March 24, 2017

Paul Thompson is skimming Dash Snow interviews.

I’m going to write about “The Heart, Pt. 4,” a new song by Kendrick Lamar. But first, I want to talk about “The Heart, Pt. 3” for a second.

When “Heart 3” came out, I was renting a room in a horrible little house at Main and 43rd in Vancouver. I’m not going to get into the circumstances that landed me there, but suffice to say it was a horrifying experience every day: it became clear pretty quickly that three of my ten housemates (this was a bungalow) were addicted to meth, which they left in medium quantities on our kitchen table once every five or six days.

How they trusted one another to leave the baggies alone I’ll never know, because they robbed everyone else in the lockless house blind; I figured it out quickly and kept my valuable items (a Macbook, a Macbook charger) with me at all times. The whole thing culminated with my landlord–think Archie Bunker but dumber–knocking one of them out on our front lawn.

I eventually broke my lease (i.e.- I left and stopped putting cash in the landlord’s mailbox) and stayed with my friend’s family in Surrey. That was December. But for the whole fall, I was walking around the city with that Macbook, crashing with friends when I could and/or staying up til 4:30 a.m. at the Bean Around the World on Main and Broadway. I read a lot of Edward Albee, made it most of the way through Lil B’s Myspace era, dodged calls from student loan people.

The only thing anyone wanted to talk about that fall was Kendrick. “Swimming Pools” wasn’t huge–or if it was, it didn’t make it that far up the coast–but there was a sense of inevitability, of history. You would hear “ADHD” out of passing cars, the leaked demo of “Backseat Freestyle” outside at UBC. One night I heard a kid my age explaining “Keisha’s Song” to his sister at Al Basha, the halal spot.

good kid, m.A.A.d. city probably would have been hailed as a classic without “Heart 3,” but that song popped up like a ticking clock on the screen, codifying all the excitement. It gave us stakes: Will you let hip-hop die on October 22? It felt like everyone had made it, Kendrick shouting out Vanessa, Jay Rock popping up to invoke the ghost of Mike Jones.

Kendrick was superbly talented, had studied his craft, had built an entire world for himself–and yet it still felt as if this was sheer force of will, his grit letting him overcome rappers with better hooks and more magnetic voices. He spoke a masterpiece into existence.

“Heart 4” has different goals. good kid was the masterpiece he promised; To Pimp a Butterfly was a world-beating, wildly ambitious left turn that was perhaps even more acclaimed. Even a collection of B-sides, last year’s untitled unmastered, was warmly received (and one of the year’s most daring collections of rap).

Despite the long-simmering cold wars he hints at here, there is no one with a national audience to challenge Kendrick as the Most Important Rapper; Drake occupies a parallel but distinctly separate lane, J. Cole is a populist fast receding into his core cult, Future seems less interested in conventional hip-hop mythmaking, Young Thug’s brilliance is buried without release dates. All the other would-be contenders (I’m thinking here of YG, specifically) are sharply regionalized. Kendrick is alone.

But he keeps pushing. To his undying credit, neither of his instantly-bronzed albums made him rest on his laurels or double down on a sound. “Heart 4” (it’s produced by Alchemist, DJ Dahi, Syk Sense, and Axl Folie) starts with the sort of warm, mid-period-Roots tangent that marked some of his formative work, before making a sharp break into something grimmer. People will try to tease out the threads here–this is about Sean, this is about Drake–but the real thrill is to hear Kendrick play cat and mouse with the drum programming:

The five-foot giant woke up out of his sleep, nigga
Oh yeah, oh yeah, more cars, more Lears
More 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.”

The first line of that passage makes me think of Phife, obviously. Kendrick is nothing like Phife (obviously). But I can’t help remembering that line on “Check the Rhime”: “I’m just a fly MC who’s five-foot-three and very brave.”

The narrative arc has to be different now. The rapper dying to get put on, to make a debut album that reflects his life to that point, is something we’ve seen before. good kid made sense. This is something new, maybe something daring, brave. We’ll see on April 7.

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