While we anticipate “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” we take a deep dive into Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart” series.
“The Heart” series remains an integral part of Kendrick’s artistic identity, mapping out his desires, fears, and maturity. The first song of the series arrived in March 2010, months after the release of his eponymous EP. The second part arrived just months later as the intro to Overly Dedicated.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘I just wanna show a spew of emotion on a record,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017 of “The Heart Pt. 2.” “I don’t care how long the bars are, but people are literally gonna have to feel me.’ I told myself that if I can’t connect that way, then it ain’t no point in me just putting a bunch of good words together.”
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In retrospect, it could’ve been a make-or-break moment that would’ve dragged Kendrick back to the drawing board if he had failed to execute on such a high level. That particular quote from 2017 embodies everything that makes Kendrick Lamar stand out. His degree of execution is a marriage of Tupac’s conviction, the intricacy of Nas’ rhyme schemes, and the technical proficiencies of Eminem.
“The Heart” is an ongoing love letter to hip-hop where Kendrick’s passion for rapping takes center stage without the confines of song structure. More importantly, it’s a reflection of Kendrick’s mind state ahead of each album with sharp glimpses into his next artistic endeavor.
The Heart Pt. 1 (2010)
In March 2010, Kendrick Lamar was little known to the masses. Overly Dedicated had yet to drop, he served as Jay Rock’s hypeman on the road, and if you ask Charlamagne Tha God, there was little resemblance to star quality. There was a vocal minority who attested to his skill set, a group of individuals who had every right in the world to say ‘I told you so’ when good kid m.a.a.d city dropped. And while there were a handful of projects that day-one Kendrick Lamar fans will point to as early demonstrations of his skill set, there’s no singular track that embodied the hunger and determination of the budding star than on “The Heart.”
With Mos Def’s “UMI Says” as his choice of instrumental, the first installment in Kendrick’s “The Heart” series was an unadulterated display of lyrical tenacity. Beyond that, it’s a testament to faith, both in self and in the higher power. At 23-years-old, Kendrick was only a few years removed from teenagehood. The cool, jazzy production contrasts the urgency in Kendrick’s tone. His frenetic flows weave through the shimmering hi-hats, as he wears his heart on his sleeve with pride. He describes every single one of his aspirations with urgency, from having his name spoken in the same breath as Tupac and Biggie to using his music as a vessel to bring change to his community. His declaration of being the greatest felt just as hyperbolic as it was wishful but beneath that, there was clearly an understanding of the gravity of his talent, and just how deep his impact could be. Could he have predicted that a Pulitzer Prize win was part of this journey? Probably not. Even at that point in his career, artists like Nipsey Hussle and Glasses Malone were benchmarks of success, though he’d later bypass both of them.
Much like the greats that came before him, there was a firm belief in trusting the process, as he waited for his turn. The 2010 XXL Freshman Cover photoshoot that included Jay Rock became a pivotal moment for Kendrick and J. Cole to connect with one another. Though we’ve lost faith in a collaborative effort between the two, “The Heart Pt. 1” documents the timeline of their respective ascent in rap. Kendrick humorously recalls offering the XXL staff to take J. Cole’s place on the cover if the newly-inked Roc Nation signee didn’t show up. Some felt he said it in jest but K. Dot doubles down. “My n***a was on his hustle I introduced him my name/ Said I’ll see him on the bubble in the future, my dude I salute ya/ Contributing the real shit,” he raps.
The Heart Pt. 2 (2010)
Transforming a one-off freestyle into a proper series began on Overly Dedicated. Kendrick already proved to be a proficient MC when he touched the microphone but by 2010, the game needed more than just a skilled MC. Drake had blurred the lines between hip-hop and R&B with So Far Gone and Take Care. J. Cole was already regarded as one of the leaders of the new school with a plethora of co-signs that trailed behind him. The same recognition or acknowledgment wasn’t offered to Kendrick by the OGs at that point but the validation, or lack thereof, only inflamed that fire in his belly.
Kendrick presents a whirlwind of emotions in “The Heart Pt. 2” but it was also a testament to his improvement. Over The Roots’ “A Peace Of Light,” he hones into his ability to contort his voice even further. The song begins with a desolate feeling, partially due to the excerpt from late graffiti artist Dash Snow, but Kendrick’s fiery passion permeates each and every bar as the song progresses. His mission statement is clear – to out-bar his competition – but there’s an even deeper force driving him. It’s best summed up by the words of his uncle: “My uncle doing life behind prison/ He wasn’t wrapped too tight/ He told me, ‘Rap about life, not rap n***as.’” The scope of his views are even broader yet he’s even more dialed in, questioning religion, the government, and the root of systemic oppression in less than 12 bars.
We used to beefing over turf, fuck beefing over a verse
N***as dying, motherfuck a double entendre
And this is Comp-ton, lions in the land of the triumph
Wrap-Saran our defiance, ban our alliance
Put burners in the hands of the black man
One hood with 20 four-fours like a cloned Kobe Bryant
You probably heard I wanna be heard and wonder who I am
You probably even listened to “Faith,” and think I know Zion
But really I’m just caught in the loop, of understanding the truth
Because it seems like it’s always clashing with science
While Biggie won the world through his craftsmanship, it was Tupac’s emotional connection that made his music last the test of time. And as a student of the game, Kendrick merged the craftsmanship of Biggie and the emotional potency of Tupac to form a distinctive style that would carve his lane. “The Heart Pt. 2” displays this at its best. The cracks in his voice, inflections in his cadences, and the gasps of breath that come in between each bar hardly interfere with the double-time flow. Still, he keeps going until he runs out of breath; symbolic of his own tenure in hip-hop.
The Heart Pt. 3 (2012)
There’s no “I” in “team.” Black Hippy’s presence on “The Heart Pt. 3” represents Top Dawg Entertainment’s unrivaled run at the top of the 2010s. With assistance from Jay Rock and Ab-Soul (ScHoolboy Q said he “was on tour EATIN”), “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let It Die?)” became an official primer ahead of good kid m.A.A.d city where he’d briefly introduce Sherane. More importantly, it was an acknowledgment of the labor and sacrifices where everything that Kendrick spoke on in the prior two installments started coming into fruition.
“When the whole world look at you like ‘Pac reincarcated/ That’s enough pressure to live your whole life sedated/ Find the tallest building in Vegas and jump off it,” he begins. The release of Section.80, and the infamous Tupac dream that inspired “HiiiPower” turned Kendrick into the beacon of hope for hip-hop. The torched had been passed down from Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and The Game, and he was on the cusp of releasing an archetypal debut album. He raps with equal parts astonishment as he reflects on the days he and Dave Free were plotting in a garage, to working with Lady Gaga. There’s a dash of terror as he reflects on the responsibilities that come with fame, whether that’s setting an example for the next generation of kids from Compton or living up to the high level of confidence that his fans, peers, and OGs have placed on his shoulders. And both the internal and external dialogues created a distinctive pressure that very few can handle with grace. Ultimately, he turns these pressures onto the fans, asking, “Will you let hip-hop die on October 22nd?”
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers will be Kendrick Lamar’s final outing on Top Dawg Entertainment. The end of an era that Kendrick embarked on 17+ years ago. “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let It Die?)” was a stunning reflection of Kendrick’s transformation in a matter of a few years, from proposing to be on the Freshman List in 2010 to XXL’s EIC Vanessa Satten awarding him The Best Rapper Of The Year award two years later. It’s an attestation to the collective efforts of Top Dawg Entertainment that positioned and groomed Kendrick Lamar’s talent to become a generational voice.
Now Punch is my mentor, Top Dawg is the coach
Jay Rock is my older brother, I was there when he wrote
His name on his record deal, we had figured the coast
Would live on a pedestal, once the shit hit the store
Found ourselves scrambling, tryna figure it out
Soul told me that the record shop ’bout to go in a drought
Q ain’t got a place to stay and ’bout to sleep on the couch
We eating off each other tray, the dollar-menu amount
The Heart Pt. 4 (2017)
From the pressures of being “the Chosen One” to fulfilling (and surpassing) many of the expectations, there was little to debate when it came to Kendrick’s greatness at the cusp of DAMN.’s release. In the five-year gap between “The Heart” Part 3 and 4, Kendrick delivered back-to-back classics with further anticipation surrounding whether he’d be able to do it again. The same people who extended their arms during his come-up were now becoming his direct competitors.
On “The Heart Pt. 4,” Kendrick Lamar finds himself in a place of comfort, weaving through four beat changes. He begins with a reflection on his accomplishments. An accumulated wealth validated by Forbes. Trips to Jamaica. Having become a “hip-hop rhyme savior.” There’s solace in checking these items off his bucket list and manifesting the goals he set out to achieve when Kendrick Lamar EP arrived. However, now, as he sits on the metaphorical throne of rap’s elite, he’s also tasked with protecting the seat that he occupies.
From Top Dawg Entertainment’s BET Cypher in 2014 to the rippling effect of Kendrick’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” he had tallied up a few exceptional lyricists onto a hit list. “The Heart Pt. 4” is a warning to Kendrick’s peers of his imminent return but many perceived that a group of bars in the second verse were dedicated to Jay Electronica, Drake, and Big Sean. “My fans can’t wait for me to son ya punk ass, and crush ya whole lil’ shit/ I’ll Big Pun ya punk-ass, you a scared lil’ bitch,” he raps with an incandescent flow. Though only Electronica has really mentioned Kendrick by name, there were enough subtle references to both Sean and Drake in that particular couplet that sent Twitter into a frenzy.
“I put my foot on the gas, head on the floor
Hoppin’ out before the vehicle crash, I’m on a roll
Yellin’, ‘One, two, three, four, five
I am the greatest rapper alive’
So damn great, motherfucker, I’ve died
What you hearin’ now is a paranormal vibe
House on the hill, house on the beach, n***a
A condo in Compton, I’m still in reach, n***a
I’m fresh out the water, I’m ’bout to breach, n***a
The five-foot giant woke up out of his sleep, n***a
Oh yeah, oh yeah, mo’ cars, mo’ lears
Mo’ bars, no peers, no scars, no fear—fuck y’all, sincere
I heard the whispers, I curved the whispers
You know what the risk is
Earthed in ditches, your body revertin’ to stiffness”
The desire to become one of the greatest became a reality over time. And while good kid m.a.a.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly are as flawless as any rap album could be, DAMN. crushed the discourse on whether Kendrick could make a commercially viable album without watering down his lyrical aptitude. Needless to say, he delivered but he didn’t wait until the album dropped to remind everyone of where he stood in hip-hop.
The Heart Pt. 5 (2022)
In August 2021, Kendrick Lamar broke his silence after rampant speculation surrounding his status with Top Dawg Entertainment and the pending release of his fifth studio album. “Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family. While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next,” he wrote in a message signed by Oklama.
Sunday’s release of “The Heart Pt. 5” was a formal ending to the five-year hiatus. Fans let out a sigh of relief while Kendrick delivered mind-blowing visuals that found him transforming into OJ Simpson, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith Kobe Bryant, Kanye West, and Nipsey Hussle through deep fake technology. And while there’s much to unpack surrounding his decisions to include Smith, Smollett, OJ, and Ye, Kendrick’s inclusion of Nipsey and Kobe Bryant symbolizes what a legacy represents in Los Angeles.
Kendrick begins with vivid descriptions of gang warfare in Compton, using himself as a case study for “a generation of pain where murder is minor.” He ties together the cycle of death and incarceration in Compton, reliving the moments he witnessed a man get shot outside of a halfway house after serving 17 years. Kendrick pins the desensitization of murder and prison as being part of “the culture.” But the agonizing truth of “The Heart Pt. 5” is that even those that grew beyond the circumstances they were born into are still susceptible to a similar outcome.
The death of Nipsey Hussle remains one of the most heartbreaking moments in rap. Nip created a blueprint for independence, opened a STEM Center for Black and Brown youth, and provided jobs in his community. Nip embodied Black excellence at a grassroots level and made it seem tangible for anyone fortunate enough to see him in the flesh on Slauson and Crenshaw. “New revolution was up and movin’/ I’m in Argentina, wiping my tears, full of confusion/ Water in between us, another peer’s been executed/ History repeats again,” Kendrick raps on “The Heart Pt. 5,” evoking his tribute to his late peer at Lollapalooza in 2019. On “The Heart Pt. 1,” Kendrick shouts out Nipsey as a figure of “motivation,” and the esteem that he held for the Victory Lap rapper only grew with time.
At the tail end of the video, Kendrick morphs into Nipsey Hussle, eerily rapping from the perspective of the late South Central artist in heaven, passing a message along to Blacc Sam, his children, and his fans before throwing up the Rollin’ 60s gang sign in homage to his late friend.
I don’t need to be in flesh just to hug y’all
The memories recollect just because y’all
Celebrate me with respect
The unity we protect is above all
And Sam, I’ll be watchin’ over you
Make sure my kids watch all my interviews
Make sure you live all the dreams we produced
Keep that genius in your brain on the move
And to my neighborhood, let the good prevail
Make sure them babies and them leaders outta jail
Look for salvation when troubles get real
‘Cause you can’t help the world until you help yourself
And I can’t blame the hood the day that I was killed
Most of the installments in “The Heart” series have primarily centered around the competitive nature of Kendrick’s craft and fulfilling his purpose on Earth. The latter hasn’t changed, nor has his skillset, but there’s an evident shift in artistic focus. There’s a bigger picture involved in Kendrick’s execution of “The Heart Pt. 5,” where the accolades and accomplishments hold little weight if the next generation after him remains in the same cycle.