Heart and Hood

Niela Orr

Kendrick Lamar’s recent single ‘The Heart Part 5’ samples ‘I Want You’, Marvin Gaye’s torch song for Janis Hunter. The 1970s saw Gaye whipsaw from socially conscious poet (What’s Going On, 1971) to lover man (Let’s Get It On, 1973) to lovelorn Janis-stan (I Want You, 1976). (Maybe he was all of these things at many times in his life, as David Ritz’s biography suggests, but his public-facing self seemed to transform with each new record.) ‘I want you, and I want you the right way/I want you/But I want you to want me too,’ Gaye croons, amid a thick impasto of guitar licks and stings, horn blasts, a driving bass line, congas and multi-part harmonies, the oohs and aahs in his vocals presaging the astonished response of many listeners to the song’s lush density.

On I Want You, Gaye continued the practice he had begun on What’s Going On of using the studio as an instrument, overdubbing vocals and strings and synthesiser patches to create layers of harmony and discordance. His use of dubbing may have been one way for him to express the tensions in himself, a horny preacher’s kid with serious demons, many of them beaten into him by his abusive father. Throughout his career, he was caught between religious admonition and the pleasures of what some Christians call ‘the world’. With those swarming voices, representing his triple or quadruple-mindedness, Gaye overwrote the aw-shucks innocence of doo-wop harmonies to make music that was as vocally complex as anything made by a street corner quartet but more introspectively murky. He used his angelic falsetto to utter guttural, ostensibly churchy phrases such as ‘have mercy’, but also to say very dirty things under the main melody, anticipating the use of ad-libs by artists such as Future and Migos.

Footage of the studio sessions shows him in experimental form, trying different ways of issuing those notes – sometimes lying on his back, sometimes sitting, while giving orders to the band –contorting himself in more ways than one. He’d retreated into a cocoon of sexual frustration, indulgence, music technology and doubt, sometimes haunting the corners of Hollywood’s sweat-soaked dance halls and clubs, where – if we’re to believe his lyrics – women breathed phrases like ‘Sock it to me’ into his pitch-perfect ears.

The cover art for I Want You is a version of Ernie Barnes’s Sugar Shack (which recently sold for more than $15 million), and the whole album seems to exist in a place not unlike the cramped juke joint in the painting: part fantasy-land, part dance floor, part boudoir. The name of the album’s thumping psychedelic disco closer, ‘After the Dance’, could double as the LP’s alternate title: the record is set in the gloom of the interregnum after the bartender announces last call; on the ride home, when you feel alone even in company; in the claustrophobic embrace of a stranger’s body.

Lamar, whose fifth studio album, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, came out last week, released ‘The Heart Part 5’ on 8 May, to much fanfare. In the video Lamar wears a white shirt and black bandana and performs against a blood-red background. At the beginning of the first verse, his face looks tortured. Then he starts rapping, eloquently, about how people become accustomed to dysfunction: ‘Desensitised, I vandalised pain/Covered up and camouflaged/Get used to hearing arsenal rain.’ He talks of addiction and ambivalence, and a gradual descent into oblivion:

But that’s the culture, crack a bottle
hard to deal with the pain when you’re sober
By tomorrow, we forget the remains, we start over
That’s the problem
our foundation was trained to accept whatever follows …
In the land where hurt people hurt more people
fuck calling it ‘culture’

All the while, Lamar’s weary face morphs, using deepfake technology, first into O.J. Simpson, then a series of other famous Black men, most of whom have (or had) complicated relationships with the American public: Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle.

Hussle was murdered by an associate of his in March 2019, in the strip mall that he helped to turn into a neighbourhood entrepreneurial hub. He was shot by someone who might have been a friend. ‘I want the hood to want me baby, look what I’ve done for you,’ Lamar’s voice quavers, in his version of Gaye’s chorus.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of intellectuals, most of them Black, including Kenneth Clark (Dark Ghetto, 1965), Robert Allen (Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History, 1969), William K. Tabb (The Political Economy of the Black Ghetto, 1970) and Donald Harris (‘The Black Ghetto as Colony: A Theoretical Critique and Alternative Formulation’, 1972), theorised that the Black ghetto is the United States’ internal colony. In song after song, Lamar delves into the emotional implications of the internal colony theory that’s made its way into Black American studies and culture over the years, and interrogates his relationship to Compton, his hometown, casting himself as a one-time resident, ambassador and possible mark, a target for interlopers and thieves. In ‘The Heart Part 5’, he merges all these approaches in three dynamic verses. He speaks from his heart, and his hood, and sometimes it seems as if the two places are interchangeable.

Lamar could have added Gaye to the list of shapeshifting men he portrays in the video, though maybe he didn’t need to because he had already adopted the singer’s musical likeness by covering ‘I Want You’. Gaye was another public figure with a troubled and troubling private life (he was thirty-three when he began pursuing Hunter, who was only sixteen). In the video for ‘The Heart Part 1’ (2010), Lamar walks around a record store where he picks up a copy of The Very Best of Marvin Gaye, and hangs out backstage with Nipsey Hussle. ‘One-way love is just a fantasy,’ Gaye sings on ‘I Want You’, ‘to share is precious, pure and fair.’ If the ghetto, or the hood, is an internal colony, is there space for fairness? The hood often eats its young. It fosters a lot of love and joy amid the poverty and neglect, but it’s also a site of paranoia, much of it justified. It’s hard to become acculturated to even the occasional sound of gunshots – ‘arsenal rain’ – without developing PTSD.

Like Lamar in the video, living in these conditions, you don’t always recognise yourself. You become someone with your head perpetually on a swivel, always looking over your shoulder, listening to your own internal ad-libs, trying to stay alert and yet not too sensitive. You can’t get to a place where you perceive everyone as a threat, in case you become what you despise, recast by suspicion and isolation into anything but prey, this time. Many people born and raised in the hood want to be respected and venerated by the place they originated from, and there’s no way around it. The same can be true of people who have complicated relationships with their families. Months before his father killed him, Marvin Gaye moved in with his parents, into a home he bought for them. The heart wants what it wants.


  • 23 May 2022 at 2:25pm
    Simon Wood says:
    What a great, poetic piece. "Here endeth the lesson," as the pastor said, putting away his gun. Reading this, I wondered what Prince would have made of it. I have come to Prince late in life - it's never too late for redemption.

  • 25 May 2022 at 8:46pm
    Mary Britton says:
    Simon Wood: "I came to Prince late in life." That statement, in and of itself is Poetic, for certainly one who has listened to the oeuvre does encounter Prince in an array of thoughts and contemplations- I too wonder what he'd have thought. Niela Orr: Poignant piece of writing and interweaving, very well stated and felt. Thank you.

  • 27 May 2022 at 12:31pm
    Rory Allen says:
    Ah, intellectuals and pop music. There is material for a PhD thesis there: subtitle 'interpreters or exploiters?'