The 20 best Kendrick Lamar songs of all time

Words: Dylan Murphy

Kung Fu Kenny is the greatest rapper alive, with an incredible catalogue of top tier records. Ahead of a rumoured 5th studio album, we ranked his best songs.

There’s an indescribable air of confidence when it comes to discussions of Kendrick Lamar’s next release. Between fans, a tacit expectation exists that not only will his forthcoming album be incredible, but it will inevitably feature a switch up of sorts.

Moreover, given the biographical approach in good kid m.A.A.d city, few expected the scope through which he would examine modern America in To Pimp A Butterfly. Sonically speaking, the gravitation towards a jazz-fusion and blues-inspired sound was a welcome evolution. The comparitively cinematic and speaker-blowing sound of DAMN was another compelling development in his artistic journey. Hell, in doing so he became the first hip hop artist to win the Pulitzer Award, breaking down more barriers for artists in the process.

With whispers that a sixth studio album was set to drop ahead of his headline slot at Glastonbury 2020 (that was inevitably cancelled – thanks COVID), Kung Fu Kenny stans have an insatiable hunger for new music from the king of Compton.

Most would agree that the TDE artist has three classics under his belt already and many would argue ‘Untitled Unmastered’ is an overlooked gem. When trying to decide on the best tracks the west-coast native has released there has to be some parameters to the discussion, without them the list could result in a never-ending spiral of challenges about unreleased loosies, Soundcloud leaks and hard-to-find mixtape cuts.

Therefore, for the purpose of this list, we are keeping it to Kendrick Lamar’s solo commercial releases. So sadly Cartoons & Cereal doesn’t make the list and neither does his Black Panther curated album. 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.

20.

Rigamortus

On ‘Section 80’s ‘Rigamortus’ it sounds like K Dot is straight-up having fun. It feels like 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.

19.

Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter

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 persist throughout the album.

18.

HiiiPOWER

Crazy to think this track is almost 10 years old. Featuring production from J. Cole, ‘HiiiPOWER‘ feels like the first glimpse of the conscious star that take over the hip hop game in the coming years.

17.

LOVE.

A lot of the music littered throughout Kendrick’s discography is intense. DNA sends heart rates through the roof and the ‘Sherane’ induces goosebumps – createing 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. Light a candle to this one.

16.

These Walls

Featuring sumptuous 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.

15.

Backseat Freestyle

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) this is where to direct them.

14.

untitled umastered 03 05.28.2013

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.

13.

Wesley’s Theory

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 is subsequent album experience.

12.

King Kunta

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.

11.

Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe

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.

10.

HUMBLE.

Kind of ironic that a track named ‘HUMBLE’ was brought Kendrick the crossover mainstream success.

With infectious and repetitive keys, a chantable hook and memeable quips like “My left stroke just went viral” it was inevitable really.

Simultaneously, while it was widely agreed at upon release that he is greatest living hip hop artist he managed to achieve mainstream success without the contemporary trappings of an omnipresenct social media presence. He did it his own way.

9.

Swimming Pools (Drank)

There’s something so sobering literally and figuratively about partying to ‘Swimming Pools’ then remembering 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
8.

ELEMENT.

Featuring the most cinematic visuals from DAMN. the video for ‘ELEMENT’ draws inspiration from photojournalist Gordon Parks. Directed by Jonas Lindstroem reimagining blackness throughout the scenes in the music video.

7.

Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

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.

One of Kendrick’s more imposing tracks, he brushes aside contemporaries and reasserts his position as the rap game’s alpha. You can’t listen and not shout “I don’t do it for the gram I do it for Comptonnnnn” in tandem either.

“I Don’t do it for the gram I do it for Comptonnnnn”

Kendrick Lamar – Element

6.

DUCKWORTH.

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
5.

Money Trees

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‘.

4.

The Art of Peer Pressure

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.

3.

The Blacker The Berry

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.

2.

m.A.A.d city

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.

1.

Alright

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:

Kendrick Lamar at the BET Awards