Breaking Down the Symbolism and Meaning in Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5”

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On the rare occasions that Kendrick Lamar drops new music, the music world always stops and pays (very close) attention. His music is so densely packed with symbolism and deeper meaning that it demands detailed analysis. 

Kendrick’s new song “The Heart Part 5” gives us a lot of new material to dissect. The five-minute track was released on Sunday evening, alongside a music video in which his face morphs into O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Kobe Bryant, Will Smith, and Nipsey Hussle, as he raps from each of their perspectives. Like the other entries in Kendrick’s long-running “The Heart” series, this new song ushers in a new era for the Compton artist, as he prepares to release his fifth studio album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers on May 13.

Between the lyrics, the production, the music video, and the broader context of his career, there’s plenty to unpack, so the Complex Music team broke it all down. Here’s a detailed analysis of Kendrick Lamar’s new song and video “The Heart Part 5.”

The career context

“The Heart” series: This is the fifth installment of Kendrick’s “The Heart” series. Throughout his career, he’s released these songs before big albums, often using them to signify the beginning of new eras. All five songs feature long, intricate verses, in which Kendrick takes stock of the world around him and reveals what issues have been occupying his mind. (Based on the themes in “The Heart Part 5,” it seems he’s focused on the ideas of “perspective” and “the culture” right now.)

The series has been going for over a decade. “The Heart Part 1” was released in April 2010 before his Overly Dedicated mixtape. “The Heart Part 2” served as the opening track on Overly Dedicated. “The Heart Part 3” was recorded three days before the arrival of good kid, m.A.A.d city (and released just a day after he made it). And “The Heart Part 4” dropped three weeks before DAMN, helping to announce the impending project. These songs usually don’t end up on actual albums, but Kendrick uses them to introduce each project that they precede.

A transitional era: “The Heart Part 5” arrives at a pivotal moment for Kendrick. He’s about to drop his final album while under contract with longtime label Top Dawg Entertainment, and he’s already transitioning to his new venture: pgLang. “Part 5” was released by TDE, but Kendrick also tapped pgLang to help execute the video. PgLang is listed as one of the production companies who made the video, and pgLang co-founder Dave Free is credited as the executive producer and co-director.

Oklama: At the beginning of the “Part 5” music video, there’s a note (“I am. All of us”) that’s signed with the name “Oklama.” Kendrick has used the same alias to sign both of his recent letters about leaving TDE and dropping a new album, and it’s also the name of his new website. We won’t know for sure until the album actually drops, but it seems Oklama is the name of the persona Kendrick will be adopting throughout the Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers cycle. —Eric

The lyrics

Kendrick Lamar "The Heart Part 5" breakdown
Image via YouTube/Kendrick Lamar

The culture: Once again, Kendrick challenges us to appraise our collective moral compass, while spurning the notion of Black death as “culture.” Gang lifestyle has been absorbed by corporations and naive youth who digest regional slang, dances, and finger gestures, but discard the human casualties in what Kendrick describes as “the land where hurt people hurt more people.” His first utterance of “that’s culture” emits weary sarcasm, as he raps about a situation where “homies done fucked your baby mama once you hit the yard.” In the next line, he adds, “Then somebody called and said your lil’ nephew was shot down, the culture’s involved.”

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He starts off the second verse by repeating Jay-Z’s “I do this for my culture” preamble from “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).,” reaffirming the assertion from the video’s title card (“I am. All of us”) by rapping for “niggas goin’ to work and sellin’ work, late for work / workin’ late, prayin’ for work, but he on paperwork.” Kendrick’s verse demonstrates that there’s no glamor in the gang lifestyle, and glory can be as fleeting as the solitary moment that someone snapped of you for a photo that ends up as your R.I.P. shirt. 

Kendrick recounts his pain over Nipsey Hussle’s murder, rapping, “I’m in Argentina wiping my tears full of confusion / Water in between us, another peer’s been executed,” then succinctly encapsulates the cycles of grief that have Black and Brown people in quicksand:

“History repeats again
Make amends, then find a nigga with the same skin to do it
But that’s the culture, crack a bottle
Hard to deal with the pain when you’re sober
By tomorrow, we forget the remains, we start over
That’s the problem.”

Tupac’s legacy looms large in Kendrick’s catalog. One of Pac’s most beloved songs is “Changes,” where Talent crooned “that’s just the way it is” when reflecting on how systemic oppression bred a morass of hurt people hurting people. But at the end of the second verse of “Part 5,” Kendrick asks us to think deeper about what we accept and embrace: “Fuck callin’ it culture.” Call it for what it is: murder, or treachery, or consequences of white supremacy. But whatever we call the trauma Kendrick recounts here, we should label it something that spurs us to value each other’s lives more.

Nipsey Hussle: In the music video for “The Heart Part 5,” Kendrick uses deep fake technology to morph into some of the most iconic and infamous Black men in modern history: O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and fellow L.A. rap legend Nipsey Hussle. Some of the figures seem to have minimal relationships to Kendrick’s lyrics after a first listen, but Kendrick uses the song’s last verse to rap from the perspective of a beyond-the-grave Nipsey Hussle. This approach could have been fumbled or come across as exploitative from a lesser MC, but Kendrick came from a place of respect. Rhyming from the perspective of the late rapper, Kendrick wrenches the listener by pondering, “Should I feel resentful I didn’t see my full potential? Should I feel regret about the good that I was into?” as he references the heartbreak of Nipsey dying in front of the store that symbolized his desire to be a pillar of his community. 

Kendrick picks up the verse into resilience by rhyming, “To my father, to my wife, I am serious, this is heaven,” before advising Nipsey’s friends to count their blessings, encouraging his fans to “make them investments,” and telling Nip’s brother Blacc Sam to “make sure my kids watch all my interviews, make sure you live all the dreams we produce [and] keep that genius in your brain on the move.” The verse is based on Kendrick’s interpretation that Nipsey would offer his loved ones reassurances and gems to keep going in his absence, summed up by the line: “I completed my mission, wasn’t ready to leave/ But fulfilled my days, my creator was pleased.” —Andre

The music video

The symbolism: The music video centers around the idea of perspective. Using deepfake technology, Kendrick embodies the perspectives of O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle. In the first verse, Kendrick appears as himself, as he raps from his own perspective. But then he opens the second verse by morphing into O.J. Simpson’s face, while interloping Jay-Z’s iconic opening line from “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” Beyond the symbolism of O.J.’s rise to fame and fall from grace, there’s also a subtle nod to Hov rapping about O.J. on “The Story of OJ.” Kendrick’s face morphs into Kanye next, as he raps about a bipolar friend who is surrounded by opportunists that might be taking advantage of him. Then he morphs to Jussie Smollett, hinting at the hypocrisy surrounding the controversy of staging a racist and homophobic attack. Kendrick closes the second verse by rapping, “In a land where hurt people hurt more people/ Fuck callin’ it culture,” from the perspective of Will Smith, who recently faced backlash when he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars after the comedian made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. When he’s rapping from Kobe’s perspective, Kendrick’s lyrics hint at how they’ve both changed their respective games thanks to hard work and dedication. And as he closes the track, Dot channels the spirit of Nipsey Hussle, leaving a message to his loved ones about being in heaven, forgiving the man that murdered the late rapper, and how he hopes his legacy is being carried on. 

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“The culture” lies at the crux of all of these portrayals, as Kendrick conveys these influential (and polarizing) Black figures who are all a part of the same whole. This point about fractured perspectives is driven home by the opening title card that says: “I am. All of us.” It could be interpreted that Kendrick chose figures like O.J. and Smollett to highlight how even their unfortunate decisions are a part of “the culture,” for better or for worse.

The aesthetics: The video utilizes a simple aesthetic, encouraging viewers to focus on Kendrick’s face and what he’s saying, rather than what’s going on around him. The camera zooms in on Kendrick from the shoulders up, with a solid backdrop behind him, forcing our attention on his words (and morphing face). This prioritizes the lyrics, and enhances the stripped-down sound of the second half of the song.

The South Park connection: South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are given special thanks in the credits of the video, along with their deepfake studio DEEP VOODOO, which helped with the face morphing aspect of the video. In 2020, Parker and Stone launched the deepfake studio when they made their viral video, “Sassy Justice.” This isn’t the first time Kendrick has been linked with Parker and Stone. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Kendrick and Dave Free are co-producing a live-action comedy film for Paramount Pictures with Parker and Stone. The title and release date of the film has yet to be announced, but it will reportedly be about a Black man who works as a slave re-enactor at a living museum. In the film, the man learns that he is a descendant of slaves who were once owned by the ancestors of his white girlfriend.

The single artwork: The cover artwork for “The Heart Part 5” depicts six photoshopped hands being held up. Upon closer inspection, each of these hands represents the perspectives that Kendrick is rapping from in the video. The gloved hand on the right is taken from the infamous picture of O.J. Simpson in his 1995 murder trial, and the hand with a band-aid on it is Kobe’s after he won his fifth championship. Jussie Smollett’s hand is taken from a photo of him walking to trial, while another is from a photo of Kanye shunning paparazzi. “The Heart Part 5” is all about fractured perspectives living within the same culture, and the cover art extends those themes even further. —Jordan

The production

Kendrick Lamar "The Heart Part 5" music video

The sample: “The Heart Part 5” features a sample of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 “I Want You,” which was a semi-autobiographical song centered around his real-life romance with ex-wife Janis Hunter. It’s a passionate and sensual song, reminiscent of the energy on classic Marvin Gaye hits like “Let’s Get It On.” The clearance of the sample is a major win for Kendrick, because Marvin Gaye’s estate has been known to safeguard the late singer’s music, filing major copyright lawsuits against current artists. Most notably, Gaye’s estate sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke over their single “Blurred Lines,” which they claimed ripped off Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” (In 2015, a jury awarded $5 million in damages, plus half of future royalties, to the Gaye family.) More recently, Ed Sheeran was sued for $100 million for allegedly plagiarizing Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” on his 2014 single “Thinking Out Loud.”

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The sound: The production on “The Heart Part 5” (especially in the second half of the song) has stripped-back moments, invoking the feeling of a spoken word message at an open mic night. Overall, it takes sonic inspiration from soul, funk, and rock in the ’60s and ’70s. Some fans have pointed out that the format of the album title (Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers) falls in line with classic groups from the era like Sly & The Family Stone, Smoky Robinson & The Miracles, Dianna Ross & The Supremes, and Gladys Knight & The Pips.

The easter eggs: Since the song dropped, fans have been sharing theories about the hidden meanings behind some of the production choices. For example, Kendrick takes 15 seconds to inhale and exhale in the middle of the song, which is the number of seconds required to check one’s heart rate. He also cuts the drums for Nipsey and Kobe, symbolizing the stoppage of a human heart beat.

The producers: “The Heart Part 5” was produced by Beach Noise, a production collective that includes Johnny Kosich, Jake Kosich, and Matt Schaeffer, who have a history of working on pgLang projects. They produced several songs on Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue, as well as “The Love Intro” from pgLang’s new signee Tanna Leone’s project, Sleepy Soldier. Matt Schaeffer, who played multiple instruments (guitar, drums, bass guitar, percussion, cello) on “The Heart Part 5,” has independently been credited on previous records with both Kendrick (“Big Shot”) and Baby Keem (“Bullies”). Schaeffer also has credits on a number of tracks throughout Kendrick’s discography, including “Humble,” “DNA.,” “King Kunta,” “The Blacker the Berry,” and more. Bekon is also credited for playing the violin on Kendrick’s new single, after previously working on Kendrick’s 2018 album DAMN—Jessica

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