Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz Rising from Compton, California to become one of hip-hop’s most unique and revered talents ever, Kendrick Lamar...
Rising from Compton, California to become one of hip-hop’s most unique and revered talents ever, Kendrick Lamar is widely considered one of the best rappers in the world. His discography, which spans nearly fifteen years, five studio albums, five mixtapes, a groundbreaking soundtrack, and more, is nearly universally hailed and his list of accomplishments is unmatched. There are no other rappers with a Pulitzer Prize; his 14 Grammys put him in rare air among his rap peers; all of his albums have gone platinum; and his last three have all appeared at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. There has never been a rapper like him — and there may never be another.
The thing about Kendrick is, though, that everyone approaches his music from a different direction and for a different reason. It’s one of the markers of his talent and versatility that he can be so broadly appealing while being so brazen in his approach to experimentation. Some folks love his aggressive, high-energy bangers like “DNA,” “Humble,” or “MAAD City,” while others fell in love with his storytelling on tracks like “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” “How Much A Dollar Cost,” or “Duckworth.” He’s a show-stealing featured artist, but he’s also compelling when he flies solo. He’s got heady tracks that make you think, forceful ones that make you move, and he’s the rare artist with a plethora of songs that can make you do both at the same time — one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the rap world.
So, listing 40 of his best — from Good Kid to DAMN. and everything in between — from just one perspective wouldn’t just be reductive and risk leaving out the breathtaking variety of songs he’s made over the years, it would result in a pretty boring and predictable list. To that end, we’ve recruited Travis “Yoh” Phillips to help us break down the songs that rank among his best. Obviously, we didn’t agree on where every song should land, or even on what songs should be included, but then again, the debate is half the fun.
The first Kendrick Lamar song that made me like Kendrick Lamar. A radical left turn from the spacey, incensed-tinged vibes of the rest of his 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated, “Michael Jordan” proved that Kendrick wasn’t just a backpack rap adherent as some had assumed after his self-titled EP dropped the year before. It was contemporary and up-to-date, with the Lex Luger-esque sound that would come to dominate in the early part of the decade, but still uniquely his own. — Aaron Williams
“Love” isn’t punchy, pensive, or produced to feel like a song made by one of the best rappers alive. Kendrick doesn’t rap or sing but flirts with both in what has to be his most saccharine songwriting. It’s sweet, almost painfully so, but the production, like Zacari’s hook, creates a polished pop song that commands a certain respect for being commercial in a time where crossing over is much more complicated when you aren’t sampling the past to remake a hit. “LOVE” feels made from scratch, cooked up to compete on the charts, and live in your heart. — Yoh Phillips
Some Kendrick songs have the perfect phrases. They jump out on first listen, they are easy to remember, and fun to recite. “Untitled 02” is a masterclass in that brand of contagious charisma meeting catchy songwriting. He uses a watery, almost whining flow that slips and slides and switches shape so seamlessly that it has more forms than Frieza. Not a single line feels poorly placed, making the infectious vocals twice as effective. It’s an enchanting song, one that further cemented Cornrow Kenny as a powerhouse performer that could be both proud and playful all at once. —YP
In 2013, Mayer Hawthorne released his triumphant third album, Where Does This Door Go, and linked up with Kendrick Lamar on the day party praise anthem, “Crime.” Kenny’s verse describes the raucous celebration and its uproarious aftermath, the partygoers’ antics end up with “300 drunk muthaf*ckas in the holding cell.” — AW
Kendrick Lamar, as a historian of family history, has spent his career documenting the situations that shaped him. “Mother I Sober” is one of his quietest most uncomfortable reflections. A song that doesn’t shy away from the harm of sexual abuse and how the psychological damage is passed down to become a trauma that spreads. It’s pensive rap so honest and touching that the entire six minutes does feel like invading a therapy session. For that very reason, the music showcases how a master handles a difficult subject with grace and care. — YP
On paper, Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott may not seem like a combination that works, but in practice, “Goosebumps” became one of Scott’s signature hits and again displayed Kendrick’s chameleonic ability to fit any of his host’s styles at will. — AW
As memorable as 2012’s “Money Trees” is for its infinitely singable hook and “ya bish” ad-libs, the Good Kid, MAAD City standout is also the place where Kendrick’s labelmate Jay Rock also broke out of the staid perception that had been forced on him by some fans. He was more than just TDE’s second fiddle – he was every bit as capable of holding first chair as the label’s breakout star. — AW
A tender reflection on life, love, and religion, Kendrick’s Overly Dedicated collaboration with Jhene Aiko forecasts the hallmarks that would come to define the Compton wiz kid’s output in the decade ahead. He reads into his relationship, interrogates his own ambitions, and questions the religious mores he’s been taught his whole life. He’d drill down on these ideas in greater and greater detail on future projects, but this early example set the stage for that future exploration. — AW
By 2015, when Ty Dolla Sign released his major-label debut Free TC, Kendrick’s propensity for utterly hijacking any and every song he ever guest-starred on was well-established. Here, though, it’s effectively weaponized, doing some valuable scene setting for the sweeping project ahead of it. You see, to truly understand the music of these proud LA natives, you have to know the city and how it informs their worldview – Kendrick’s verse lays it all out in a tidy 16 bars. — AW
All rappers are writers, but not every rapper is wordy. “Ignorance is Bliss” is wordy Kendrick at his finest. You can hear in the rapping a bar raiser pushing to prove himself. Lines like, “I’ll make an album that’ll put a smile on Malcolm, make Martin Luther tell God I’m the future for Heaven’s talent. No tarot card reading, I’m foreseeing you n****s vanish,” are recited with the confidence of a Sayian prince. The lionhearted lyricism supercharged the sparse Willie B-production to make a one-of-a-kind record that foreshadowed the talent and tenacity being groomed at TDE. — YP
“U” is intimate insecurities, unseen selfishness, and the burden of letting people down in song form. “U” is an internal scream, an emotional breakdown, what it would sound like if Kendrick put himself through judgment day. It’s somber, heavy, a weighted blanket of self-loathing on the verge of self-destruction. It’s also well-crafted, from the empty bottles clinking to the knocks from housekeeping, “U” puts you in the hotel room, right in front of the mirror with Kendrick, and tells you exactly what he sees: A failure. No other song like it. — AW
“Wesley Theory” could only be made by a village. A glance at the credits reveals all the necessary minds to put together a song that combines multiple layers of jazz, rap, and funk. It’s like a time machine back to the days of Funkadelic, to the age of Dr. Dre, when George Clinton was the source of exciting experimentation. Kendrick handles their influence like he’s writing his story in their ink, all to express the mentality of a rapper who must deal with the desires, distractions, and dilemmas that come with new success. A brilliant homage, an excellent intro, with a timeless message. — YP
“Institutionalized” uses Snoop Dogg as a co-narrator to show how the Compton state of mind isn’t exclusive to a neighborhood. Hearing two generations of L.A. rap genius share in this systematic reality would sound somber if it wasn’t so poetic. The two are excellent storytellers, using fame as the vehicle that brought Kendrick out of Los Angeles, but he wasn’t free from the mad city. Not when his old life is riding passenger in this new world. Giving a rapper’s testimony on what happens when oil and fire try to coexist. Will be in the best of Kendrick conversation for years to come. — YP
“Let somebody touch my momma, touch my sister, touch my woman / Touch my daddy, touch my niece, touch my nephew, touch my brother / You should chip a n****, then throw the blower in his lap.” Hard not to agree with that sentiment, for anybody from where Kendrick Lamar is from. And while that would be a solid enough place to end this track, Dot goes expansive, capping his diatribe with this: “It’s nasty when you set us up then roll the dice, then bet us up/ You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us / Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera / America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.” — AW
From the opening, mournful strains, with Ab-Soul crooning “the kids just ain’t alright,” this Section.80 stalwart is a tour de force of fiery, revolutionary rhetoric and harsh criticism of America’s broken social systems. RZA growling “California dungeons” in the midst of Kenny’s police siren impression on the hook is such a WTF moment that somehow works. — AW
Jacking beats is a part of hip-hop. The highest level of jacking is when a freestyle becomes a bigger song than the original. Part of what makes “Look Out For Detox” so exceptional is the beat comes from a Childish Gambino song. Kendrick takes the beat, places a snippet of Dr. Dre saying his name on the radio, and then blacks out, becoming a bulldozer hellbent on wrecking every second with another word until the point of suffocation. Of all his breathtaking performances, “Look Out For Detox” is one that you won’t forget. — YP
Rapsody’s Grammy-nominated 2017 album Laila’s Wisdom is an underrated gem of the past decade. And while Rap and Kenny’s previous collaboration “Complexion” from To Pimp A Butterfly was powerful, by the time they teamed up to record “Power,” both had benefited from the two years between. The latter record has a clarity of purpose and messaging that sets it in an echelon of its own among both their catalogs. — AW
“Wanna be Heard” opens with, “I used to wanna rap like Jay-Z.” To open with a confession is why Kendrick’s songs tend to age well. He tells the truth. His still-developing voice commented on life as he knew it with no shame in admitting the anxieties, the tough talks, the quiet preparation, and the people lost amid his attempt to be heard. To see the transformation his career has undergone since “Wanna Be Heard” makes it a marker of manifestation and will forever be worthwhile in understanding how Kendrick Lamar started like everyone else did: with a desire. One that he brought to fruition. — YP
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers did not duplicate the hit-filled tracklist that made DAMN. a blockbuster album, but Kendrick’s fifth studio album has “Rich Spirit,” a catchy earworm that fulfills the same slick talk swagger as “Element” and the potent perspective of “Humble,” but with a calmer demeanor. His voice captivates across the minimum production with water-walking grace. It’s unserious, but also serene and sincere, a spiritual stream of consciousness from the aloof Buddha who would never live his life on the computer. — YP
Nipsey Hussle’s 2018 album, Victory Lap, was the West Coast people’s champ’s official “debut,” but it was more of a coming-out party, as reflected by its title. So it’s fitting that he put one of his most successful peers on the track that best describes the project’s undergirding message. Hussle himself said of the track, “I think that record sums up the marathon and the idea of Victory Lap. I think that in three minutes, [I] hit every point that I want to represent musically and just as an artist.” So did Kendrick Lamar. — AW
The lead single from To Pimp A Butterfly confused fans more than anything but it probably shouldn’t have. Coming off the universally hailed Good Kid, the only thing for K. Dot to do was make a hard left turn. I also freely admit I love this song more than most, both for its deception, masking depressive thoughts with uptempo music, and for its affirmation, combatting those dark ruminations with a simple, forceful declaration that makes getting loose to the music an act of radical self-love. — AW
Although it didn’t make the album, if Good Kid, MAAD City is a movie, “Cartoon and Cereal” is an Oscar-worthy deleted scene. From the channel-surfing intro to Gunplay’s otherworldly guest verse, the famous Kendrick leak has all the working elements of a masterpiece. It’s long, six minutes of combusting percussion, a clever composition, and confrontational lyricism so chaotic it could soundtrack a playground coup d’etat. No song is a better mix of mayhem, madness, and childhood memories. — YP
A Roots sample, a Dash Snow excerpt, and four minutes of Kendrick spilling his soul made “The Heart Part 2” an omelet of high art. You can feel his determination to elevate with each passing second. The lyrics are lunged from his heart, ramping up as he grows more passionate. Once the flow becomes rapid fire, he hits a stride that sounds like he’s about to lift off the beat. This is what it sounds like when an artist is putting his 10,000 hours in, pushing their limits, and hoping if he uses the last breath in his body then someone will have to recognize the power behind these words. — YP
It’s rare that anyone ever raps two full circles around Pusha T and pops a wheelie, but that’s what Kendrick does on 2013’s My Name Is My Name. The ultra-dense verse recounts his experiences with Pusha’s favorite subject through his dad, while also metaphorically comparing himself to the potent product. The level of the writing here confirms Kendrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning powers. — AW
“These Walls” takes its time to unfold. A three-sided story that doesn’t rush but reels the listener in with images and innuendoes. The revelation doesn’t come until the fourth verse, which refers to the first verse, completing a full-circle depiction of a famous rapper abusing his influence, the power of sex in times of loneliness, and the messy domino effect that started with Kendrick’s friend being murdered on his first album. Despite the dimensions at play, “These Walls” is easy to get lost in, the hypnotic groove will melt into your skin before the message gets to your mind. Genius and deserving of the Grammy it won. — YP
Kendrick has a bone to pick in this single from To Pimp A Butterfly. Finally veering into the regionally typical G-funk sounds that he’d spent the early part of his career seemingly avoiding, he compares himself to one of the memorable characters from Alex Haley’s seminal novel Roots. Where that character meets a tragic fate due to his rebelliousness, Kendrick elevates his status to that of royalty, denouncing naysayers with one of the coldest disses ever. — AW
When historians remember the return of post-pandemic Kendrick Lamar, they will start with “The Heart Part 5.” As a song that speaks of culture, the way it cracked timelines and disrupted discourse was polarizing. The Marvin Gaye sample just feels like a proper canvas for four minutes of “perspective.” It’s groovy, a good-feeling sound to accompany a heavy-hearted Kendrick, sounding like he’s been watching the world enter its last days. Closing with a verse that channels Nipsey Hussle from beyond the grave is already chilling, but to see his face in the music video, for better or worst, is unforgettable. — YP
It’s telling that in Drake’s 2011 masterpiece Take Care, only one rapper doesn’t share a song with the nascent superstar. Kendrick gets his own interlude in which he again ponders how far he’s willing to go to chase his rap dreams, even as his career was hitting warp speed. The reticence he displays here has echoed throughout his actions and output ever since. — A.W.
“Rigamortis,” for early Kendrick fans, was a point of reference for why he had next. First came the million-dollar horn riff. Sounding Olympic. Like you’re about to witness a gold medalist make an appearance. Kendrick takes 14 seconds to start, announcing this attempt as his third take. Once he’s rapping the entire song comes to life. How the drums rise beneath his breathless flow giving the jazzy production a springiness that feels so energized, so lively, the rapping of a rapper who refused to be slept on. Classic. — YP
“Element” has the quintessential attitude of a rapper fed up. It’s a character that Kendrick played well throughout his third studio album, DAMN. He’s always been bold in asserting himself as an industry big dog, but “Element” makes it sexy. His posture is that of a risk-taking goliath, ready to lay hands and feet on any stone-throwing opposers. It’s all threats and theatrics over a body-rocking beat that, by the time he’s interloping Juvenile’s “Ha” flow, you feel “Element” is more than a banger, but a warning that the Compton rapper will step on you. — YP
“I got, I got, I got, I got” begins Kendrick’s royal bloodline declaration over the hardest-hitting Mike WiLL Made-It beat since “Move That Dope.” This is King Duckworth on his throne bragging that it’s in him, not on him. Each bar is rapped with an assertive vitality, building up to the electrifying second half that explodes like a field of detonating landmines. Although intense, the aggression has a swagger, an attitude, making “DNA” an anthem of stadium proportions. Big, boisterous, and one of his best. — YP
Most fans have probably long since given up on that rumored collaborative tape between Kendrick and J. Cole. Both men have come a long way since this Section.80 standout first teased the potential of their chemistry but its fiery Kendrick bars over Cole’s pulsating production makes the prospect of future collaborations as enticing as it is unlikely. — AW
Three verses of contemplation and conversation between Kendrick and a homeless man who proclaims himself as God is a concept only he would attempt with such fine attention to detail. “How Much A Dollar Cost” packs an album’s worth of consideration in four minutes. Each second shaped the story with words wisely chosen to show the conflict that comes with passing judgment on a stranger. The song feels like an anecdote from the old testament, a tall tale of how spiritual trials appear in many forms and that God will come to the rich in rags when humility must be taught. — YP
Admittedly, my fondness for this Section.80 song comes from some of my own experiences on Long Beach Boulevard – shout-out the Metro 60 – but it should be noted that it was one of the first rap songs to truly characterize its sex worker protagonist as a real person. “Keisha” is one the earliest examples of Kendrick’s ability to fully sketch human characters in his storytelling, making its tragic ending actually earn its tragedy. He would later revisit the story in “Sing About Me.” — AW
Where do you start to discuss a song that would shake the ground when it was played at parties, clubs, and concerts? ScHoolboy Q’s “Yawk! Yawk! Yawk! Yawk!” was a warcry for moshpits to start. Moshing to that first verse as if it wasn’t filled with 25 years of Compton trauma. Blame Kendrick for making tragedy sound triumphant. The MC Eiht-featured second half doesn’t get played at events and music festivals, but it’s a brilliant portrait of a place that sounds exactly like the song title. “M.A.A.D City,” a classic by every definition. — YP
Challenging and triumphant, the fifth and final single from Good Kid, MAAD City acts as something of an interlude in the conceptual project’s overarching narrative. Kendrick contemplates his place in the rap world, and facing the prospect of compromising his artistic vision to please other voices in the room, declares his intention to please himself before all. — AW
“Fear” is the heartbeat of DAMN. and a crown jewel of Kendrick’s storytelling prowess. There are no mistakes in execution, no faults in the connective tissue that weaves “Fear” throughout his entire catalog. Each verse illustrates his recollection of 7, 17, and 27, filled with shifts in tones, multiple perspectives, reversing vocals, and voicemails from cousin Carl. Each line articulates the torment that damned him. Making “Fear” a singular song that demonstrates how a worried child grew to be a paranoid adult deeply afraid of divine retribution. Dante’s Inferno in rap form. — YP
If you were on Twitter at the time of its release, you saw Kendrick receive the most substantial memeification of a single since “Hotline Bling.” Even without crowd participation, “Humble” would have been a hit. It has the trampoline bounce of a record bound to catch fire in close quarters and wide fields paired with infectious ad-libs, an obnoxious hook, and two verses so memorable you could recite them in your sleep. As his first solo record to reach No.1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, successfully breaking him to a wider audience, “Humble” marked the arrival of Kendrick Lamar the superstar. — YP
The great American novel in audio form, the standout, 12-minute, two-in-one track from Kendrick’s debut album is a masterclass in storytelling. That it’s such a poetic distillation of the album’s themes in the midst of the greater narrative that the album itself tells is a dizzying accomplishment. There’s nothing I can write here that will do the song justice; it just needs to be heard, experienced, lived, and it reveals itself to the listener like a scripture. — AW
If there is any song in Kendrick’s catalog that best sums up his incredible skill and dedication to the practice of writing raps, it’s this breathless recounting of a chance encounter between his father and his label head, decades before his rise to stardom. If you wanted to credit this song with DAMN. winning that Pulitzer Prize in 2017, you might not be too far off. — AW
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