The rapper’s flow is as charged and acute as ever as he lays out a manifesto of radical empathy
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar was criticised for making what many interpreted as out-of-touch comments in the wake of the Ferguson riots: “What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” Arguably even more provocative was his climactic line in 2015’s The Blacker the Berry, crying “hypocrite!” at those who lamented the killing of Trayvon Martin but who were also involved in gang violence. Yet by rapping in the first person, Lamar blamed himself as much as anyone, and the track’s even fiercer invective was aimed at an apocalyptically racist US: “Your plan is to terminate my culture.” This is a key part of Lamar’s overall musical project: a sustained, fraught, fallible and passionate inquiry into the forces that tear down and build up Black America.
Now, in The Heart Part 5 – the fifth track in his “Heart” series that began in 2010, and an expected inclusion on his new album Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, released this Friday – Lamar continues to consider these hard questions, but always couched in that wider context: America as a place where generations of racism, first federally mandated then institutionalised, have come to bear on his community.
After jaded lines about violence and death, he raps: “In the land where hurt people hurt more people / Fuck calling it culture,” calling for a reframing of the way Black America is spoken of and thought about, and lampoons the way its complex social issues and individual circumstances are simplified: “Somebody called, said your lil’ nephew was shot down, the culture’s involved,” a deeply sarcastic line.
Once again, he seems to be addressing his own community as well as a broader America – but he acknowledges that violence is often the reaction of the victimised. “Desensitised, I vandalised pain” is an astonishingly economical phrasing that is honest and tender about the self-perpetuating nature of all forms of violence, and Lamar always remembers the social and psychological histories that make up a person: “Make the wrong turn, be it will or the wheel alignment,” he raps, a portrait of how a mess of personal agency and social conditioning comes to bear on every decision. This is music of gigantic humanity and understanding; appropriately, his flow is as charged and acute as it has ever been.
Lamar’s intense care for his people scales up even further in the heartstopping final verse. In the music video, he morphs into “deepfake” versions of oft-criticised Black celebrities including Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, OJ Simpson and Will Smith, a visual expression of Lamar’s determined empathy. During this final verse, he appears as Nipsey Hussle, the LA rapper who was shot and killed in 2019. Lamar refers to his grief over his death earlier in the track, and a line, “Sam, I’ll be watching over you”, seems to refer to Hussle’s older brother. This verse, then, is voiced from the perspective of the late Hussle, asserting that he is in heaven, forgiving his killer and speaking with satisfaction about what he achieved when he was alive. Some may find this emotionally manipulative or unethical, but Lamar has often expressed admiration for Hussle in the past and the verse feels true to an artist who was devoted to uplifting his community through regeneration projects and business opportunities.
“You can’t help the world until you help yourself,” Lamar says as Hussle, and this is ultimately Lamar’s credo. Some will say he puts too much impetus on the Black community to do the work of governments and institutions – can you always help yourself before the world helps you? But as Lamar continues to document, you are a product of your environment, and the US, for better and more often for worse, has that mantra of self-actualisation at its core (he is also likely informed by the understandable lack of faith the Black community has in institutions to have their interests at heart).
Amid the song’s ambiguities, Lamar’s own love for his community is never in doubt. The backing track reworks I Want You, perhaps Marvin Gaye’s most purely erotic song – where the emphasis is just as much on the wanting itself as it is the particular person. In that desire, Lamar divines Gaye’s innate social conscience, changing the title line from one of lust to one of hope, using the urgent disco rhythm to perfectly impart the seriousness of his feeling. “I want you,” Lamar says as the track’s final line, a statement of pure fraternal need. And perhaps encouragement – there are endless implied words that come next. Back on the first part of the Heart series in 2010, he said, “I make a way for my people to see the light,” and that remains his mission.
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