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Kendrick Lamar has a way of putting the entire music world on high alert. The Compton wordsmith signaled his grand return in dramatic fashion by dropping “The Heart Part 4” on Thursday night. After calling himself the greatest rapper alive and rattling off subliminal disses presumably aimed at Big Sean and Drake, Kendrick ends the shape-shifting track with a presumed release date for his next LP, gift wrapped as a warning to rivals: “Y'all got 'til April the 7th to get y'all shit together.”
So there you have it. Eleven days from today, Kendrick Lamar is coming...with something. But just where does one of rap’s most important voices go following the massive masterpiece that is To Pimp a Butterfly? He dropped some hints earlier this month in an interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine, describing the project as timely and “very urgent.”
“I think now, how wayward things have gone within the past few months, my focus is ultimately going back to my community and the other communities around the world where they’re doing the groundwork,” he said. “To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem. I’m in a space now where I’m not addressing the problem anymore. We’re in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life: God. Nobody speaks on it because it’s almost in conflict with what’s going on in the world when you talk about politics and government and the system.”
He continued with an analogy about watching a hypothetical daughter mature into a woman. “At one point in time I may have a little girl who grows up and tells me about her engagements with a male figure—things that most men don’t want to hear,” he said. “Learning to accept it, and not run away from it, that’s how I want this album to feel.”
The two themes—confronting the inevitable and the significance of religion in the midst of political havoc—evoke the idea of meeting with God in the afterlife. Kendrick alludes to this in “The Heart Part 4” via his burn of America’s so-called leader (“Donald Trump is a chump/Know how we feel, punk? Tell 'em that God comin’”). DMX has talks with both the devil (“Damien”) and the Lord (“The Convo”) on It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, the album that first inspired a young K-Dot to write his own raps. Perhaps Kendrick plans to address the same grapple on his next work.
Focusing on a higher power would be consistent with the trajectory of Kendrick Lamar’s studio albums thus far. Each LP finds him broadening his scope, almost as if he’s adjusting to the size and diversity of his audience. Section.80 homes in on the experience of ’80s babies brought up in the midst of Reaganomics and the crack epidemic. Its 2012 follow up, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, paints with wider strokes, portraying the perils of growing up on the red-and-blue patrolled blocks of Compton, which really serves as a microcosm for Any Hood, U.S.A. To Pimp a Butterfly and its well-received leftovers Untitled Unmastered are generally concerned with the plight of black Americans (the former has been notably described as “overwhelmingly black”). Religion would not be new terrain for Kendrick—GKMC concludes with a life-changing baptism and TPAB’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” is about an encounter with a panhandler who turns out to be God. Yet the time seems appropriate to musically explore spirituality in greater depth, especially after Chance the Rapper blurred the line between spiritual and secular rap last year with Coloring Book.
As for politics, things done changed since the last time Kendrick compiled an album. TPAB dropped in the wake of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice’s murders by police officers, days when movements like Black Lives Matter were beginning to really find momentum. Kendrick took it all in and spit out a soundtrack of survival (“We gon’ be alright”), self-care (“I love myself”), self-esteem (“Complexion don’t mean a thing”) and self-worth (“This dick ain’t free”). And while each of those themes remains important, for many the socio-political climate has shifted from survival to resistance. Kendrick has the opportunity to make angrier—or to use his words, “very urgent”—music to keep listeners fighting the good fight against America’s first (and, God-willing, last) orange president. He could pack his new LP with tracks that are more Public Enemy than A Tribe Called Quest, more “The Blacker The Berry” than “You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said).”
Alternatively, Kendrick could blow minds with an album that aims to be an easier listen than its predecessor. Maybe he’s cooking up music designed to take your mind off the clusterfuck in the nation’s capital and its ensuing whitelash, calling up the likes of Quavo, Travis Scott, and Metro Boomin to compile a project full of trunk rattlers and trap-friendly pop hits. Aside from toning down Kendrick’s sometimes heavy songs, it’d be an interesting wrinkle in his rivalries with Drake and Big Sean, who’ve enjoyed better success on the singles charts (please believe there will be some shots at both on the new project, whether subliminal or Kurupt-like).
If K-Dot really wanted to come from left field, he could drop a primarily sung release—he told Rick Rubin last year that he could envision himself one day creating a project where he’s not rapping. “I think I got the confidence for it,” he said. “If I can master the idea and make the time to approach it the right way, I think I can push it out.” (You get a sense of that side of Kendrick’s abilities on Mac Miller’s “God Is Fair, Sexy, Nasty,” from The Divine Feminine.)
A document purported to be Kendrick’s upcoming LP credits surfaced on the internet Saturday, citing Andre 3000, D’Angelo, and Kanye West as collaborators. Despite a thoroughness that includes sample credits and publisher information, it seems to be the imaginative work of an obsessive troll—producer Cardo has debunked it via Twitter, and one song is even titled “Counterfeit.” The takeaway: Only Kendrick Lamar knows what the next entry of his catalog holds.
“Everything is going to make sense—not only to myself but to anybody who wants to understand life and music,” Kendrick told the Guardian in 2015 of his follow-up to TPAB. “I know exactly what I want to say next.” We’re all ears, Kenny.