Kendrick Lamar’s wisdom still feels urgent and revelatory

The rapper released “The Heart Pt. 5,” a new song and music video that teases the release of his long-awaited new record.

Kendrick Lamar performs during halftime in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadiumin Inglewood, CA.
Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock

For any Kendrick fan, it is, of course, entirely predictable that the release of his long-awaited new record, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, was teased with the surprise drop of his dense and eerie “The Heart Part 5.” After all, the last two installments of his long-running “Heart” song series has preceded the release of two other Kendrick albums. But the new song, released with a music video filled with deep fakes of prominent Black celebrities and Lamar’s trademark dense lyricism, also reinforces and clarifies the rapper’s career.

That is to say, if Lamar’s work for the last decade and more can be seen as one long artistic project — one that in various ways documents a Black America that is reeling and was set up from the start — then he has not moved on from it, nor should he. While “The Heart Part 5” explores territory he has covered before (the first verse, for instance, can be seen as a kind of microcosm of his devastating, dazzling portrait of Compton in good kid, m.A.A.d. city) he is not returning to old material — he’s just seeing that things keep getting worse.

The video features Lamar rapping in front of a plain red backdrop, while his face morphs into the faces of several different celebrities — from O.J. Simpson and Kanye West to Will Smith and Nipsey Hussle — while he speaks about the various contradictions, disorientation, and pains of both an ordinary Black experience like his growing up in Compton, and also one that is heightened and distorted by stardom. The two are connected, in Kendrick’s telling, and deeply tragic — the lines most immediately shared online from the song among listeners (though they are far less incisive and interesting than many other bars in this richly contemplative track) come from the end of his second verse: “In the land where hurt people hurt more people / Fuck callin’ it culture.”

The last part of the line might be seen as an indictment of us. Kendrick repeatedly refers to the idea of “culture” throughout the song: the culture of fame; the culture of Americans consuming what are actually painful experiences, particularly from Black celebrities such as those in the video, as banal entertainment; the culture of violence and desperation that repeats common cycles of death and tragedy in America.

The predominant concerns of the second half of the track, though, is on Lamar’s legacy and on the personal toll of his position as the wiseman, telling America who it is and at all times using his art to diligently speak on behalf of his community. This responsibility in representing and explaining the struggle of his people is something that he feels urgently impassioned about, but also tormented by. “I want you to want me too / I want the hood to want me back,” he sings on the song’s hook. (There’s something to be said about how subtly off Lamar’s own face looks in the video, likely because he deep-faked his own face onto his body as well, and how it reflects some idea that his life and identity are not entirely his own as a megastar who has always been first and foremost a representative of his people.)

It echoes a conflicted feeling he’s put in a song before: “I count lives, all on these songs / Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong / Fightin’ for your rights, even when you’re wrong / And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone / Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” He raps on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” from good kid, m.A.A.d city.

Yet, while this reflective tone, haunted by the idea of death and what he leaves behind, is territory that Lamar is returning to, it again feels ever-poignant here, particularly in how he interacts with Nipsey Hussle’s legacy in the third verse. Lamar’s face morphs in and out of Nipsey’s in the video, and his lyrics here essentially embody the ghost of his late West Coast comrade. It’s clear that Kendrick is not only both grieving for and paying tribute to Nipsey — another Los Angeles rapper whose life’s work was dedicated to his community before he was gunned down — but also seeing a version of himself in his death.

That fear leads to a powerful end of the song, in which Lamar sends out moving final messages on behalf of Nipsey (and, in turn, on behalf of himself, too), while also reflecting on the kind of violence and destruction that Lamar has always explained, criticized, and empathized with throughout his career. In one profound stroke, he sums up the complex and contradictory love he has for the community he’s always sung about. “And I can’t blame the hood the day that I was killed,” he raps. “Y’all had to see it, that’s the only way to feel.”