With Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5” video, the most accomplished rapper of his era crashes almost literally headfirst into one of the most controversial technologies to emerge in recent years. In the clip, his face uncannily transforms into the faces of various famous—or infamous—Black men: O.J. Simpson, Will Smith, Jussie Smollett, Kobe Bryant, Kanye West, and Nipsey Hussle. These are deepfakes, that is, almost-realistic videos (or photos, or audio snippets) that are fabricated using artificial intelligence. While the prospect of fake videos that seem legit has plenty of disturbing implications, it’s also a perfect tool for an artist who has long delighted in employing a range of voices in his work and destabilizing listeners’ concepts of identity.
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When pundits talk about deepfakes, it’s usually to warn about their negative potential. One recent video purportedly showed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urging his troops to surrender. Scammers have been known to deepfake CEOs’ voices in successful attempts to swindle cash. Pornography made from deepfakes without their subjects’ consent is a huge and horrible trend.
But great art often comes from using new technologies the “wrong” way. In hip-hop, the story of the latest generation of tools being subverted and turned toward previously unimagined ends runs from turntables and 808 drum machines to Auto-Tune and SoundCloud. Just a few years ago, the music industry was treating deepfakes as a silly lark, with Weezer, Green Day, and Fall Out Boy announcing a joint tour by superimposing Anchorman movie character faces onto their heads. But by early 2020, unauthorized audio deepfakes of JAY-Z’s voice appearing to recite Billy Joel and Shakespeare were a wakeup call that the tech could potentially do much more. (Around the same time, various celebs deepfaked their way into Lil Uzi Vert and Future’s “Wassup” lyric video.) And last year, musical AI innovator Holly Herndon pushed vocal deepfakes further with a website that transforms uploaded audio into music sung in Herndon’s voice.
Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5” video is easily the most significant intersection yet between music and deepfakes. The song itself is the latest installment in the rapper’s “The Heart” series, which dates back to 2010; it’s Lamar’s first new track as lead artist since 2018, and it arrives just ahead of his forthcoming fifth album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. It’s not the first time an alter ego has spit Lamar’s verses in one of his videos; Don Cheadle played a cop who starts rapping in the kinetic visual for Damn.’s “DNA.” And here, as Pitchfork’s Dylan Green observes, the deepfakes “amplify Lamar’s words and serve to visualize a complicated lineage through Blackness and the pressures of celebrity.” When Lamar raps about “friends bipolar” in the video, the words come out of Kanye West’s face.
As it happens, Ye released a deepfake video over the weekend, too. The clip for “Life of the Party,” from his 2021 Donda (Deluxe) record, breathes life into childhood photographs of the rapper, with the young Kanye’s lips appearing to rap the song’s lyrics. The video’s use of deepfakes is an instructive corollary to Lamar’s: We see different facets of Ye across time, whereas with Lamar we see him taking on the perspectives of other people altogether. The two clips also show the range of verisimilitude deepfakes can achieve—the visual manipulations in Lamar’s video are much sharper and more believable than in West’s, which seems amateur in comparison.
“The Heart Part 5” is dense and heady, defying knee-jerk explanations. The credits cite South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone along with their Deep Voodoo studio, which is also behind the celebrity-deepfake web series Sassy Justice. If there’s a comedic thrill in seeing a potentially dystopian technology exploited for the sake of putting Mark Zuckerberg in a turkey suit, there’s a different power in watching Lamar, as the late Nipsey Hussle, rap about his own murder from beyond the grave. As deepfake technology grows cheaper and more convincing, Lamar won’t be the last musician to harness it. But he’ll be remembered as the first one who opened Pandora’s box and dared audiences to doubt their own eyes in the service of adding yet another layer of depth to his work.