Kendrick Lamar’s 20 Greatest Songs – Ranked! | Kendrick Lamar

20. Wesley’s Theory (2015)

A crash course in the expansive sound of To Pimp a Butterfly – Thundercat’s bass ricochets, George Clinton is there to reinforce the P-funk-like chorus – and its lyrical point of view. It starts out as the standard bling-drop, screwed-up rapper’s victory lap, but suddenly turns into a troubled dissertation on materialism as a form of control.

19. Poetic Justice (2012)

Lamar had a rocky relationship with Drake over the years – there are countless articles online separating their apparent lyrical references to each other – but it all came together on the Good Kid LP’s exceptional collaboration, MAAD City, filled with its fantastic Janet-Jackson sampling rhythm.

18. DNA (2017)

DNA is Lamar in virtuosic form: a firework display of his technical ability as a rapper, endlessly shifting from one perspective to another as he examines black identity. He apparently told producer, Mike Will Made It, to make the backing sound “like chaos”; he responded with a patchwork of electronic noise and samples of Fox News – and Rick James demanding drugs.

Watch the Cartoon and Cereal video.

17. Cartoon and Cereal (2013)

Dropped from Good Kid, MAAD City and later released as a single, Cartoon and Cereal’s dark, chunky Wu-Tang-goes-trap beat unlikely paired Lamar with Rick-Ross-affiliated swastika-tattooed rapper Gunplay. The frankness of the latter’s verse is a perfect complement to the rambling density of Lamar’s lyrics.

16. Rigamortis (2011)

From Lamar’s debut album, a swaggering early example of his skills. Rapping in a double-beat flow over a twitchy, sped-up jazz sample, he delivers a flood of boasts about his ability that are so relentless and inventive, even Nas – one of the artists on whom Rigamortis seems to claim Lamar supremacy – called him “the future”.

15. I (2014)

Apparently Lamar’s favorite track from To Pimp a Butterfly, on which he gradually shakes himself out of depression into a near state of euphoria, backed by accompaniment based on the Isley Brothers’ reliable source of joy That Lady. “What will you do?” he asks after detailing a litany of life’s horrors. “Raise your head and keep going.”

Lamar at the Grammys in 2018. Photography: Theo Wargo/WireImage

14. Element (2017)

It’s mandatory for rappers to announce they’re the best, but the difference with Lamar is that he does it in a way that suggests he just might score a point. Hence Element, a post-fame restatement of the claims made on Rigamortis. Call me on your track if you disagree, he suggests, but be warned: I’ll destroy you lyrically and, worse, “make it sexy.”

13. Duckworth (2017)

Lamar in narration mode, albeit a story based on real events: his father’s encounter in the ’80s with Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, then a gangster, but ultimately the boss of Lamar’s record label. It’s a complex, insightful and utterly captivating story, which revolves around “a decision that changed both of their lives”.

12. Pools (drunk) (2012)

A perfect example of Lamar’s ability to overthrow a hackneyed style. The chorus sounds like a nihilistic party anthem – “why do you only keep two or three strokes?” – his urgent rap involves peer pressure, throwing up and getting beaten up, an appearance of his conscience and an examination of the roots of alcoholism.

11. ADHD (2011)

A relative of Swimming Pools (Drank), this time targeting drugs. Empathetic rather than preachy, the verse where he recounts a conversation with a girl who’s taken too much of everything is brilliantly, richly painted, with the spongy beat – a sample of Odd Future offshoot The Jet Age of Tomorrow – the perfect complement.

10. MAAD City (2012)

Without wanting to gush, Lamar is so good at what he does that anything in this Top 10 could reasonably be at No. Compton, which turns into a completely different track halfway through and heads to a nightmarish climax.

Watch the video for Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.

9. Sing for me, I’m dying of thirst (2012)

Another Good Kid song, MAAD City in two parts – rapped from different angles, with different producers handling each section – it variously examines the responsibilities involved in using real people as material for songs, considers the value inheritances and depicts the consequences of a murder. . It is a dense and complicated material, made with apparent ease.

8. Blackest in the Bay (2015)

Many of To Pimp a Butterfly deal with repressed emotions. The Blacker the Berry is the jaw-dropping moment when they explode, the album’s P-funk-y sound shifting into something darker, the lyrics bubbling – “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people” – his rage directed inward and outward, the final verse providing a jaw-dropping twist.

7. Untitled 2 2014-06-23 (2016)

The star of the Untitled Unmastered collection of interstitial demos, Untitled 2 is on a track with, and on the same level as, To Pimp a Butterfly – free-blowing sax, vocals that rise from a prematurely aged quiver into something more strident, a lyric that dissects hip-hop’s obsession with materialism without exonerating itself from criticism.

Kendrick Lamar in 2014
In 2014. Photography: Polydor

6. Money Trees (2012)

On a dream clip from indie band Beach House, Lamar vividly discerns the dark motivations behind his ambitions. His verses are fantastic, the hook by Anna Wise – from fellow indie band Sonnymoon – is gorgeous, and Jay Rock’s cameo is the sound of a man grabbing an opportunity with both hands.

5. King Kunta (2015)

You might say King Kunta’s lines dismissing rappers who use ghostwriters – presumably aimed at longtime nemesis Drake – are a little rich coming from someone who’s worked with the ghostwriter employing Dr. Dre. , but who cares when the G-funk-inspired beat is so inspired and infectious and Lamar’s rhyming so deftly manipulated?

4. Humble (2017)

Lamar at his simplest. Humble has generated some controversy – the lines about the need for natural beauty deemed a bit masculine and critical of women – but the track is irresistible: an earworm piano hook, a rhythm that drives the song forward, the lyrics taking one check-me-out shot after another.

Kendrick Lamar performing in Los Angeles in 2013
On stage in Los Angeles in 2013. Photography: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

3. Bitch, don’t kill my vibe (2012)

At one point, Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe was hinted at as a collaboration with Lady Gaga. Listening to the finished product, it’s hard to see how it would have worked, not least because it’s perfect as it is, the horizontal, sun-stoned music at odds with the choppy lyrics about fame and hip hop status. .

2. Freestyle in the back (2012)

Good Kid’s finest track, MAAD City – its rhymes, according to its author, carrying the influence of Eminem – Backstreet Freestyle offers a picture of Lamar at 16 and as thorough a display of his lyrical talents today as you might wish, his voice constantly changing in speed and style.

Watch Alright’s video.

1. Alright (2015)

As we’ve already established, you can happily trade the order of this Top 10 to your liking, but Alright grabs the top spot not only because of its Pharrell-produced quality, but also its impact. There’s a theory that in the age of social media, music can no longer wield the kind of period power it once had – there are too many other distractions. You understand where this opinion is coming from, but the sight of Black Lives Matter protesters – first in Cleveland, then across the US – singing the chorus of Alright as a 21st century equivalent of We Shall Overcome is a strong rebuttal: music that defines an era for a moment that defines an era.


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Grace D. Erickson