Kendrick Lamar Is Back, And He’s Freaking Out

Kendrick Lamar Is Back, And He’s Freaking Out

In 1976, Marvin Gaye was easing into his late thirties and unsure what to do with his life’s work. Gaye’s cocaine addiction was getting worse, and his marriage to Anna Gordy, sister of his record-label boss Berry, was nearing its end. Gaye was hopelessly in love with a teenager named Janis Hunter, who was half his age and who would eventually become his second wife. He was also stuck creatively. Five years earlier, he’d released the protest-music masterpiece What’s Going On. Two years after that, he’d released the sex-music masterpiece Let’s Get It On. In the time since then, Gaye had released a successful duets album with Diana Ross and become a hugely lucrative live act, but he still wasn’t sure what his next creative move should be. That’s when Marvin Gaye made “I Want You.”

Marvin Gaye didn’t write “I Want You.” Instead, the track came from Motown songwriters Leon Ware and Arthur Ross, and Ware, signed to Motown as a solo artist as well as a writer, planned to release it himself. Instead, Berry Gordy told Ware to give the song to Marvin Gaye, who needed a new direction. Ware rewrote the song so that it could reflect Gaye’s relationship with Janis Hunter, and Gaye sang the song with an unearthly grace, drawing on lust and anxiety in equal measures. The song itself is lovely, full of lush strings and itchy percussion. It tastefully nods towards disco and funk without diving in, and it creates its own rapturous sonic environment. Gaye’s falsetto is soft and spectral, and he sings about needing reciprocation in the most direct terms: “I want you, but I want you to want me, too.”

“I Want You” was a hit, and so was the album that took its name. Gaye’s light disco flirtation set him up for an extremely successful late-career run that would end in with a lurid, insane tragedy — Marvin Gaye shot to death in his home by his preacher father a day before his 45th birthday. Kendrick Lamar was born three years after Gaye’s death. On Sunday, Kendrick used the groove from “I Want You” on his grand-return single “The Heart Part 5.”

I wonder if Kendrick Lamar sees a little bit of himself, right now, in that Marvin Gaye moment. Kendrick is coming off of his own extended silence after releasing two albums that reshaped the rules of the game even as they conquered the charts. He’s just two years younger than Gaye was when he made “I Want You.” What do you do after those triumphs? For the past few years, Kendrick’s answer has been: Nothing. You stay quiet. That quiet is set to end on Friday, when Kendrick releases the long-awaited new album Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers. Before that LP arrives, though, Kendrick has given us a taste of the frantic brain activity that must accompany a task like the assembly of a new Kendrick Lamar album in 2022, and he has used “I Want You” as its vehicle.

Kendrick’s “The Heart” series goes back 13 years. It doesn’t really have any particular rules, but Kendrick will often release a new part of “The Heart” when he’s about to come out with a new album. (“The Heart Part 2” is the opening track from Overly Dedicated, the 2010 mixtape that might as well be Kendrick’s debut album.) On the first installment of “The Heart,” Kendrick rapped over a sample of Yasiin Bey’s “Umi Says,” and he shouted out Nipsey Hussle as an OG who’d given him “motivation.” Kendrick also rapped about accompanying Jay Rock, another of his OGs, to the XXL Freshman photo shoot and about J. Cole arriving late to that shoot: “If he don’t show up, think I can take his place.” (Kendrick would take his own place on the XXL Freshman cover soon after, and then he would transcend XXL Freshman status forever.) In the video, we see Kendrick and Ab-Soul browsing through Al Green and Marvin Gaye CDs.

On different installments of “The Heart,” Kendrick has rapped over beats taken from the music of the Roots, Willie Hutch, Curtis Mayfield. Kendrick’s “Heart” songs usually work as meditations on wherever Kendrick’s head is at the moment. They’re often freaked-out and overcome. On 2017’s “The Heart Part 4,” Kendrick was defiant and pissed-off: “My fans can’t wait for me to son ya punk ass and crush ya whole lil shit/ I’ll Big Pun ya punk ass, you a scared lil bitch.” But that was the exception. Most of the time, even when he’s bragging, Kendrick is publicly grappling with stress, self-doubt, imposter syndrome. 2012’s “The Heart Part 3 (Will You Let It Die?),” released in the moments before Kendrick’s major-label debut Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City made its way into the world, is a pure portrait of the moment before the opus: “When the whole world see you as Pac reincarnated/ That’s enough pressure to live your whole life sedated.” Again and again on that track, Kendrick asks whoever’s listening if they’ll let hip-hop die — hip-hop, in this case, presumably being embodied by the career of Kendrick Lamar.

Whenever Kendrick Lamar does anything new, it’s tempting to talk about that new thing in terms of the arbitrary king-of-rap race. That’s what I did last year, when Kendrick reemerged on his cousin Baby Keem’s “Family Ties.” At times, Kendrick has encouraged the world to think of him in those terms, and he’s directly baited the rappers who he saw as his competition. But that’s not what’s happening on “The Heart Part 5.” “The Heart Part 5” has different things in mind. It’s Kendrick spending nearly six minutes expanding on his changing perspective and on the nebulous culture of “the culture.” Rapping in rushed preacherly cadences over the majestic strings and rushing percussion of “I Want You,” Kendrick sounds less like a circa-2022 rap god and more like one of their ancestors — a Gil Scott-Heron, a Last Poet.

At the beginning of “The Heart Part 5,” Kendrick establishes the stakes: “I come from a generation of pain where murder is minor.” From there, Kendrick goes on to rap about entire generations of Black men whose public lives are fraught with danger, and he turns his suspicion on the institutions and conditions that fueled his own artistry: “In the land where hurt people hurt more people, fuck callin’ it ‘culture.'” At one point, Kendrick twists the word “work” up prismatically, looking at it from every angle: “N***as goin’ to work and sellin’ work/ Late for work, workin’ late/ Prayin’ for work but he on paperwork” — straight jobs, street jobs, the never-ending grind of employment, the desperation of unemployment, the tyranny of probation and parole, all wrapped up in a couple of bars. At another point, Kendrick raps about playing Lollapalooza in Buenos Aries while learning about the murder of his old friend Nipsey Hussle: “I’m in Argentina wiping my tears full of confusion/ Water in between us, another peer’s been executed.”

“The Heart Part 5” ends with a long, powerful stretch of language where Kendrick Lamar imagines himself in Nipsey Hussle’s shoes during the final moments of Nipsey’s life. Where Nipsey once offered sage words to Kendrick himself, Kendrick envisions Nipsey offering similar words to his friends, his family, his kids, his brother, and even his own killer: “I seen the pain in your pupil when that trigger had squeezed/ And though you did me gruesome, I was surely relieved/ I completed my mission, wasn’t ready to leave/ But fulfilled my days, my Creator was pleased.” That ending is a strange and stirring work of empathy — one man imagining himself in the skin of another in a terrible moment. The video does something similar.

At this point, you don’t need anyone to describe the video for “The Heart Part 5”; it was the talk of the internet for at least a day. Kendrick co-directed the video with his longtime collaborator Dave Free, and its single static shot makes heavy use of the deepfake technology that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have established with their Deep Voodoo studio. (Right now, Kendrick is working with Parker and Stone to produce a movie about a young man who works as a slave reenactor at an old plantation and who learns that his girlfriend’s ancestors used to own his family.) In the video, Kendrick looks different than he was the last time we saw him. His hair is longer. The lines in his face are deeper. And as we watch, that face changes more. It takes the forms of other figures, all of whom are instantly familiar.

The six deepfake alter-egos in the video for “The Heart Part 5” are ultra-famous Black men who can all be considered cautionary tales in one way or another. There’s OJ Simpson, who thought he’d transcended race until his murder trial became one of the defining racial-division moments in American culture during Kendrick Lamar’s young life. There’s Kanye West, the generation-defining superstar who now seems to live in a Scrooge McDuck money bin full of his own demons. (As Kendrick becomes Kanye, he says, “Friends bipolar.”) There’s Jussie Smollett, the TV star found guilty of staging a hate crime against himself. There’s Will Smith, once the world’s biggest movie star, who slapped another Black man on the world stage in the moments before he accepted the award that proved Hollywood had finally accepted him — an acceptance that those institutions immediately rescinded. And there are two fallen Los Angeles heroes. There’s Kobe Bryant, whose inhuman competitiveness and sexual-assault allegations made him a divisive figure in life and who died alongside his daughter in a helicopter crash. And there’s Kendrick’s old friend Nipsey Hussle, killed outside the store that he established in his own neighborhood.

When the video for “The Heart Part 5” arrived without warning on Sunday night, I happened to be faded on a gummy and still feeling the effects of a COVID-19 infection that took out my whole family for a week. Those deepfake moments, experienced cold, were freaky as fuck — a dark-side answer to the utopian face-morphing from the end of Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” video. Those six faces, all combining with Kendrick’s, reminded me of this passage from the late Greg Tate’s Michael Jackson eulogy:

Real Soul Men eat self-destruction, chased by catastrophic forces from birth and then set upon by the hounds of hell the moment someone pays them cash-money for using the voice of God to sing about secular adult passion. If you can find a more freakish litany of figures who have suffered more freakishly disastrous demises and career denouements than the Black American Soul Man, I’ll pay you cash-money. Go down the line: Robert Johnson, Louis Jordan, Johnny Ace, Little Willie John, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke, James Carr, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. You name it, they have been smacked down by it: guns, planes, cars, drugs, grits, lighting rigs, shoe polish, asphyxiation by vomit, electrocution, enervation, incarceration, their own death-dealing preacher-daddy. A few, like Isaac Hayes, get to slowly rust before they grow old. A select few, like Sly, prove too slick and elusive for the tide of the River Styx, despite giddy years mocking death with self-sabotage and self-abuse.

The faces from Kendrick’s video don’t all belong to dead men, but they do belong to Black American Soul Men who have experienced one kid of calamity or another. Kendrick can see himself in all these figures. He can definitely see himself in Nipsey Hussle, a peer who came from the same place and walked many of the same paths. I’m sure he can see bits of himself in all the others, too. Kendrick Lamar has ascended to a vaunted place in society, a realm where his “views made schools change curriculums.” But he knows that he’s a Black man in America and that he’ll always be right there, teetering on the edge, waiting for some strange new plot twist to knock him off. “The Heart Part 5” is one song, but it’s a rich text. I can’t imagine how much richer Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers might be.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Sauce Walka – “Watch Out”
Sauce Walka hears a hazy, minimal beat, and his brain takes off for a whole new dimension. Listen to him floating through realms: “Turned 50 cent into millions like Eminem/ Who put the bitch on TV like she Kim and ‘nem?/ 24 shots in the clip, shoot a rim at them/ Six in the car, shoot the trees on ya Timberlands.”

2. Voochie P, Sauce Walka, & Rizzoo Rizzoo – “Popping P”
Sauce Walka says it don’t even matter what the beat is. I strenuously disagree. The person who slid Sauce Walka this “Moments In Love”-ass track was doing the Lord’s work.

3. Action Bronson – “Zambezi” (Feat. Roc Marciano)
Marci: “The black Led Zeppelin/ My Nazi sled go from zero to 60 in less than six seconds/ This shit was destinеd.” Bronson: “Spin the wheel, Skip/ Quick like a spinning heel kick/ There’s only so much that I can deal with/ Turning the veal strips.” Also: “Ancient astronaut theory speak clearly about my origin.” I guess this shit really was destined.

4. Trapland Pat – “Losses”
I love a beat that sounds like a languid laser-tag arena.

5. Baby Stone Gorillas – “Lights, Camera, Action”
This beat drop had some kind of chemical physiological effect on me. The drums hit, and I felt different.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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