In the twilight of August 12, 2013, Kendrick Lamar flexed. Ten months removed from the triumphant release of his first major label album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and still smarting from some sideways remarks from his peers, he cratered the earth around him with a verse on a song in which he was appearing as a guest. That song, “Control,” technically belonged to Big Sean, though Lamar claimed ownership the moment his verse was synced to the track. It’s a legendary verse in recent rap times — a screed, a declaration, and a called shot — that unravels in a torrent of syllables and unfiltered exhortation. Lamar aims straight away in clear and certain terms at his peers:
Competition is cause in hip-hop, but in this case it was unprecedentedly conveyed. Kendrick put purpose on the table — to be the greatest — and dared someone to respond, to pursue his power. No one did. Times have changed, but Kendrick hasn’t, not completely. On Thursday night, he unleashed a new song, “The Heart Part 4,” reportedly the first from his forthcoming fourth studio album. It’s a blend of the Kendrick of 2013, a head-down bull seeing red, and the more meditative artist who has become a kind of spiritual center and social conscience for hip-hop this decade. While Drake pursues a global mission, Chance the Rapper moves his congregation into a big tent, and Kanye West wanders in the desert, Kendrick Lamar preaches in a church of his own making on “The Heart Part 4.” The song, a suite comprised of four parts, flows like blood, collecting and expelling through the ventricles of a heart — a solemn opening leads to a “Control”-esque boast, and then to a moment that grasps at clarity in chaotic times. It’s urgent and unflinching.
Almost two years ago to the day, Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the most fearless rap albums in years, a sprawling, inconsistent, often astonishing work that used stress, fear, jazz, devil-on-the-shoulder temptation, blues, and joy as a framework. It was a hosannah and a quake. If Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City introduced a deeply personal artist, Butterfly announced a social force with a mind on the wider world. The album’s best song, “Alright,” became a hymn for the Black Lives Matter movement and for solidarity the world over. “The Heart Part 4” — which also happens to find Kendrick pettily sneering “My fans can’t wait for me to son ya punk ass and crush your whole lil’ shit” — is the consummation of a career so far. The changes in the song — from the flex to the flourish, from a woozy funk stroll to a thrumming boom bap — animate an artist uniting all of his personas. Fighter. Uniter. Soloist. Maestro.
Who is that person now? We don’t know yet, it’s a process. On the song, Kendrick hints at April 7 as the day when he’ll release his new album and when we’ll find out more. It’s promotion disguised as a threat. It’s also a reminder: Don’t forget about me.
After the Grammys in February, I tweeted something a little too quickly.
This is a Bad Tweet™. The loudest and most vociferous responders were those with Kendrick Lamar GIFs at the ready. Fair game. But forgive me — since 2009, we’ve watched a kid shed pretense to become a deathly serious artist, a man who refracts his upbringing in Compton into a canvas for hundreds of thousands of disaffected people to illustrate their own experience. Kendrick Lamar is bigger than his own life now. That he so plainly targets Donald Trump, Russian conspiracy, election results, and cultural appropriation on “The Heart Part 4” with concision and deftness could make him a different kind of popular rapper than we’ve seen in some time. Four months ago, Kanye was seen consorting with the 45th president. One gets the impression that Kendrick would never be caught dead in Trump Tower.
Not everything is the same. On “Control,” Kendrick alluded to the bombs that the DJ Funkmaster Flex should drop on the record; “The Heart Part 4” premiered on Apple Music — an exclusive exclusive in the age of exclusives. This is still commerce. But the night drop, that moment when an artist decides to steal the evening, has the power to create a reverberation. Just moments ago, with the release of the warmly received More Life, it felt as if 2017 was entirely Drake’s, the sun and the moon. But Kendrick Lamar still owns the night.