“The Heart Part 5” solidifies Kendrick Lamar as one of rap’s most selfless storytellers. The video for the single, which arrived on Monday ahead of his highly anticipated fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, finds the Pulitzer Prize-winner making a case for empathy. At a glance, the visual seems bare-bones: Lamar with hair longer than we remember jolting sporadically. But before you know it, his face morphs into some of Black America’s most controversial figures—including Kanye West, O.J. Simpson, Jussie Smollett, and Will Smith. These men are heroes, villains, or anti-heroes. The classification may vary depending on who you ask.
Lamar doesn’t just trade faces with these figures like Michael Jackson in his 1991 “Black or White” video. He becomes them. In partnership with South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Deep Voodoo production company, “The Heart Part 5,” tells the stories of these men using seamless deepfake technology, along with Lamar’s poignant lyrics. As he observes, he’s one decision away from being any of these men. Sampling Marvin Gaye’s 1976 hit “I Want You” on the hook, Lamar grapples with the idea of Black celebrity and explores how fame has distorted many of their legacies. Without a doubt, the most stirring part of the video is a memorial for Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle, with the final verse written entirely from the perspective of the late rapper. “I completed my mission, wasn’t ready to leave,” Lamar says with Hussle’s face transposed over his own.
The line between admiration and degradation is too fine to decipher, much like the line between reality and artificial intelligence in Lamar’s video. He has the ability to make deepfakes feel like art, which could help legitimize a technique that encourages revenge porn and political manipulation. Deepfakes have the ability to masquerade as the truth, spreading disinformation in the name of swaying public opinion.
While “The Heart Part 5” uses deepfakes as another method of storytelling, the technology hasn’t always been utilized in the way Lamar repurposed it. Deepfakes, named after the Redditor and programmer who fused machine learning (a subset of AI) and celebrity photos together, emerged in 2017 on a subreddit dedicated to Photoshopping famous women onto the bodies of adult entertainers. For these imitations to be believable, the video and images’ algorithms are trained to recognize artificial patterns and reconstruct them. The more photos there are, the more patterns an algorithm can learn. The following year, the deepfake community on Reddit eliminated a huge barrier to entry by developing FakeApp, a program that made the permutations of celebrity porn one click away from its users.
Creating this Rubik’s Cube of porn isn’t exactly about satiating kinks. Instead it robs women of their bodily autonomy by suggesting that they acquiesced to the sex in question and, in turn, to the dissemination of its recording. Around 96 percent of deepfake images can be traced to porn, according to a 2019 report from Deeptrace Labs. Nearly all of these—or 99 percent—were used to swap celebrity faces like Gal Gadot and Taylor Swift onto porn stars. In 2018, Reddit banned what many have termed “involuntary pornography,” a move that caused other sites, including Pornhub, to follow suit.
The technology progressed at a rapid pace, expanding beyond X-rated films and branching out into politics within the year. As the deepfakes improved and glitches that were painfully obvious at its inception were eliminated, the images posed a legitimate threat to the functioning of our democracy. Deepfake videos went viral of Barack Obama calling Donald Trump a “dipshit,” Mark Zuckerberg bragging about data control, and Nancy Pelosi seeming drunk. A 2019 survey from Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans thought deepfakes “create a great deal of confusion about the facts of current issues and events.” Ahead of the 2020 election, Facebook and YouTube banned altered videos to prevent the spread of fake news ahead of the election, acknowledging the dangers of the technology falling into the wrong hands. This came to fruition in March when a video of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky telling Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion to “lay down your weapons and go back to your families” went viral, only to be revealed as a deepfake.
Communication is irreversible. Similarly to the reason why there’s no edit feature on Twitter, you can’t unsay what’s already been said. Could an artist as big as Lamar, who uses his deepfakes with good intentions, change the way people perceive the medium? Judging from the critical acclaim from other artists who lauded the “Heart Part 5” video as a masterpiece, it is a fair assumption that his use of deepfakes could be not only embraced, but replicated.
As Kendrick goes, so goes the world: Lamar’s creativity inspires his peers and colleagues to follow in his very large footsteps. People are still paying tribute to work he did five years ago, as seen in last month’s release of Bia and J. Cole’s latest video “London,” which recreated the robotic camera angles Lamar used in “Humble.” As imaginative as Lamar’s video is, the prospect of deepfakes becoming mainstream only underscores how deep-seated issues get eclipsed by the sheer power of an artist like Lamar. The rapper says it himself on the track: “By tomorrow, we forget the remains, we start over/That’s the problem/Our foundation was trained to accept whatever follows.”
The truth is, deepfakes have been being mainstreamed for years. With the help of the late Paul Walker’s brothers in 2015, Furious 7 was able to memorialize the actor two years after his untimely death. Nearly 70 years after James Dean’s death, the late actor is starring in the war drama Finding Jack this summer via full body CGI. Museums have also dabbled in artificial intelligence for a more interactive experience: Immersive exhibits have allowed patrons to experience the fullness of the works of artists like Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo. Iconic paintings have been turned into “living portraits,” freeing Mona Lisa from her sly smirk and restoring the works of Gustav Klimt, some of whose paintings were destroyed in a fire in World War II.
Still, some of the best art is often controversial. Would people be as struck by “The Heart Part 5” without Lamar’s choice to use deepfakes as a more tangible way to explore humanity? It’s hard to say. The video centers the human element of all of the men depicted, yet relies on a technology with deeply inhuman implications.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.