How Kendrick Lamar and Nipsey Hussle’s Yearslong Friendship Informed “The Heart Part 5”

Culture
Kendrick’s tribute to his slain compatriot on his latest single reinforces a connection that goes back decades.

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Kendrick Lamar appears as Nipsey Hussle in “The Heart Part 5.”Courtesy of YouTube.

But the one in front of the gun lives forever
(The one in front of the gun, forever)
And I been hustlin’ all day
This-a-way, that-a-way
—Kendrick Lamar “Money Trees” good kid m.A.A.d city 2012

“I need a favor,” said Kendrick Lamar.

It was March 31, 2019, a day which will live in infamy, the day 33-year-old Ermias Asghedom, better known as Nipsey Hussle, was suddenly and deliberately attacked in the parking lot at Slauson and Crenshaw. Hussle arrived without security that Sunday to do a quick favor for someone who’d just come home from prison and wanted new clothes. Always happy to help less fortunate folks from his neighborhood get back on their feet, Hussle’s good deed was repaid with a senseless assassination near the entrance to the family-owned business that was his pride and joy, The Marathon Clothing smart store. This cold killing shook the city to its core, cutting down an inspirational figure, a dedicated father, mentor, artist, activist, and entrepreneur hailed far and wide as the people’s champ, The Light of Los Angeles.

That same day, Compton’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning lyrical polymath was in a whole ’nother hemisphere, standing onstage 6,100 miles away from home at the Hipódromo de San Isidro racetrack in Buenos Aires, headlining Lollapalooza Argentina. “Keep them lights up y’all,” Kendrick told a vast expanse of fans numbering in the tens of thousands as he walked in circles, wiping water from his eyes. “Keep it quiet. Listen to me. I need a favor,” he said again, pausing for a long moment to collect himself.

“Before we got on the stage, we got wind that our brother, our warrior, our soldier Nipsey Hussle passed away,” Kendrick explained. An audible ripple of shock ran through the crowd, a small part of the collective paroxysm of grief felt by Hussle’s diehard fans, also known as Marathon members, worldwide. “So we wanna take this time out truly to give a moment of silence,” Kendrick said. “Can we do that?” Sshhhh! was the only audible sound as the massive gathering of South American rap fans absorbed the grievous loss, held their cell phone lights skyward like so many votive candles, then repeated after Kendrick: “We love you Nipsey!”

Since that day, Kendrick Lamar has not spoken a word in public about the man he called “a better Crip” on their sole collaboration, “Dedication,” a highlight of Hussle’s first and only album, the Grammy-nominated masterpiece Victory Lap.

More than three years later, Kendrick Lamar has finally broken his silence on the unspeakable tragedy of Hussle’s murder with his song “The Heart Part 5.” As true Kendrick fans know, “The Heart” series has come to serve as a harbinger that something wicked this way comes. The previous installment, “Part 4,” dropped three weeks before his last album DAMN, and “Part 5” was released last Sunday night, a week ahead of Lamar’s long-awaited new album Mr Morale & The Big Steppers.

The latest installment is bold as love, shaken and stirred with a shot of survivors’ guilt, served up on the rocks in a tall glass of respect—drawing on the close bond that Kendrick and Nipsey developed over years coming up in the LA rap scene together, it’s a cocktail strong enough to serve as a healing tonic for a generation of pain’s post-traumatic stress.

“The Heart Part 5” holds a fair measure of anger at the “dehumanized, insensitive” status quo we’re all complicit in normalizing. This isn’t the first time Kendrick has called out gang culture: his 2015 song “The Blacker the Berry” drew criticism for his harsh critiques on intraracial violence. “Never say I ain’t told ya, nah,” he raps on “Part 5.” “In the land where hurt people hurt more people. Fuck callin’ it culture.” On the haunting chorus, he joins voices with the late Marvin Gaye over a sample of Gaye’s mournful “I Want You,” reminding anyone who will listen, “Look what I done for you.”

In the song’s final verse, he moves past his anger, takes the drums out, and performs a lyrical séance, channeling the spirit of Nipsey Hussle, complete with face tattoos and Neighborhood hand signs, stepping into his blue-laced Chucks to speak from Nip’s perspective looking down on all of us from the afterlife. “I am serious, this is heaven,” he says, repeating the word three times for emphasis.

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After delivering personal messages to Hussle’s children, his family, and fans, the song even forgives his assassin, noting “I seen the pain your pupil when that trigger had squeezed.” (As fate would have it, the long-delayed trial of the accused killer Eric Holder is scheduled to begin in a few weeks.) “I can’t stress how I love y’all,” Lamar states near the end. “I don’t need to be in flesh just to hug y’all.” The song is a miracle of anti-hesitation, one that could only be attempted by a level-four lyricist who’d observed Hussle’s grind up close for damn near the duration of his career.

In the three years since his demise, there has been no shortage of homages to Nipsey Hussle, but “The Heart Part 5” will be a very tough act to follow. Not just another tribute song, it’s more like a spiritual communion between fellow travelers who rebuilt the L.A. hip hop scene amidst the wreckage of Death Row’s implosion.

The two had been crossing paths since at least 2006, when 21-year-old Hussle and 19-year-old Lamar attended Russell Simmons’ Get Your Money Right summit at the UCLA campus. As a then-unknown Hussle drops jewels to Davey D about the importance of ownership and investment in a video shot by Hardknock.tv, KDot can be seen walking past in the background with the Top Dawg Entertainment crew. They got to know each other much better in 2009 when Hussle and Jay Rock were booked as opening acts for The Game’s LAX tour. “We did 52 cities—free,” Hussle told DJ Clue. “We ain’t have a tour bus. Jay Rock had a minivan with TDE wrapped on it… We had a little bullshit RV. It was like 20 homies in the RV.”

Kendrick elaborated further on this period in the thoughtful tribute he penned for the program at Nipsey’s memorial service. “I remember trekking cities alongside Nipsey and family,” he wrote. “Our sprinter van trailed their mobile home from state to state… Though I was there as support for my brother Jay Rock, Nipsey greeted me as one of his own.” Watching from the crowd each night, Dot would “listen to the substance he spewed,” telling himself “this the the type of talent I want to be a part of… I watched a young, ambitious Black male orchestrate fellowship amongst the men around him on that tour. Determined to execute one thing—and that was Greatness. Greatness in knowledge, greatness in wealth, and Greatness in self.”

Around the time of the LAX tour, Hussle, Jay Rock, and KDot stopped by Street Sweeper Radio to freestyle for DJ Kay Slay (RIP.) Stepping their bars up in a spirit of friendly competition, all three artists showed up and showed out. And while he was still officially a hype man, KDot made his grand ambitions very clear, rapping:

“A beast when the beat break/You probably think I’m dope like it’s the realest shit I wrote/But to me it’s a throwaway/I stare at them four walls and rap like I’m mad at God/Nice enough to throw a spear at Nas/Launch at Jay…”

On the last day of 2009 he dropped the name KDot and released the Kendrick Lamar EP, then celebrated four months later with “The Heart Pt. 1.” As the title implies and a Bilal sample near the end makes explicit, “This is a song that makes me spill out all my guts sometimes.” Nipsey makes an appearance in the ultra-low-budget video, flashing a grin as he hangs out with Kendrick at a show in Anaheim none of them are headlining. Still they’re grateful to be doing what they love, using their gifts to escape the streets for even a moment. Kendrick’s determination to make it work by all means necessary is overwhelming. As he vents on the track, his voice gets raw with emotion. And when he rattles off a list of artists who gave him motivation to keep going, the first name he mentions, even before Jay Rock, is Nipsey.

“You know we all conscious of each other’s movements on the West,” Hussle told me when we spoke a few days after the release of Victory Lap. “What was dope about Kendrick to me is that he became such a commercial success but never really made commercial product…. And it was based on the quality of the art. It was just like grade-A hip hop and next-level narrative storytelling. And the music vibration was so high that you just had to stop what you were doing and listen to it. So I always respect that and salute that.”

When Hussle appeared on the 2010 XXL Freshman cover along with Wiz Khalifa, J Cole, and Jay Rock, he had a major label deal and a Snoop cosign while Kendrick was hanging around the photo shoot trying to talk his way onto the cover at the last minute because Cole’s flight was delayed. (“I’m going to let you know, I’m going to be on this next year,” XXL editor Vanessa Satten recalls Kendrick telling her that day. “Okay, that’s good,” she replied.)

Two years later the whole game switched up. By the time Kendrick released good kid, m.a.a.d. City via Dr Dre and Interscope, Hussle was off the label and battling the gravitational pull of the streets as he built an independent movement brick by brick. When he threw a stray shot at Dr. Dre on “Mr. Untouchable,” Hussle made sure to clarify that he had no issues with Kendrick. “I said I’m high till I die so it’s motherfuck a Detoxx,” Hussle recalled in an interview with Bootleg Kev. He said he’d recorded the song before he was aware that Top Dawg had signed with Dre. “Just speaking realistically, that’s family,” he added. “We toured together, had bar fights with dudes… What I said about the Dre situation was just me being a real nigga.”

In another interview, Hussle elaborated on his respect for Kendrick and the Top Dawg movement. “ I know Kendrick deserves everything he’s got because he works for it. And that’s how I feel about it. I know that he raps what I rap. And the bigger he gets, the bigger this category that I’m in gets. And I salute and I respect it as a real nigga.”

He continued: “One thing about Kendrick, he always been the same,” Hussle observed. “As much success as he’s come into, Grammys and critical acclaim and all that—his energy ain’t changed none. I can’t say that for everybody.”

Around that same time Hussle recorded his first draft of a song called “Dedication” that summed up his state of mind at the time. “Hard work plus patience,” he said on the hook. “The sum of all my sacrifice, I’m done waitin’… The song would not be released for another five years, but by the time it became Track 5 on Victory Lap, the song contained a verse from Kendrick.

The multilayered verse weaves together memories of growing up in Compton, his grandmother’s death, and his decision to do the song with Hussle. When Kendrick’s friend L refers to Hussle as “a better Crip,” Kendrick refuses to reduce him to his neighborhood affiliation. “He a man first, you hear the words out his lips?” Dot rhymes. “About flourishing from the streets to Black businesses?”

The collaboration came together by trickery. Nipsey knew he wanted Kendrick on Victory Lap, but he wanted him on a different song. The producer Axl Folie (who co-produced “The Heart Pt 4) disobeyed Hussle’s instructions. “He just snuck the record to Kendrick,” Hussle said in an interview with Zane Lowe. But when he heard Kendrick’s bars, Hussle knew Folie had been right to go rogue: “I felt like he killed it,” he said.

Near the end of his verse, Kendrick described a conversation that took place the night of the All Eyez on Me premiere. “Me, Snoop Dogg, Top Dawg, and [Kendrick]—we had a conversation about L.A. street shit and about how the time might be right right now for us to really try to use our influence to kinda like evolve how we exist from Bloods and Crips—just the tribalism that’s goin’ on out there.” Kendrick imagined Tupac looking down from heaven as the four men spoke about whether they could come together and heal the generational conflicts that have afflicted their city for half a century.

That’s almost surely what Kendrick is speaking about when he raps, on “The Heart Part Five” about how the “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. Make amends, then find a nigga with the same skin to do it. But that’s the culture.” That’s why, in the video for The Heart Part Five,” he wears a black rag around his neck—not red or blue. That’s all part of celebrating Hussle with Respect.

While penning his memorial tribute to Hussle, Kendrick recalled pondering his friend’s true nature. “Was he a product of Crenshaw and Slauson? Was he a radical? Or was he a thinker? That mystique kept me engaged throughout his life and career. The years progressed, and my admiration grew from up close and from afar. Watching his interviews, his philosophies, and his work amongst the Black community. Time surely revealed itself. I realized Nipsey was all of those perspectives. But most importantly, he was a vessel from God. As my heart aches for him and his family, I understand that the Most High doesn’t make mistakes. I pray that Ermias Foundation continues to blossom. I pray for those who trespass against it.”

Rob Kenner is the author of The Marathon Don’t Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle.

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