addressing his brother from the afterlife on how to carry on a positive legacy and keep a good energy flow going even after his death. It serves as a beautiful self-eulogy, and gives some comfort after the condemning imagery and uneasy atmosphere of Kendrick’s opening verses.
And Sam, I’ll be watchin’ over you
Make sure my kids watch all my interviews
Make sure you live out our dreams we produce
Keep that genius in your brain on the move
And to my neighborhood, let the good prevail
Make sure them babies and them leaders outta jail
Look for salvation when troubles get real
‘Cause you can’t help the world until you help yourself
And I can’t blame the hood the day that I was killed
Y’all had to see it, that’s the only way to feel
And though my physical won’t reap the benefits
The energy that carry on emits still
Thus, Kendrick uses Kobe and Nipsey almost as case studies of the issues he brought up in the first half of the song. Here we have two men who were destroyed by the very thing they loved – Kobe was killed in a tragic helicopter crash on the way to basketball practice, and Nipsey, known for running many beneficial social projects was gunned down in front of his own store.
Juxtaposed with the stories of the men in the first half of “The Heart Part 5”, these tales create a striking picture of what it means to be Black and successful in America. It’s a labyrinthine existence, where it seems that the words of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight really seem to ring true – “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain”.
“The Heart Part 5” is unlikely to be featured on Mr Morale, but it goes to show that Kendrick has his finger very much on the pulse of contemporary culture. Given the colossal amount of ‘unprecedented events’ that has happened in the 5 years since DAMN, we can be sure that Kendrick won’t be pulling any punches when his new album finally drops this Friday.