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Deepfake Day: Kendrick Lamar Returns as Kanye Reappears

This weekend brought a wild series of deepfake videos as Lamar returned with the first single from his long-awaited album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, while Ye resurfaced with new material and familiar faces.

Kendrick Lamar has returned to his natural state of suspending belief, time, and space in the manner only he can: releasing new music. “The Heart Part 5″ officially marks his reentrance into the music business, as on Sunday evening Lamar shared the long-awaited fifth installment to his noteworthy “The Heart” series that began all the way back in 2010.

The video, which was co-directed by pgLang Founder Dave Free and Kendrick himself, features overbearing deepfake technology that finds Lamar’s face up against a red backdrop, seamlessly transforming into those of various famous (and infamous) Black men across the entertainment industry, including Kanye West, Will Smith, O.J. Simpson, Jussie Smollett and, most notably, the late Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle.

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His long-awaited fifth studio album has a first week projection increase to 400,000 and is expected to debut at No. 1 in the U.S. upon release.

Similarly, Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, also released a deepfake video over the weekend, debuting the visual for his previously leaked André 3000 collaboration “Life of the Party.” Although the new video does not include 3K’s verse, the music video hones in on deepfake performances using real-life photos from West’s childhood, with adolescent Ye’s lips rapping along.

The use of deepfake imagery has been rather controversial — and more harmful than not in most cases — but when two of the most accomplished artists of a generation use the medium for artistic expression, well, we’re listening.

K-Dot Returns

Kendrick Lamar’s first album in five years and his final LP for Top Dawg Entertainment, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, is set to drop this Friday, May 13.

Over the weekend, the LA rapper dropped the lead single, “The Heart Part 5,” which somehow miraculously samples Marvin Gaye’s 1976 song, “I Want You.” The Grammy Award-winning artist will attempt to follow-up 2017’s DAMN., which topped the US Billboard 200 on its debut and made history by being the first rap album and the first non-classical or jazz work to win the Pulitzer Prize.

“The Heart Part 5” video begins with the words, “I am. All of us,” credited to “oklama” (apparently an artist alter ego of Lamar) sitting against a black background. Then Lamar delivers the opening lines:

As I get a little older, I realize life is perspective and my perspective may differ from yours. I want to say thank you to everyone that’s been down with me. All my fans, all my beautiful fans, anyone who’s ever gave me a lesson. All my people.

The Compton MC wastes no time getting right into it. “I said I do this for the culture,” he asserts, transitioning perspectives from a number of both controversial and iconic figures using spookily-good deepfake technology. The YouTube credits read, “Special Thanks: Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and DEEP VOODOO.”

As it appears, Lamar’s relationship with South Park creators Parker and Stone runs deeper than their most recent announcement of pgLang teaming up with the duo to produce new live-action comedy film. The film, according to Variety, will “depict the past and present coming to a head when a young Black man interns as a slave re-enactor at a living history museum, discovering that his white girlfriend’s ancestors once owned his.”

This time around, Stone and Parker are operating under their in-house studio called Deep Voodoo.

Deep Voodoo was responsible for the simultaneously vexing and heart-tugging deepfake imagery in “The Heart Part 5.” Yet this isn’t the first time Parker and Stone have been behind some headline-grabbing deepfake work. In 2020, they created the viral satire video “Sassy Justice.”

In an October 2020 interview with the New York Times, Stone said, “Before the big scary thing of coronavirus showed up, everyone was so afraid of deepfakes. We just wanted to make fun of it because it makes it less scary.” Their studio, which specializes in deepfake technology and feature film work, worked specifically with ushering their world of television, film, and entertainment into this type of technology as a means of experimenting with new forms of art.

As Parker said in the same interview, “It really is this new form of animation for people like us, who like to construct things on a shot-by-shot level and have control over every single actor and voice. It’s a perfect medium for us.”

Ye Reappears

Kanye West — who’s been uncharacteristically quiet on social media after his brief suspension from Instagram — also shared a new music video from his Donda rollout, which coincidentally, or non-coincidentally (West appears in Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5” video ), uses deepfake technology as well. Ye’s visual is for his André 3000 collaboration “Life of the Party,” which appears on Donda (Deluxe).

The video, which sifts through Ye’s childhood photos, has been warped to incorporate pieces from his previously teased YEEZY Gap Balenciaga-engineered collection. The deepfake imagery makes each projector scan in the video subsequently “Come to Life,” with Ye’s face moving and lips mouthing the lyrics alongside the track.

Whereas Lamar more than likely intended to interact with this sort of deepfake technology for artistic expression, Ye — the master self-marketer he is — uses the tech in his video as a vehicle to promote his YEEZY Gap Balenciaga creative experimentation.

But in that same breath, it’s important to note the fervor with which Kanye is hyper-aware of his standing in the cultural spectrum at all times. That’s no more apparent than his consistent leaning into performance art and the “Old Kanye” trope, as dictated the below Twitter thread by Boardroom’s Eddie Gonzalez.

In “Life of the Party” in particular, “Old Kanye” takes shape in the form of literal young child Kanye, omnipresent throughout the video, rapping new material in familiar faces, exploring “the self” in an eerily prophetic tone.

https://twitter.com/bansky/status/1523724124648243200

Portions of West’s video also appeared in a TV commercial for the launch, having confirmed to be releasing globally via the official YEEZY Gap site — as well as via Farfetch, Mytheresa, and Luisaviaroma — on May 25 at 9 a.m. ET.

Donda, Ye’s 10th studio album, originally released in August 2021. It was first rolled out with a series of listening and performance art events, including one in his birthplace of Atlanta, where he spent an outlandish $1 million-per-day renting out Mercedez Benz Stadium. And then again, in Chicago, where he designed a replica of his childhood home. Since Ye has released a deluxe edition of the album, as well as alternate versions of several songs, he received an Album of the Year nomination at the 2022 Grammys and debuted Donda II exclusively via Stem Player.

Deepfake Technology’s Intersection of Art

According to the Guardian, deepfake tech is “the 21st century answer to Photoshopping,” using a form of artificial intelligence called deep learning to make images of fake events, hence its name.

But with it comes a load of security issues, misinformation, and, frankly, weird phenomena. And it’s not just videos being deepfaked either, as cause for concern has arisen that the technology is so advanced it can also create rather convincing, yet entirely fictional, photos and audio (voice skins) from scratch.

In early 2020, unauthorized audio deepfakes of Jay-Z’s voice appeared to recite Billy Joel and Shakespeare lyrics emerged, showcasing the potential power A.I. technology held in the music space. With Kendrick and Ye’s use of deepfake tech, it’s a reminder that it is simply a tool and can be useful for artistic expression in the right hands.

For some, they feel its use could be spiritually enhancing for the homies.

While others have a hard time believing it benefits the homies’ greater good in the long run.

It begs the question: Is there a proper — or better yet morally responsible —use for deepfakes in music or at-large?

Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan argues, “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.”

He continues, “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. “

Indeed, there is power in the sometimes dark, technological truths that stare back into the abyss. As more deepfake technology is normalized and accessible, it’ll be interesting to see how artists in the industry go about harnessing its untamed potential, ideally in a way that adds value to their art.

Whatever the case, Sunday was a day that won’t be forgotten quickly, thanks to Kendrick Lamar and Ye penning it so ceremoniously, May 8, 2022 — Deepfake Day (or Doomsday).

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