A polemic return for one of the most exciting rappers around, and an intriguing glimpse at his upcoming album.
Kendrick Lamar needs no introduction, especially to hip-hop aficionados. One of the biggest names in modern rap, Lamar has had a successful and highly acclaimed run of albums, singles, and mixtapes, culminating in his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, a genre-defying and powerful work that featured his inventive, hyper-literate, and technically imaginative rapping on the state of America and the country’s fractious race relations through a prism of jazz, funk, soul, and live instrumentation. ‘The Heart Part 4’ is his first offering since that album and untitled unmastered – its attendant add-on collection of B-sides, demos, and outtakes – and, as a consequence, it could not have been more highly anticipated. Remarkably, the track lives up to the expectation.
Part of this is probably due to Lamar’s interesting choice to write and release ‘The Heart Part 4,’ which was reputedly written and completed two days before its release. The song is the fourth part in a series of ‘The Heart’ tracks which have spanned Lamar’s career and had previously only been released before good kid, m.A.A.d. City, his 2012 major label debut. Tellingly, each has reflected on the changes in his personal and professional life at that time set to slow-burn soul grooves – a formula that comes to impressive fruition on ‘Part 4,’ which begins with a far more fiery and confrontational tone than the languid, insular, and comparatively relaxed flow shown on previous instalments.
Opening to vocal loops of singer Khalid and a sample of Faith Evans, he powerfully intones an elliptical statement to anchor the piece (“Don’t tell a lie on me / I won’t tell the truth on you”) and explodes as he juxtaposes his new million-selling stature against his choice to remain in his tough hometown of Compton during its increasing social upheaval. The wordplay remains as strong as ever throughout, throwing up several well-structured allusions and bars whilst using his continually impressive technical abilities as he twists and turns his flow into creative structures. The second verse’s more specifically aggressive rage drives home even more powerfully, with Lamar setting up his return, reputation, and the imminent studio album whilst directing his ire at several targets. Since the track’s release, speculation has been rife over who the shade is thrown at, yet it’s to Lamar’s credit that these attacks remain clever and nuanced. Musically, the track is also impressive: as the funk of the opening section gives way to a dub-infested and murky neo-soul backing as anger ramps up, at times it drops away to grimy bass grooves or tight, snapping drums.
While the track is now commonly considered to be a hype track or diss track of sorts rather than as part of Lamar’s upcoming album, it’s still interesting to consider what the song could tell us about where “the greatest rapper alive” is going next. Its surprising similarities with subsequent single ‘HUMBLE.’ are interesting: both share Lamar mocking his contemporaries to a clattering neo-soul and trap-inflected backing, with ‘HUMBLE.’ taking on an 808 drumbeat and some surprisingly Balearic-sounding piano tinkles. Whilst the track could be an ostensible bid for singles airplay before he heads back to experimentalism – a tactic he has admittedly used on his previous studio album strategies – it’s notable how much it resembles ‘The Heart Part 4,’ a song that – whatever its intention – is a worthy return for the one of the most exciting mainstream rappers currently around.
‘The Heart Part 4’ is out now via Top Dawg Entertainment