Words: Dylan Murphy
After the release of his long-awaited fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, we’ve ranked the Compton rapper’s greatest songs.
Kendrick Lamar’s grip on the music game is air tight. When he’s in release mode, his name dominates headlines, his words are the subject of breakdown videos and stan twitter goes in to verbal ping pong matches to decisively crown him the greatest of all time. As demonstrated in the past couple of years, even when he’s completely silent, the merest rumour of new music has the Compton rapper’s name trending on Twitter. To put it plainly, he’s the most magnetic rapper of the last ten years.
In May of 2022, the pgLang co-founder put an end to five years of speculation by releasing his fifth studio album and final record on TDE Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. It followed the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., To Pimp A Butterfly, untitled unmastered, good kid, m.A.A.d city and Section.80. Having had some time to digest the record, we put our heads together to rank his greatest releases.
For the purpose of this list, we’re only including official solo commercial releases. So sadly, ‘Cartoons & Cereal’ doesn’t make the list and neither do any tracks from his curation of the Black Panther soundtrack. Features on other artists tracks are also not eligible – good news for Big Sean, who only recently recovered from getting bodied on his own track in 2012. With all that covered, let’s get into it.
Sampha is a cheat code for the world’s most anticipated albums – Drake, Solange, Alicia Keyes, Kanye West and now Kendrick. While he appears sparingly and hasn’t released a solo record of his own since 2017’s Process, his performance on ‘Father Time’ is a reminder that he’s trusted by the greatest living artists to complement their most emotionally vulnerable songs. The London singer’s tone provides a comforting texture for Kendrick’s confessional cut about his own “daddy issues”.
On ‘Section 80’s ‘Rigamortus’ it sounds like K Dot is straight-up having fun. There isn’t a moment to breathe between the horn loops, but Kenny hits the pocket every time on a beat that would sit nicely on an Outkast project.
‘Sherane’ is the sinister opening that GKMA deserves. The lo-fi rendition of the lord’s prayer followed by swirling synths and sinful bars tee up the conflict between hood pressures and Kendrick’s moral compass that persists like a hungry terrier throughout the record.
Crazy to think this track is over 10 years old. Featuring production from J. Cole and bars from Kendrick, ‘HiiiPOWER’ feels like the poetic precursor to two artists that would dominate the next decade.
There’s no doubt, ‘Auntie Diaries’ is one of Kendrick’s most polarising songs. On social media listeners have critiqued his use of the F word, deadnaming and misgendering of people in the tale. At best, it’s recalling the politically incorrect language of the school yard, at its worst it’s a clumsy attempt at showing solidarity. Either way, it’s hard to think of any other household name in hip hop that has used their words to so explicitly to try support for the trans community. Likewise, his gentle spoken word delivery has the power to disarm even the most militant opponents.
On DNA. Kendrick is literally and figuratively wrestling with the beat. Hitting back at critics and examining wider history before crowning himself, the Compton spitter has everyone in his path submit to his will and the beat switch is that dominant force becoming sentient.
A lot of the music littered throughout Kendrick’s discography is intense. ‘DNA‘ sends heart rates through the roof and the ‘Sherane’ induces goosebumps – creating an uncomfortable and foreboding atmosphere.
‘LOVE’ is on the other end of the spectrum – it’s a healing experience. Zacari’s soul-cleansing vocals and the measured delivery from Kendrick is therapeutic in nature. The kind of track you surrender to. Light a candle to this one.
Featuring production from Terrace Martin, the double meaning of ‘These Walls’ sees the Compton poet examine both the boundaries of his consciousness and the complicated relationship between sex, power and pain.
If you want an audible definition of attacking a beat then look at ‘Backseat Freestyle’.
The track is brimming with pure energy and charismatic quips that are amplified by crashing cowbells and thumping percussion. For any doubters of Kendrick’s ability as a pure spitter (I don’t think there are many) direct them here.
Smooth as butter, Kendrick first shared the track from the compilation album on the Colbert show alongside Thundercat and Terrace Martin. Sounds like it would fit perfectly on To Pimp A Butterfly.
You’ll struggle to find a better live jazz performance in the last 10 years.
One of the strongest opening tracks of the last decade, Kendrick tees up the themes of the album through a swirl of dirty Thundercat bass lines and otherworldly production from Flying Lotus. Bouncing between the perspective the exploited black artist and the exploiter (Uncle Sam -Capitalist America), the album’s immersive opening is the kind of track that gets better with time.
By the time everyone had digested To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick’s sermon on race in modern America, it was clear he’d unequivocally dropped back to back classic albums. It ensured he would be put on a pedestal and held to standards that no mere mortal could consistently attain, both musically and morally. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers responds to the position he finds himself in in no uncertain terms, telling listeners he “is not your savior” over a beat that goes from tap dancing and piano keys to swirling sounds and cries from Baby Keem.
In the most accessible track on TPAB, Kendrick seamlessly translates his funk inspirations into a supremely head-nodding cut that simultaneously maintains the restlessness that binds the album’s themes on race and exploitation together.
As an interesting aside, Lady Gaga was supposed to feature on ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’ but business logistics got in the way (It’s probably better off without that feature anyway).
Deliberate or not, the song came to soundtrack the smoke sessions of teens everywhere and simultaneously is the kind of anthem that will have everyone in the room knowing the words, regardless of location.
With anyone else, you’d assume it was a happy accident that a track named ‘HUMBLE’ would bring the kind of crossover success many dream of. With Kendrick it felt like a premeditated happy-slap to his opponents, reaching heights they could only dream of whilst he tells them to pipe down.
Literally and figuratively speaking, there’s something so sobering about partying to ‘Swimming Pools’ before the inevitable reminder that it’s about the perils of alcohol addiction.
Obviously, this was the approach Kendrick wanted to take and it certainly makes for a compelling and thought-provoking effort. There’s something weirdly immersive about the self-defeatist attitude throughout the cut that lends itself to becoming the sad banger you drink Henny to.
“What better way to make something universal than to speak about drinking? I’m coming from a household where you had to make a decision—you were either a casual drinker or you were a drunk. That’s what that record is really about, me experiencing that as a kid and making my own decisions.”Kendrick Lamar – Complex
A through line to much of K. Dot’s recent work is his disdain for posturing – more specifically, the social media kind. He really has a knack for one liners that bury their way into your brain and there’s few more memorable than “I don’t do it for the gram, I do it for Comptonnnnn”. Where others would sound preachy, Kendrick is able to command open ears and for an artist who has more money and influence than we can ever dream of he sure can make his problems sound relatable.
“I Don’t do it for the gram I do it for Comptonnnnn”Kendrick Lamar – Element
Where TPAB documents America’s institutionalised racism in broad strokes and GKMC presents a cinematic highlight reel from Kendrick’s upbringing, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers goes deeper than ever before. ‘Mother I Sober’, is without question Kendrick’s most revealing track to date, detailing sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma in a way that leaves no room for ambiguity. Combining the ghostly tones of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons with his own admirable courage makes for a track that leaves a deafening silence in his wake.
On a personal album ‘Sing about me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ is arguably the most introspective. Discussing the various modes of survival, Kendrick takes an observation stance on the life in Compton. Later providing his own perspective on a poetic cut.
Featuring three beat switches, a heavenly sample from a Yugoslavian pop group (thanks 9th Wonder) and Kenny straight spitting, ‘DUCKWORTH’ sees Kendrick in his element. Spinning vivid stories, he illustrates how the hood pressures push decisions on its inhabitants and if one tiny thing was different he could’ve been without his dad and his father in music.
“Top himself didn’t know I was going to do it or even execute it in that fashion, to be the last song or to be anywhere. Just making it make sense. I remember playing it for him, he flipped because further than the song, when you really can hear your life in words that is so true to you and that effected your life one hundred percent through one decision, it really makes you sit back and cherish the moment.”Kendrick Lamar on Beats1
‘Money Trees’ sees Kendrick tie a lot of the loose ends of the various stories strung throughout GKMC. In addition, he shows his suit as a master collaborator inviting Anna Wise to provide the perfect bridge whilst also tapping up label mate Jay Rock for a confident feature.
The most hypnotic cut on the album, it contains an inspired sample from Beach House’s ‘Silver Soul‘.
A masterclass in storytelling, Kendrick builds an immersive track with a number of vivid blocks. Primarily, the understated, cinematic instrumental creates a pensive, backseat atmosphere which is primed for him to reminisce on when he nearly caught ‘his first offence with the homies’.
Pausing his flow with an interruption in their planned robbery, it feels as though you are genuinely there in the moment.
Following the murder of a close friend, Kendrick created one of his most visceral tracks to date – ‘Blacker The Berry’.
If ‘Alright’ is a powerful unifier and a linking of arms whilst staring down the barrel of racism then ‘Blacker The Berry’ is screaming in the face of the oppressor after hundreds of years of pain.
‘m.A.A.d city’ highlights everything that makes Kendrick Lamar the best rapper alive.
GKMC is a patchwork quilt of the incidents that made him and Lamar has the ability to drop the listener right in the very spot they occur like a mannequin on google street view. On ‘m.A.A.d city’ he couples this ability with his trademark lyricism. Following the beats explosive introduction Kendrick recalls past trauma, seemingly jogging in line with the thumping drums without ever breaking a sweat. Hitting all the pockets with deliberate venom on the first half Kung Fu Kenny takes the listener on a traumatic trip down memory lane before showing some light at the end of the tunnel.
In essence, the brilliance of the track is its ability to make not only horrors of his hood feel tangible, but his escape route out.
One of the defining songs of the decade, that only grows more culturally ingrained with time, ‘Alright’ became the Black Lives Matter movement’s anthem of choice when fighting black oppression.
There are few more recognisable sounds in modern hip hop that the solitary chopped vocal samples that open the cut. Coupled with the emphatic hook, ‘Alright’ was the moment that Kendrick transcended music. Audibly tired at times on the track there’s a triumphant perseverance and trust in the bond of the human experience that pulls his words through to the end.
For a brief feeling of how seismic a song it is peep his powerful performance at the 2015 BET Awards: