Sunday, June 23, 2024

With ‘The Heart Part IV,’ Kendrick Lamar Reminds Hip Hop The King Is Back

Kendrick Lamar is the greatest rapper alive because he’s the only one who flips the game on its head every time he rhymes. This is not hyperbole. Last year, Kendrick was featured on projects by Isaiah Rashad, Travis $cott, Sia, A Tribe Called Quest, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, DJ Khaled, Kanye West, Danny Brown, and more. (We don’t acknowledge that uninspired, unctuous Maroon 5 verse, because top 40 radio doesn’t either.) That is a who’s who of pop and rap, both commercial and underground.

Consistently Kendrick is contextually great on these songs—he graphs himself into the track’s DNA, then chooses from his litany of styles (melodic, possessed Gemini, that weird alien voice he does, west-coast funkman, etc.) and raps in a way that elevates the whole record, not just himself. He is both rap’s greatest team player and its best talent, and every time we forget the latter, every time we forget about “King Kendrick,” he drops a track like “The Heart Part 4.”

Now we don’t really care about the subliminal shots aimed the direction of Big Sean and Drake in the track because we don’t really care about rap feuds and beefs outside the 24-hour news cycle excitement of their release. Unless names are mentioned, subs are such a blatantly transparent marketing strategy today (and perhaps always were), and rarely produce memorable songs, just fun moments. (Since we’re here: Nas’ “Ether” throws and lands better punches but Jay Z’s “Takeover” is a better overall song, and therefore will always be the winner in that battle.) Make no mistake: “The Heart Part 4” is a really fun moment.

But it’s also a great standalone record. Kendrick tells you he’s the best alive—“Yellin’, ‘One, two, three, four, five / I am the greatest rapper alive’ ”—but he also shows you. As the track’s production flips about four or five different times, top hat rhythms appearing the dissolving away while different voices echo and answer Kendrick’s rhymes, and not once does K.Dot fall off the beat. Instead he drives it faster and further, recklessly swinging away as the production twists and turns in a way somewhat reminiscent of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” intro. Almost everything that qualifies Kendrick as great he displays in full here.

Plus, yes, the raps are the type of incendiary bars we’ve come to expect from K.Dot. “You jumped sides on me, now you ’bout to meet Westbrook” might just inspire Russ to evolve from his current demigod status into, like, a legendary Pokémon (my guess is Mewtwo). “I said it’s like that, drop one classic, came right back / ‘Nother classic, right back / My next album, the whole industry on the ice pack” is a boast no other rapper from the New School, like Drake, Big Sean, J. Cole, could make. And that bit of him re-writing his verses in beat, audible paper crumbling, showcasing his pursuit toward perfection, is a huge flex, elevating him further past any rapper accused of ghostwriting.

It should be mentioned this isn’t exactly a new move for Kendrick Lamar. Last time he released a track in his “The Heart” series, “The Heart Part 3,” and finished the fusillade of possessed bars by naming a date, that day brought us good kid, m.A.A.d. city. This time he calls out April 7. If  “The Heart Part 4” was an excellent chess move in the hip hop game, that day could be rap’s checkmate.

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