Kendrick Lamar: Camouflaged Pain in 'The Heart Part 5'
I watched it once and knew there were words beating inside my chest I had to get out. I won't touch the lyrics and music beyond how they relate to the imagery. That's gonna take another level of emotional equity that I don't have right now. (But I will have it down the road, because this song is incredibly important to me.)
"The Heart Part 5" is like opening the deepest chamber in the soul and grappling with what's in the shadows. It forces the viewer to reckon with the pain we all hide and try to distract ourselves from. Pain camouflaged in violence, denial, fiction. The simplicity of the music video belies a very gritty, textured exploration of the human soul and the masks we wear to hide the things we don't want people to see.
Kendrick Lamar comes back to us. A Man. A Black Man. A Human. A Black Human. There's nothing more here than an artist speaking truth to power to art and back to truth again. Firstly, we have to acknowledge the simplicity in the genius of using Marving Gaye's "I Want You" as the musical backdrop and the song's conceit. A backdrop as simple as the color red, a white T-shirt and a black bandana. When dissecting the lyrics of both Gaye's lament to yearning and needing love and Lamar's unquenchable thirst to leave something meaningful behind for those who've blessed him, the parallels are striking. (But again, that's another emotional waterfall for another day.) Gaye wrote "I Want You" out of a need to not only express his "erotic fantasies," as he would later call them in a 1983 interview. That song, that album, was a man's desire to find love in a world that though he might not have acknowledged it as fully as his seminal What's Going On LP, was still drenched in so much brutal heartache four years later.
In the same way, Lamar expresses this urge to tell his people how much he wants them to want him in the way that a brother wants his sister to feel safe as she walks home from school or the supermarket. The way a sister wants her brother to know that he is perfect and capable and deserving of everything he wants out of life. How a mother and father want their children to know that the world is open to them if only they'd seek it with purity in their hearts. Lamar wants his people, Black people, to want him and want each other in the way that our ancestors craved and wanted freedom. He wants us to want each other in the way our greatest teachers and revolutionaries wanted us to lift hands in worship, lift fists in solidarity.
On each side of the coin of this current revolution, as with every revolution that we've taken into our arms, there is The Distraction and The Vision.
"I am. All of us."
Five words in white text on a black background. The setup is powerful yet so very unintrusive. You have a sense of what's about to happen before it does. Then when it does happen, it's like a punch to the solar plexus.
"As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective," Lamar says. And he gives us several of them to consider.
The video is as elegant and brilliant as anything Lamar has concocted. It's simple in delivery, nothing flashy here. No large set pieces or ever-weaving threads of metaphor (as he's often prone to implement to get his messages across). A red background. Kendrick. That's it. He holds onto himself, as if trying to keep the emotions swelling up as he calmly thanks those in his life who've shaped him. A man clutching at the chain holding back the hounds straining to be let loose. When he does finally let go, the explosiveness of it blows the speakers back. The background never changes. Red. Unmoving. But as the song continues, its hue takes on deeper meaning. Passion, blood, pain, love...love...love.
"This one-way love is just a fantasy."
As he begins to speak of "The Culture," he stares into the camera, teeth gritted in both frustration and what appears to be a desperate attempt to keep control. "Look what I done for you," he says, then repeats it. Moving into the second verse, he begins to show us what he's done for us. What the Black Man has done for "The Culture." Childish Gambino used a similar trope in the emotional detonation that was "This is America." He professes, "When you're a Black man, you're just a barcode." Black men, particularly in the business of entertaining the masses, are a tradable commodity. The perpetual nonfungible token, a Black body dropped in a sea of white to be traded to the highest bidder.
In "The Heart," Lamar morphs into the mask of men who used distraction to tear us away from the reality of who we are. Who, perhaps, were themselves too distracted by their fame, their wealth or their own pain to recognize their words and actions were the perfect smokescreen for a society that continues to want us to feel lower than the wildest animals. It harkens back to "Mortal Man," an exploration of men who when circumstances became skewed, the greater public abandoned them. In a similar fashion, the men portrayed in "The Heart" have to contend with abandonment in one way or another. However, in this iteration of the metaphor, these mortal men have become immortalized for how they played into the camouflage of "The Culture."
First O.J. Simpson, a man so blinded by his status as the Great American Hero in an institution using Black bodies like his for its benefit and none of its sins. His trial, a spectacle that I remember watching in elementary school (elementary school). He manipulated the system, distracting us from the fact that it's a system that was never meant to work in our favor. Rewind a couple years before Simpon's not guilty verdict. Rodney King being brutally beaten on camera. All the proof before the jury, and his attackers (the officers, the slave catchers) getting away with the brutality. The system didn't work for King (neither the first nor the second). But it worked to distract the world from the bloody violence of the system by using the fallacy of it.
Next Kanye West. A man so in the throes of his own pain that he built a shield of narcissism and self-hatred to distract himself from reality. West became a distraction to many who saw him as a hero. Who continue to laud him as a musical genius, when the greatest magic of his art has come and gone and only reappears in wisps and whispers. Distracted by his antics in order to ignore his calls for help, thus allowing him to further wallow in his own self-importance and self-loathing and act out his lack of accountability in performative gestures to keep "The Culture" convinced he still cares about it.
Next, Jussie Smollett, whose misguided attempts to prove a point distracted from the fact that people who look just like him actually face the violence of hatred that's as much a part of our culture as Blackness itself. Whatever his endgame, the fact is he distracted from the very real consequences of living in this skin that so many millions worldwide continue to suffer under. The Boy Who Cried Wolf, giving those who either ignore us or mete their hatred upon us an excuse to question the legitimacy of our continued pain in this country. Distracting from the generational PTSD ingrained in who we are since we were shipped to the Americas 500 years ago, farm equipment, chattel.
It's no mistake that right after Smollett, Lamar transforms back into himself. He's had to deal with his own demons, pain from running the streets when he was ill-equipped to handle the consequences. "Loving you is complicated," he said while staring in a mirror, a drunken mirage of himself staring back and judging him for the distractions those same streets provided. Until violence shattered the image and forced him to reckon with his mistakes.
Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, Will Smith. Again, it's not by chance that Smith comes next. "Hurt people hurt more people." Lamar knows this perhaps better than most. This is really the crux and culmination of every man that came before him. The now infamous Slap Heard 'Round the World, as blown out of proportion as it is, serves as another distraction. This Black Man with more power than many have seen for a while, a man who infiltrated the established order and garnered one of its most coveted distractions: an Academy Award. (The Academy itself an institution that since its inception has never given true and proportionate opportunity to people of non-white origin.) The one and only demerit on his record, slapping another Black Man on a white stage, was the opportunity and distraction those in the "established order" were praying for. In the eyes of the world, Smith could do no wrong. When he finally did, that same world pounced, taking every opportunity it could to put this powerful Black Man in his place. Pointing fingers, proclaiming, "See, even the best of them proves they're nothing more than the animals they were when we brought them here." Another long stare into the camera, through Smith's eyes. "Look what I done for you," he says. "Look what I done for you." And the world turned its back on this mortal man.
All of these distractions proved successful. "The Culture" in and of itself has become a distraction for the legacy, the history, the truth of who we are as a people. So much so that we don't even know who we are or what we want anymore. And if we do, certainly the signals we send are so mixed that those who would keep us subservient grasp on to the confusion and manipulate it to continue to distract us from the singular goal of our freedom.
"Don't you want to care? It's lonely out there."
Coming back to himself for only a moment, Lamar leans more heavily into what the whole point of his artistry has been: the vision for the future. He takes on the facade of two fallen heroes who, though their own sins were no less than any other man's, were dedicated to not only healing and bettering themselves, but they wanted to leave the world a better place than when they came in it.
Kobe Bryant was certainly no saint. The mistakes and missteps that the world continues to hold against him can't overshadow the fact that in his heart he loved his family and he loved his craft. More than anything else, he loved humanity and wanted to bring something to this human circus that could prove positive. That could allow people to want to move in a positive direction.
Nipsey Hussell, another man whose past was by no means sterling, learned from his mistakes as best as he could and ultimately wanted the world to be so much better than it was. If not the world, certainly the people in his. He wanted those around him to find success, to find peace of mind and spirit. To feel honest-to-goodness happiness in their souls. He'd broken down his ego and leaned heavily into the spirit of uplifting his community. This bar detailing even in brutality there is love, even as the bullet tears through the flesh there is forgiveness, of course parallels Hussell's own demise. We come again to the point: The Heart, Love, Forgiveness. A trifecta of abstract ideals that creates the foundation of how humans learn how to relate to other humans.
"I want you. And I want you to want me too."
Humans are such a fascinating sort. We're so desperate for love we seek to destroy those who've found it. Ignoring our own imperfections and leaning into the degradation of others who've captured some semblance of peace and success doing what they love. Yet we cry out to the heavens that nobody's perfect when it suits our egos. But not Lamar. He holds these mortal men within himself. Specifically seeing each one as a facet of his own soul. Each man's story interweaving with his own until they're eventually undiscernable from each other. He is these men, and they are him.
Ultimately what we're all looking for, what Marvin was looking for, what Kendrick is looking for is love. The simplest, most expansive thing in the world, and we're all aching for it.
"I don't need to be in flesh just to hug y'all," Kendrick-as-Nipsey proclaims.
"The Culture" as it's been constructed in the fantasies and fictions of those who refuse to see the ugliness of the world has never been the cause. The People are. Hussell's message was so powerful Lamar was moved to end the video in his image before transforming back to himself. A stoic man looking directly into our eyes, declaring, "I want you." Begging us to want something better for ourselves and each other.
"The Heart" is what this is all about. The facets of it, the many ways it can be broken and, more liberating, the ways it can be healed. This is a heroic piece of music and visual poetry that dares to make its audience consider how and why we distract ourselves from truly feeling what we feel. More than anything else, however, it gives the soul something to reach for and nourish itself with. Something to give us another reason to breathe, to hope, to dream and, yes, to love.
"Look for salvation when troubles get real. 'Cause you can't help the world until you help yourself."
Thank you, Kendrick. Thank you.