The 10 Best Kendrick Lamar Songs
Some people are just born with something else. They’re placed here to do a specific thing, to play a role. And when you come into contact with them, you can tell. They have an electricity about them, a presence. You can be thousands of feet away from them in a festival field or arena and still feel a reverberation of greatness, something flowing through them to the rest of us. This is what makes not just the icons, but the legends. Very early on, it was obvious Kendrick Lamar was one of those artists, one you knew was giving us something important. One who would define the time he was living in.
At the same time, Kendrick didn’t arrive fully-formed — he didn’t even arrive as Kendrick. After cutting his teeth as the young rapper K. Dot over the course of several ’00s mixtapes, Lamar rebranded under his own name and proceeded to take the ’10s by storm. With Overly Dedicated and Section.80, he laid groundwork: Here was a virtuosic new talent, with furious and idiosyncratic rapping ability holding up a complex worldview.
You know what happened next. Kendrick released one instant classic album, then another, and then another. Each played into certain aspects of the existing rap landscape and otherwise completely confounded them or bent them to Lamar’s own vision. Each would eventually exist in a continuum and conversation, but also felt like singular works presenting versions of Kendrick Lamar we couldn’t have pictured appearing next. Each broadened and deepened who Lamar was as an artist and voice within these past 10 years. It wasn’t just a matter of him offering up some of the best music of his era, it was a matter of him becoming a luminary, a troubled conscience grappling with a country that soon saw the rot at its core almost consume it whole. There’s a reason we named him the artist of the decade.
And as a musician, Lamar left his mark in many ways beyond the dizzying output under his own name. For the purposes of this list, we’re focusing only on songs from Lamar’s own solo albums, but he also boasted a bunch of show-stopping performances on other people’s tracks. Early on, he and other rising artists made their names together: There was his scene-stealing appearance on A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” or the sideways lurch he and TDE compatriot Schoolboy Q conjured for “Collard Greens.” But Kendrick soon left that early ‘10s rap moment behind, blowing past the stylistic calling-cards of the era to keep transforming soon he was running wild over Pusha T and Kanye tracks, or teaming up with fellow visionaries like Danny Brown.
His ascension was rapid and stratospheric. At the time, it seemed like he was starting a war with his verse on Big Sean’s 2013 single “Control,” in which Lamar laid claim to just about every crown there was. It’s almost quaint in hindsight, to imagine that Kendrick had ignited a rap ecosystem power struggle with a verse on “Control,” a song almost forgotten in the wreckage he’s since left behind. Even the names who could reasonably be considered his peers couldn’t touch the reach, the way Lamar would offer challenging and adventurous music that would nevertheless become wildly popular. The last major project he was involved in was a soundtrack for Black Panther, a watershed moment. He was the one bringing together a musical accompaniment for a long-waited Black superhero. At this point, he was beyond one verse against someone else’s verse, or any particular trends in pop music. He’d become an arbiter of mythology, of heritage.
It would seem that, someday sooner than later, we’ll hear from Lamar again. One of these days he’s going to drop a new album out of nowhere, and we’ll see what new twists and turns his story will take. But for now, we already have a miraculous body of work to look back on, the stuff that makes you realize what a gift it is to be alive and watch an artist fiery and unpredictable in their prime, transcending themselves over and over.
"A.D.H.D." (from Section.80, 2011)
Around Section.80, Kendrick Lamar was announcing himself as a nascent voice, and for the time his music still interacted more closely with its immediate surroundings. “A.D.H.D.” remains the key track from that prologue, and it makes the idea that one of Kendrick’s early guest verse highlights was on an A$AP Rocky track less surprising; “A.D.H.D.” has the same kind of bleary, airy drug-rap sound that was just a bit warmer and more luxe than the more narcotized sounds that would take over pop in the ensuing decade. But as much as “A.D.H.D.” could partially dredge up memories of young, listless nights, Lamar was always complicating his stories, and one of his early anthems was already wrestling with patterns of trauma, addiction, self-destruction, and warning against falling prey to them.
"Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" (from good kid, m.A.A.d. city, 2012)
With good kid, m.A.A.d. city functioning as a sprawling coming-of-age story, Lamar split his time between infectious bangers, late-night meditations, and a handful of wounded epics to illustrate every side of his Compton upbringing. Along the way, he coined a lot of his early career’s classic lines and refrains. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” overshadows many of them. It’s also a strange piece of music. Built on a looped sample of a song called “Tiden Flyver,” by the Danish group Boom Clap Bachelors, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is both chill zone-out and mildly annoyed kiss-off, a floaty groove above which Kendrick gives us one of the most noteworthy hooks of ‘10s rap.
“Backseat Freestyle” (from good kid, m.A.A.d. city, 2012)
Soon, good kid, m.A.A.d. city would pass through much darker territory: the nocturnal drift of “Money Trees” and “The Art Of Peer Pressure,” the “A.D.H.D.” oblivion sequel “Swimming Pools,” the cycles of grief both cultural and personal permeating “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” But for a time, there was the shit-talking callback to teenage hangs and one of the album’s pure, joyous moments of allowing Lamar to tear up a unique beat. That beat came from Hit-Boy, then an ascendent name alongside Kendrick; between “Niggas In Paris” and “Clique” and “Backseat Freestyle,” he’s responsible for some of the defining, skewed-but-insistent production of that era. “Backseat Freestyle” was one of the hardest songs on good kid, but it also has a hypnotic quality to it, Lamar spinning an elastic flow around this odd clanging rhythm as he makes his way back into the past.
"FEAR." (from DAMN., 2017)
Much of DAMN. could be seen, initially, as a kind of coming-back-to-Earth after To Pimp A Butterfly: Lean, direct, engaging more directly with the current pop landscape. But at the same time, this is Kendrick, and he does it all in his own way. After the bangers and crossover tracks in the first two-thirds of the album, the final act explores a new set of sounds: the psychedelic glow of “LOVE.” and “GOD.” or the multi-part American apocalypse of “XXX.” with, of all things, a ghostly U2 sample. But then there was the album’s climactic moment, “FEAR.”
Every now and then, Lamar offers up a mini-epic, a song that patiently unwinds over six or seven or eight minutes. “FEAR.” feels like a spiritual successor to “Sing About Me,” the languid reflection on the past and how it shapes us now. (Bizarrely, they are both the kind of major statements that feel like penultimate tracks before each album’s epilogue of “Compton” or “DUCKWORTH.” and yet both sit two tracks before the end of their respective tracklists.) Small fears are magnified, larger fears are discussed matter-of-factly. Kendrick makes his way from his childhood, to worries of dying young as a teenager, to his life as a successful artist. The whole thing is a slow-burn blues, Kendrick’s anxieties curling like smoke tendrils. And as held back as that eventual “Fear” refrain and verse remain, it winds up becoming one of the most resounding final destinations in any of Kendrick’s songs.
"The Blacker The Berry" (from To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
Coming after good kid, To Pimp A Butterfly was a complicated, haunted left turn that marked Kendrick reckoning with his own status and the Black community, which in turn reverberated through wider issues of American history. It now stands as a career- and era-defining masterpiece, but at the time it was a dense album to parse, Lamar taking on a broad array of topics from a host of different perspectives. Perhaps no better song encapsulates the album’s identity than “The Blacker The Berry.”
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015/ Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean,” Kendrick raps, spitting the words out in a way that simultaneously feels like a challenge and like he’s disgusted as he voices them, trying to rid them from his throat. This is one of the mission statements of To Pimp A Butterfly, a mixture of rage, lashing out at oneself and the outside world with its institutionalized systems, and ultimately pride. Along the way, Lamar includes some controversial elements, with a thunderous final line murkily connecting police killings of innocent Black people and gang violence. But that’s what To Pimp A Butterfly did: This was not a work that always claimed to be right, but one that was tortured by questions. On “The Blacker The Berry,” Kendrick turned that into one of his most aggressive, darkest, and, in the end, most cathartic songs.
"DNA." (from DAMN., 2017)
There are ways in which you can see each of Kendrick’s classic albums as standalone, discrete works stylistically and tonally, and there are ways each respond to the past: To Pimp A Butterfly the frayed crisis after the breakthrough moment of good kid, DAMN. a moment in which Lamar used his stature to craft a bold, immediate album that took some closer looks at his origin story once more. Eschewing the cinematic scope of good kid, these were more like vignettes, zooming in on specific scenes and concepts, all of it culminating in one more piece of autobiographical mythologizing in “DUCKWORTH.”
Way before that, the album opens with the intro of “BLOOD.” before snapping into its overture and true opening salvo: “DNA.” While the themes therein are no less tangled and layered, DAMN. found Lamar digging in within more streamlined forms. In that sense, “DNA.” actually deals with some similar territory as “The Blacker The Berry,” with Kendrick sifting through all the things, good and bad, that made him who he is today. Flipping perspectives and self-interrogating once more, it echoes some of the tensions that ran through To Pimp A Butterfly but ends with a more defiant stance. The simple, mesmerizing video of Lamar and Don Cheadle’s face-off conveys some of the internal struggles, but the track featuring a bullshit fear-mongering news piece on “Alright” made “DNA.” a pointed introduction to DAMN.
“m.A.A.d. city (from good kid, m.A.A.d. city, 2012)
Sitting at the heart of good kid, m.A.A.d. city are two title tracks divided, two sides of a man at war with himself. They’re the pivot in the album’s story, from the teenage scenes of the first half to a world-weary resolution by the end. Along the way, there’s “good kid,” a deceptive glide of a track with a poppy hook from Kendrick by way of a chorus, yet shot through with melancholy. Here he’s the titular good kid, trying to escape the crime and violence around him but still subjected to police profiling and abuse. In a way, the song sonically and thematically feels of a piece with the conscious rap tradition that would soon play a larger role in Kendrick’s style.
Then there’s the flipside, the Mr. Hyde, the bleaker outcomes. There’s “m.A.A.d. city,” a throbbing, foreboding track that completely reorients your body every time you hear it. The song itself is actually another split, Kendrick strained and frantically recalling past traumas, the violence witnessed and the close calls. Then it turns again, Lamar and MC Eiht trading verses over a slashing string figure. Throughout, Lamar recalls the world around him as a kid, reflects on the routes not taken, and starts to become the guy who got out, the guy living with survivor’s guilt on To Pimp A Butterfly. All these years later, “m.A.A.d. city” remains one of the most visceral and haunting versions of Lamar’s origin story, both in how he’s depicted his own life and in how his music has evolved over these albums.
“Alright” (from To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
Wherever it sits amongst Kendrick’s best songs, “Alright” is undoubtedly his most important song. In all the different emotions of To Pimp A Butterfly, “Alright” is a moment of weathered, enduring hope in the face of constant struggle. One reason To Pimp A Butterfly was so galvanizing was the moment it arrived into. Thanks in part to social media, white America had just recently become more aware of an epidemic — or rather, they were no longer able to ignore the common violence against Black people across the country. Lamar spoke to that in “Alright,” but then he wound up speaking to a moment in history.
“We gon’ be alright.” That chorus outgrew “Alright,” it outgrew To Pimp A Butterfly, it outgrew Kendrick. Soon, it was harnessed, a gospel cry of grief and resolve at Black Lives Matter protests through the years since. “Alright” is hard to situate amongst other Kendrick songs for that very reason. “Alright” exists beyond its recording. Onstage, Kendrick turned it into an exorcism, letting the song explode into ever-so-slightly more jubilant promises that we would, in fact, be alright. But it has taken on its own life outside any of Kendrick’s own contexts in the studio or in concert, too, becoming woven in with a passage of American history that, hopefully, we will someday look back on as a transformative turn away from the ingrained sins of our past.
“King Kunta” (from To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
History collides constantly on To Pimp A Butterfly. In creating his document of the Black experience in so many of its permutations, Lamar turned to an intricate tapestry of Black art and Black history. References to Wesley Snipes, work with futurists like Flying Lotus and Thundercat, strains of different rap traditions and soul and jazz, an album-length conversation with Tupac — it’s all there. And “King Kunta” served as one of the album’s best distillations of everything Kendrick was trying to bring with him, everything he was calling on to help him make sense of the present.
In “King Kunta” alone there’s James Brown and Michael Jackson, Things Fall Apart and Invisible Man; its name turns the central character of Roots from slave to ruler. Its video, echoing the West Coast tropes of the past, plays as tribute to Lamar’s Compton origins and the community he still knew there, depicting him rapping from a throne in the middle of the neighborhood. There were a handful of coronations in Lamar’s history, but few hit as strongly as “King Kunta” did amidst the trials that weigh on To Pimp A Butterfly otherwise. And in the process, Kendrick made one of his most irresistible songs, an immortal funk groove and dexterous flow that have been impossible to shake in the five years since.
”HUMBLE.” (from DAMN., 2017)
Then again: There are coronations, and then there’s “HUMBLE.” Forget the portrait of Kendrick becoming himself on good kid, forget the “Control” verse, forget the auteurist turn of To Pimp A Butterfly. Everything Kendrick did by 2017 was going to get feverish attention, but he went for the jugular anyway. “HUMBLE.” dropped into the world two weeks before DAMN., and it immediately felt like a gauntlet had been thrown. Sit down, be humble, and bask in the glory of an artist at the peak of his powers, an icon having arrived, a kid who got out into the world and became a conqueror.
Part of the impact of “HUMBLE.” was its video. It essentially became one of the all-time greats upon arrival, with enough indelible images to fill something like five classic music videos otherwise. Lamar had long since perfected the visual language to accompany his music, but the “HUMBLE.” video was like one epic flex — golfing on top of the car, a Last Supper, Kendrick with his head on actual fire. This is what you get when a visionary also becomes a star, and they have the resources to go as big as possible. You get someone on a wavelength all their own.
Musically, too, “HUMBLE.” was a take-no-prisoners moment. Above Mike Will Made-It’s neck-breaking beat and guttural piano riff, Lamar flitted between memorable lines as nimbly as the video burned images into our minds. It perhaps at first suggested a forthcoming Kendrick album of him going in over classicist rap stylings, but instead foreshadowed an album where Kendrick would take a look at the mainstream and make it his own. There are many moments across his catalog you could identify as Kendrick’s finest — at least half the entries here could reasonably be argued to be just as powerful summaries of everything Kendrick can do. But with “HUMBLE.” Kendrick announced his true imperial phase. Who knows where he can go from here.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify: