Since 2010, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart” series has served as a blank canvas on which he’s poured out his emotions and bled the ink of his pen. The songs, most of which have been stand-alone releases, are usually off-the-cuff (“The Heart Part 4” was completed in the last two days, according to Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg) and always from the bottom of his heart. Impassioned, spontaneous and adored by fans; “The Heart” series is the lifeblood of Kendrick Lamar’s artistry.
When “The Heart Part 1” arrived in 2010—four months after the release of his debut self-titled EP and six months before Overly Dedicated—K. Dot wasn’t yet a star. Jay Rock, who boasted a major label deal and modest hit featuring Lil Wayne and will.i.am, was TDE's top dawg. Even J. Cole was bigger than K. Dot at the time (“J. Cole runnin’ late / If he don’t show up, think I can take his place?”).
Kendrick Lamar—if you’d even heard of the name—was “just a lil’ Compton n*gga” trying to get in where he fit in.
As the young rapper attacked Mos Def’s “Umi Says” instrumental with breathless abandon on “Part 1,” however, it was clear as the California sky that this Kendrick kid was not only endlessly talented but fiercely determined. “I’ma blow like I’m mothafuckin’ sniffing lines / Go like I never seen a red light shine,” he snarled, looking you square in the eye in the song’s accompanying video. A lot of people think they’ve got what it takes, but Kendrick knew he was going to blow. Why do you think he called it “Part 1”?
This unshakeable self-belief—solidified by talent, faith and the ghost of Tupac—has only grown in tandem with his rising star. In the midst of Kendrick’s breathtaking, tear-jerking performance on “The Heart Pt. 2” (“It got so emotional in the booth I actually dropped a tear,” he admitted.), was an unmistakable and imaginative braggadocio: “My future so bright I’d probably go blind before I blink twice, I ain’t lying.”
On “Part 3,” released just days before good kid, m.A.A.d city, the fear of falling off left Kendrick a little more reserved. Rather than pounding his chest, he lapped up the applause of the audience: “When THE WHOLE WORLD see you as Pac reincarnated”; “And if THEY said that I’m the one, why you asking me, n*gga?”
What we’re witnessing on “The Heart Part 4,” however, is Kendrick Lamar crowning himself the greatest rapper alive. “Yellin’, 'one, two, three, four, five / I am the great-est rap-per a-live!'” King Kendrick loudly proclaims as he settles comfortably on his rightful throne. In 2010, he was just trying to enter the kingdom. In 2017, he’s ruling it. To those who argue he’s unproven for such a high position, he’d like to remind you he “dropped one classic, came right back / ’Nother classic, right back.” Best believe his next one’s about to leave the industry on the ice pack.
Truth be told, Kendrick Lamar has been the greatest rapper alive since “The Heart Part 3,” and any suggestion otherwise has been fleeting or downright foolish. On “Part 4,” he’s coming right out and saying it. That should—and probably has—put the fear of God into the rest of the rap game, because the only thing more dangerous than a pitbull is one who knows it's dangerous.
Kendrick Lamar’s journey from “a lil Compton n*gga” to the “greatest rapper alive” hasn’t been paved with gold. Death and destruction have remained at the heart (excuse the pun) of his “The Heart” series, which is why it’s so emotional, so gripping and so urgent. On “Part 1” and “Part 2,” as Kendrick was still trying to escape the trappings of his hometown, the threat of death from the streets remained: “Might end up dead, swallow blood, swallow my breath.” Rigor mortis lingered on “Part 3,” only the danger didn’t come from his surroundings, but success itself—straps and stray shots replaced with stress and suicide: “That’s enough pressure to live your whole life sedated / Find the tallest building in Vegas and jump off it.”
On “Part 4,” Kendrick only makes a passing reference to his own mortality, but here it’s used to reinforce his legendary status of a hip-hop rhyme savior rather than run away from it. “So damn great motherfucker I’ve died,” he raps, placing himself in the GOAT conversation alongside late legends like Biggie, Pac and Pun, all three of whom he namedropped on “The Heart Part 1” (“Until I see BIG, Pac, see Pun but this ain’t Eazy / I can’t take a Big L, my city needs me, I gotta win”). There’s too much history to be rewritten in a coffin, though—especially when the whole world is going mad, daddy.
As much as Kendrick has proved to be the exception to his environment, watching “n*ggas dying” and his “uncle doing life inside prison” can turn any heart cold. Throughout the series, Kendrick has adorned the Grim Reaper’s deathly cloak himself, telling his fans to “throw [a wack artist] off the banister” on “Part 1” and literally threatening to kill motherfuckers dead on “Part 3.” His mission to eliminate the competition has escalated over the years, but this anger culminates on “Part 4” as Kendrick zeroes in on an unnamed enemy (Drake? Big Sean?) and threatens to crush their entire career—and possibly more: “I ain’t sanctified enough to say that I won’t shoot ya.” You can take the good kid out of the m.a.a.d city, but you can’t take the m.a.a.d city out of the good kid.
Although this blitz is what makes “The Heart Part 4” such thrilling entertainment, it also highlights the cognitive dissonance in Kendrick’s heart. “We used to beefing over turf, fuck beefing over a verse / Ni*ggas dying, motherfuck a double entendre,” he famously rapped on “The Heart Part 2,” which makes his latest attack seem a little hypocritical, to say the least. But perhaps this is the nature of being number one. It’s easy to be a pacifist when you’re a peasant, but when the arrows start flying towards the castle, the King’s gotta respond.
As much as Kendrick’s life and career have changed over the last seven years, what’s carried him on his journey from a “lil Compton n*gga” to “the greatest rapper alive” is the fact he’s always listened to his heart. He’s never let fame, success or $30 million change who he is—as an artist or human being—and it's paid off handsomely. He runs with the same old crew, he’s engaged to his high school sweetheart, and you can still reach him in his hometown of Compton, albeit in a much nicer condo. This sense of loyalty—to his people, to his God and to his mission to "make a way for my people to see the light "—sounds like it will remain at the heart of his upcoming album, too.
I think now, how wayward things have gone within the past few months, my focus is ultimately going back to my community and the other communities around the world where they’re doing the groundwork.
We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.
It’s very urgent.
With April 7 approaching, you should feel sorry for any rapper (sorry, artiste) who doesn’t have their heart in this rap shit, because Kendrick Lamar has every last drop of blood in his.
Art Credit: WillTheArtist