The Best Kendrick Lamar Songs: 30 Rap Essentials

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Kendrick Lamar photo by Larry Busacca and Getty Images for Coachella
Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella

The best Kendrick Lamar songs have something for everybody. There are straight-ahead pop songs that stimulate the imagination, deeply rooted metaphors that take multiple close readings to untangle, and political songs diving into the history of Black oppression. Sure, there are more popular rappers, but it’s easy to argue that few are better, more well-rounded, or more talented on a bar-for-bar level.

With only a few solo albums under his belt, Kendrick has managed to turn the rap ecosystem into a food chain from which he eats. He is an indisputable king of rap, a future bust recipient on Mt. Rushmore. With that being said, it is nearly impossible to pick only 30 K.Dot songs to highlight his stunning discography. The Compton-born MC is more than an album artist; everything he touches turns to gold. Without further ado, here’s our best crack: The best 30 Kendrick Lamar songs (for now).

Click here to listen to Kendrick Lamar’s best songs on Spotify.

30. For Sale? (Interlude)

K.Dot is always willing to expound on the politics of the music industry, examining the good and evil that propels the game forward. On “For Sale? (Interlude),” he takes a look at the way rappers are forced to show off gold, cars, and women to prove their wealth, while refusing to succumb to these traditional standards.

29. Jay Rock – Vice City feat. Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul

On “Vice City,” Jay Rock recruits a few TDE mainstays to flesh out his sharp commentary on the role Black women play in society. Kendrick Lamar nails the chorus, showing the struggle between stacking paper and knowing the struggles spending money will cause. He spits, “I pray to a C-Note, my mama gave up hope/I can’t stand myself/I just bought a new coat, I might go broke/I can’t stand myself.”

28. The Blacker the Berry

With a message as powerful as the one within “The Blacker The Berry,” Kendrick Lamar knew he needed to assemble a crack staff. K.Dot recruited Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway, Thundercat, and Anna Wise to round out the instrumental, giving Kendrick plenty of space to spit profound ideas on the racial inequalities at the heart of America.

27. LUST.

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is a simpler affair than To Pimp A Butterfly. The songs are about simple things, the concepts are straightforward. “LUST.,” in particular is about routine, how quick and easy it is to disrupt these moments of habit in favor of things like lust and desire. Kendrick muses on the concept, eventually realizing that giving in to these cravings is simply a part of life, whether we like it or not.

26. Big Shot feat. Travis Scott

As if the Black Panther film wasn’t a big enough blockbuster, the soundtrack features Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott flexing their skills on “Big Shot.” In an interview with *Billboard*, Scott explained their relationship, saying, “I met him at the [MTV Video Music Awards] one year and he came up to me and was just like, “Yo, man, I fuck with your music. It’s super dope and inspirational.” I was like, whoa, this is the best rapper in the globe – he fucks with my music!” The rest is history.

25. HUMBLE

Kendrick Lamar wasn’t always sure “HUMBLE.” would be a hit, but his team convinced him otherwise. The song eventually became the lead single for DAMN., but the beat was made by Mike Will Made It for Gucci Mane. K.Dot got his ears on the beat, and after spitting over it, the duo decided to put it on Mike Will Made It’s debut album Ransom 2, but his team convinced Lamar to keep it for his upcoming album.

24. Hood Politics

On the song “Hood Politics,” from To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s shifts his voice into an upper register, giving himself the POV of a younger man, trying to get out of the hood and struggling with the lessons he would learn as an adult.

23. Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter

How do you start off one of the best hip-hop albums of all time? For Kendrick Lamar and his breakthrough g.o.o.d. k.i.d. m.A.A.d. city, he choose “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter,” a mesmerizing ode turned dire in only the way Kendrick knows how. What begins as a thrilling romance turns dangerous as the song ends with Kendrick driving to Sherane’s house, only to see her surrounded by two dudes in black hoodies.

22. Big Sean – Control feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica

Listening to Big Sean, Jay Electronica, and Kendrick Lamar going bar for bar on “Control” is a masterclass in rap songwriting. The seven-and-a-half-minute song is featured on Sean’s 2013 album, Hall of Fame. All three rappers bring their A-game, but Kendrick steals the show and causes controversy all at once, calling out a dozen or so rappers by name and telling them he wants to shred them all in the booth.

21. Rigamortus

Kendrick Lamar has so many hits, it can sometimes be overlooked that the Compton-born MC can quite simply rap his ass off. On “Rigamortus,” from his early West Coast classic, Section.80, Kendrick shows off that skill, comparing the rap game to a body in rigor mortis, with toxins escaping a body that’s left to rot and decompose.

20. Poetic Justice feat. Drake

On “Poetic Justice,” Kendrick Lamar and Scoop Deville sample Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” and flip it into a brand new experience. Deville shopped the beat around for a while, with a number of artists (such as 50 Cent) wanting to spit over it, but he eventually gave it to Lamar, who turned it into a monumental rap song.

19. ADHD

Kendrick Lamar often reflects on his hometown of Compton, California. On “ADHD” from Section.80, he relates the current over-medicating of young Americans with the high drug and medication tolerance of people born during the 1980s. It’s an early example of Kendrick as sociologist, examining the links in American history and how much of it comes from root causes of white supremacy.

18. XXX feat. U2

I certainly didn’t have Kendrick Lamar teaming up with U2 on my Bingo card, but the two teams made it work on DAMN. standout “XXX.” The song takes a close look at moral ambiguity, with Kendrick eventually coming to the thesis that anyone’s moral compass can be broken under the right circumstance. Bleak, but not wrong.

17. Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)

“Keisha’s Song,” taken from Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 album, Section.80, gave early fans a glimpse into just how talented he is. Kendrick recorded the song for his little sister, showing the weight and trauma prostitution can cause for women, though very explicitly refusing to demonize them, instead highlighting the societal inequalities that force so many women into this work.

16. All The Stars feat. SZA

Kendrick Lamar and SZA teamed up for an all-star collaboration from The Black Panther soundtrack, so it only makes sense they’d name the song “All The Stars.” The song, to put it mildly, was a hit. It was nominated for Best Original Song at the 76th Golden Globe Awards and the 91st Academy Awards, as well as receiving four nominations at the 61st Grammy Awards including Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

15. Compton

Hearing Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre go bar for bar over a Just Blaze is a rap fan’s dream. Luckily, on “Compton,” the album closer from good kid m.A.A.d. city, the duo let loose. As always, Kendrick impresses with a fancy couplet, spitting, “Fix your lenses forensics would’ve told you Kendrick had killed it/ Pretend it’s a massacre and the masses upon us/ And I mastered being the master at dodging your honor.”

14. Complexion (A Zulu Love) feat. Rapsody

Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” sheds light on the issues of colorism in popular culture, especially how they negatively affect standards of Black beauty. In an oral history of the album, Kendrick explained the inspiration behind the song, saying, “The idea was to make a record that reflected all complexions of Black women. There’s a separation between the light and the dark skin because it’s just in our nature to do so, but we’re all Black. This concept came from South Africa and I saw all these different colors speaking a beautiful language.”

13. Institutionalized feat. Bilal, Anna Wise & Snoop Dogg

On To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar follows up the triumphant “King Kunta” with “Institutionalized.” The former track finds Kendrick on a high, celebrating his ascent to rap’s upper echelon. On “Institutionalized,” he recruits Bilal, Anna Wise, and Snoop Dogg to paint a different picture, one in which he realizes the cold realities of g.o.o.d. k.i.d. m.A.A.d. city remain, no matter how fast he runs.

12. DUCKWORTH

Kendrick Lamar’s “DUCKWORTH,” taken from 2017’s DAMN., finds Lamar in his storytelling bag. This time around, he spits about former gangbanger, Anthony Tiffith, who would go on to start Top Dawg Entertainment, and his father, who went by the name Ducky. Kendrick looks at their relationship before K.Dot signed to the label, creating a warm, full-circle moment for the MC.

11. How Much a Dollar Cost feat. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley

You can listen to “How Much a Dollar Cost” from To Pimp A Butterfly, and be amazed by Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling, his ability to weave metaphors about poverty, selfishness, and the role of God, but perhaps the only convincing you need of its brilliance is that President Barack Obama named the track his favorite of 2015.

10. Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)

It’s poetic that Kendrick Lamar situates “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)” in Compton, the same neighborhood crippled by Reagan’s draconian war on crime. But on the catchy Section.80 cut, Kendrick sounds defiant, singing, “We’re far from good, not good from far/ 90 miles per hour down Compton Boulevard/ With the top down, screamin’, “We don’t give a f—k”/ Drink my 40 ounce of freedom while I roll my blunt.”

9. Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.

Shortly after releasing To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar quickly returned with a thrilling and mysterious project titled untitled unmastered. “Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.” is a standout, sounding like many of the tracks from Butterfly. The song examines Kendrick’s duality as both a Compton resident and a global superstar.

8. LOYALTY. feat. Rihanna

“LOYALTY.” is Kendrick Lamar’s attempt at a radio hit, but his inability to dumb it down gives it satisfaction on critical, intellectual levels, too. Of course, Rihanna turns in an absolute gem of a hook, but Kendrick uses that starting point to explore his psyche over a beat that’s a funk-pop-hop gem.

7. Money Trees

Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” has tons of memorable lines, but are any better than, “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah/Pick your poison tell me what you do/ Everybody gon’ respect the shooter/ But the one in front of the gun lives forever.” It’s just four bars, but it does a perfect job of conveying the themes of the song, in which Kendrick has returned from his encounter with Sherane and her two friends, deciding the best course of action.

6. Backseat Freestyle

We all know Kendrick Lamar can rap, but holy shit does he prove his outsized talent on “Backseat Freestyle” from good kid m.A.A.d city. Though graphic, Kendrick blends his sheer brilliance and hilarious one-liners, rapping, “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower/ I pray my d–k get big as the Eiffel Tower/ So I can f–k the world for 72 hours.”

5. Wesley’s Theory feat. George Clinton and Thundercat

Kendrick Lamar begins To Pimp A Butterfly with the utterly intoxicating “Wesley’s Theory,” which features George Clinton and Thundercat. On the track, Kendrick establishes the themes of the record, particularly white supremacy in America controlling Black artists for profit.

4. Swimming Pools (Drank)

For Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is sort of where it all began. It was the first single from good kid, and introduced him to a much wider audience. It’s an intoxicating hit, which finds Kendrick struggling to deal with the social pressures affiliated with drinking.

3. Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe

“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” is obviously an instant classic, but it didn’t always begin that way. Originally, the chorus was supposed to feature Lady Gaga’s vocals, but scheduling conflicts prevented the collaboration from happening. The song is a staple in Kendrick Lamar’s discography, but it’s hard not to wonder what could have been had the two linked up after all.

2. Alright

Few things are better than Kendrick Lamar letting his fans know that despite everything else, things may end up working out. The song eventually became associated with Black Lives Matter after several youth-led protests were heard chanting the chorus, showing the unflinching power of Kendrick’s vision.

1. Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

“Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” is to put it mildly, an epic. Planted towards the end of good kid m.A.A.d. city, the two-part track clocks in at 12 minutes and is widely cited among Kendrick devotees as his best pure lyrical performance. While that ranking is up for debate, it is certainly one of his most outstanding performances, which is saying a lot.

Think we missed one of Kendrick Lamar’s best songs? Let us know in the comments below.

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