A Mortal Man’s Heart: Kendrick Lamar and Black Masculinity

Kendrick Lamar performs on stage at the Life is Beautiful Festival, September 27, 2017, Las Vegas, NV (Shutterstock)

We haven’t heard from Kendrick Lamar (as far as solo projects) since the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning album DAMN. Kendrick has never been one to shy away from addressing current events and ideas surrounding Black culture, identity, and people. “The Heart Part 5” criticizes the idea of ‘culture’ (meaning Black culture) and its constrictive qualities as it relates to Black men. Along with his ridicule of upholding ‘culture’, he is reflecting on the idea of Black masculinity and how it is shaped not only by the conventions of American White supremacy but Black sociology. In the song, Kendrick portrays himself as OJ Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle to question the validity of ‘the culture’ and its effects on Black male identity.

Kendrick starts his first verse by expressing the violence and dehumanization of Black men as it is seen as ‘the culture’ or the norm. He acknowledges desensitization as Black men are relegated to living in violence (“Desensitized, I vandalized pain covered up and camouflaged. Get used to hearin’ arsenal rain.”) and upholding standards that can be seen as gender entrapment or in this case societal entrapment. Gender entrapment was coined by sociologist Beth Richie in her book Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women. Richie defined it as a self-destructive condition in which Black women resort to criminal acts in order to be seen as a ‘good’ woman (i.e. the ‘Ride or Die’ partner). I engage with this term and use it for Black men and masculinity. Some Black men are also caught in this concept of gender entrapment in which they resort to criminal acts in order to be seen as being ‘down’ (i.e. gang initiations, not snitching, etc) but there is also what I like to call societal entrapment, in which Black men will morph their identity through language/speech patterns, material items, and socialization in order to be acknowledged by other Black people and sometimes white people as being Black enough.  He ends this section with a sample from the 1976 classic “I Want You” by Marvin Gaye. This desire to be seen and obtain humanity through community and love is the underlying theme for Black men who default to displaying stereotypical characteristics of hyper-violence, hyper-sexuality, emotional aloofness, and braggadocio. This isn’t just the young man who joins in a gang; this is the upper middle class suburban young man who changes his vocabulary, buys expensive chains, and sits at the VIP section every night to emulate the rapper lifestyle; this is the young biracial man who questions his own proximity to Blackness and is ashamed of his own biology. This is the side of ‘the culture’ that is often ignored.  

Using OJ as the first example of representing ‘the culture’, Kendrick references OJ as a quintessential example of the life that Black boys aspire for. Being a football player meant to some that he made it out and young Black boys then and now see sports as their meal ticket to financial abundance. His face becomes Kanye’s as he states, “friends bipolar, grab you by your pockets.” Kanye’s actions have often been celebrated or hated by this scale of ‘culture’. In the lines “That’s the culture, point the finger, promote ya; Remote location, witness protection, they gon’ hold ya”, Kendrick alludes to how the ‘culture’ is a consciousness of dissatisfaction, unpredictability, hypocrisy, and bondage.

The bulk of the section in which Kendrick’s face is Jussie Smollett speaks on the summer of 2020 and the ‘new revolution’ arose with the killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Kendrick criticizes those who called for him to be more active in the protests and social commentary of the time. It isn’t until the last line “Make amends, then find a ni**a with the same skin to do it” that Kendrick makes a slight against Jussie for hiring two Black men to attack him in 2019 but Kendrick is also criticizing gang culture and its use of Black men to kill other Black men over trivial situations.

Kendrick is back to his own face as he reiterates on the dangers of ‘culture’. For him, the cycle continues as Black men emulate their surroundings and disassociate from their own emotional needs and desires. This concept of upholding a monolithic idea of Blackness is destructive. By ending this section with Will Smith, he is acknowledging the infamous slap with the line “In the land where hurt people hurt more people.” However, this is deeper than the slap as Will/Kendrick hugs himself and sings the Marvin Gaye sample, he is acknowledging the internal pain of desensitization and dehumanization of the Black man. The habitual choice that Black men make to be less than human and demean themselves to be archetypes of trauma, pain, and ignorance. In the end, this display of culture is really a call for awareness and acceptance.  

Kendrick recenters himself and speaks on the trials of life from a point of view in which he is no longer alive. As his face transitions into Kobe’s, he acknowledges his [Kobe] own perseverance and sacrifices he made in order to be the legend that we have come to remember. Kendrick reverts to himself, and he is still speaking in past tense. He now becomes Nipsey Hustle. As Nipsey, he assures those who loved and listened to him that his soul is at peace. Nipsey becomes Kendrick again but is still speaking as if he is Nipsey. He holds no ill will towards the man who murdered him and requests that his memory should be honored through respect and community. As Kendrick returns as Nipsey and ends the song, Nipsey hopes that his legacy grows through the lives of his children and the works of those who knew of his vision. He speaks the powerful message of “you can’t help the world until you help yourself” and he sees his death as the spark for liberation for his community and people. The presence of Kobe and Nipsey are the antithesis of the previous as they are no longer here but all of these men that Kendrick displayed are longing to be wanted. Despite the trials and tribulations of life and the ideas surrounding what a Black man should be, these men are human. 

Feminist scholar bell hooks’ We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity makes the argument that the acknowledgement of the ideas of the mass media and Black culture should not be the only representations of Black masculinity. She acknowledges the social and political ramifications of American culture and its idea of what Black masculinity represents but she does not see it as the only way that Black men should be. hooks address Black masculinity as a portrayal of the patriarchal narrative of the white majority instead of being reconstructed as a form of male liberation. She calls for not accepting the patriarchal norms of emotional unintelligence, violence, sexual aggression towards women, and workaholic syndrome as the definitive image of masculinity but rather looks towards an alternative masculinity that is based in love, acceptance, humanity, and accountability. R.W. Connell’s multiple masculinities theory suggests that “there is more than one kind of masculinity and what is considered “masculine” differs by race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender” However, these markers of difference are not placed in the vicinity of Black masculinity but rather only given the chance to thrive within hegemonic (white) masculinity. Using a spectrum and applying Connell’s multiple masculinities theory eliminates the labels and ideals that have subjected Black men to inhumanity. It creates a freeform identity of masculinity that does not describe Black men as caricatures but instead individuals of their own fruition. Through “The Heart Part 5”, Kendrick is calling for Black men to rise above the prescriptions of Black masculinity and uphold a truth that speaks to one’s humanity, not conformity. 

Because we all want to be wanted.

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Zion McThomas

Zion "Zee" McThomas is a graduate student of Auburn University's History Department. She is also a published poet, rapper, and filmmaker. You can follow her at ZeeThaNomad on all social platforms.