With 2017’s Damn, Kendrick Lamar solidified himself as the best hip hop artist of this generation. His impeccable balance between commercial success and critical acclaim continues to be the reason for the rapper’s substantial cultural influence.
The Ringer’s Shea Serrano tweeted that Lamar hasn’t put out a bad song since 2010. For the most part, he’s right. The Compton rapper has seemingly been batting .1000 since the release of Section.80 in 2012.
With his marvelous technical abilities, thinking about what his ten best songs are is a challenge. But hey, it’s just one person’s view, so what the heck: Here are my ten favorite Kendrick Lamar tracks of all time.
10. “King Kunta”
This song happened to be one of the rare occasions on To Pimp a Butterfly where Lamar took a break from being a socially conscious superhero, and instead used his power to flex. When he spits, “I got a bone to pick” right off the bat, the listener knows he means business. The chorus (“Bitch where was you when I was walking/Now I run the whole world talking”) emphasizes his stature as not only an artist, but also a human being.
The funk-infused bass-line allows the song to fit in with any aesthetic, whether it be at a party, in the car, or in the studio. Even when Lamar seems to be lyrically taking a break from his usual themes about giving back to his hometown, the production stays bristling. He’s not necessarily moving away from his positive message on this song, but rather reminding people to give credit where credit is due. As a result, most people remember this song more than most on the rapper’s third official studio album.
To Pimp a Butterfly solidified Lamar as one of the greatest rappers ever, and “King Kunta” succeeds in exhibiting a talent that’s undoubtedly set to stay in the spotlight for years to come.
An underrated track in Lamar’s discography, “Lust” continues the ongoing theme of self-care, something that’s constantly addressed across Damn.
At face value, two verses are a routine portrait of a millennial’s every day life (“Wake up in the morning, thinking about money, kick your feet up/watch you a comedy, take a shit, roll some weed up”), but there’s something sinister about Lamar’s intentions, specifically within the chorus (“I need some water/Something came over me/Way too hot to simmer down/Might as well overheat”).
Regardless of the song’s meaning, Lamar still succeeds in showing listeners what it means to be someone who wants everything in life, whether it be the materialistic things, or something entirely different.
8. “Backseat Freestyle”
Lamar’s confidence skyrocketed to an all-time high on this song from 2013’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, “Backseat Freestyle” featured the Compton rapper at his most animated (“I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck the world for 72 hours”).
Yes, it’s vulgar, and yes, Lamar didn’t care. During the period before the album’s release, he was still relatively detached from the mainstream. Casual music listeners barely knew much about him outside of Section.80’s critical success. It wasn’t until Lamar brought that west coast feel to his second studio project that a wider audience started to take notice. “Backseat Freestyle’s” self-assured tone helped put Lamar in the forefront of hip hop. And he never looked back.
7. “Love” (feat. Zaccari)
Very few lyricists have made a love song as poignant as Lamar did on his Pulitzer Prize winning album, Damn. There’s something remarkably stunning about the crossbreed between an atmospheric trap beat, and Zaccari’s ambient chorus.
Not to mention, Lamar’s own verses bring about a side we rarely see from him. He’s happily married, so talking about love and all of its nuances hasn’t been his strong suit. However, on “Love,” Lamar captures a purer side to the phrase.
Rather than take the misogynistic route like some of his contemporaries, Lamar creates something worth playing for your significant other, whoever that may be.
6. “All the Stars”
Normally when a rapper takes part in the curation of some type of soundtrack for a major motion picture, the goal is to acquire a big check. The results of these projects are usually commercialized songs featuring the most basic production in all of hip hop (think Wiz Khlaifa or Ty Dolla Sign). Not to mention, corporate suits are usually the ones throwing random musicians together without fully understanding their strengths and weaknesses.
Lamar made this process much more enjoyable. By utilizing his Top Dawg Entertainment talent, the rapper was able to set new standards for movie soundtracks with the Black Panther album. The lead single, “All the Stars,” quickly became the newest hit for not only Lamar, but R&B sensation SZA as well.
The subtle electronic beat meshed well with SZA’s beautiful vocal melodies, evoking this feeling that undeniably fit the otherworldly aesthetic within the Black Panther universe. The track set this tremendous tone that radiates perfectly throughout the rest of the album. And it’s all because of Kendrick.
Lyrically, this is undoubtedly one of Lamar’s best tracks on Section.80. The jittery keys add stunning layers to an already dazzling song about social politics (“Visions of Martin Luther staring at me/Malcolm X put a hex on my future someone catch me”).
Lamar has always been a confident artist, but “HiiiPower” is one of the few times his youthful vulnerability comes out. The political turmoil described on the track acted as an indirect foreshadowing of the situation we’re in now as a country. Lamar expressed his greatest fears, evoking a rare emotion.
Out of all the socially conscious songs Kendrick has put out, this is the one that has most upset Conservatives. The track represents a rebellious artist who’s clearly had enough with our political turmoil. To him, jumping on a police cruiser while performing is one way to combat that.
Protests aside, the chorus on this To Pimp a Butterfly track is simple but unquestionably effective. With the help of the legendary Pharrell Williams, Lamar sends out a reassuring message to his folks back at home in Compton: Yes, we live in dark times, but by sticking together, we’ll find the light of day. “Alright” gives others hope.
3. “These Walls”
Four years after its release “These Walls” still doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Featuring Thundercat, as well as Bilal and Anna Wise, the steamy fifth track on TPAB, traces a berserk story about Lamar’s sexual tendencies.
Don’t let the funk-inspired bass-line fool you. The concept actually involves a girl cheating on her boyfriend (who happens to be in prison) for Kendrick. It’s one of the more memorable tales Lamar has told, which is why more people should give it a listen. Also, it’s catchy as hell.
People still butcher the concept of this song. Regardless, it’s been everywhere, specifically in one of the Grand Theft Auto video games. “A.D.H.D. is undoubtedly Lamar’s first official hit single, and a nontraditional one at that.
Who knew a track about the long-lasting effects of narcotics (specifically from the 80s) could resonate with so many. Lamar covers everything on Section 80, from the Ronald Reagan era to the political landscape at the time to the constant threats he faced growing up in Compton. However, on “A.D.H.D,” Kendrick combines every meaningful concept into one glorious track (“You know, when you part of Section.80/And you feel like no one can relate”).
Unlike most modern-day rappers that continuously glorify hard drug use, Lamar raps about narcotics mindfully, understanding the influence he has on young listeners, something he often does (look at “Swimming Pools”). There’s a dark side to this practice that Lamar references throughout the song, thus making the wisdom he offers that much more intriguing.
Honestly, this may be one of the greatest rap songs of this decade. Not only is “DNA” a magnificent entrance into Damn, but it’s monumental in its own right.
The first official track shows an urgency unlike anything listeners have heard before from Kendrick (fitting for the Trump era). No longer is Lamar reflective like was on TPAB. No longer is he waiting for people to make a change. He’s done sitting around. Instead, Lamar calls out the instigators (i.e. Geraldo Rivera), and forces them to take notice of the culture that so heavily influences our nation.
Politics aside, there’s still a large disconnect between generations, and Lamar wants to make sure that this won’t be the case in the near future. He’s not necessarily preaching on this track, just exposing the bullshit. Kendrick himself even admits to his failings (“I got dark/ I got evil/ that rot inside my DNA”).
There’s a myriad of other hot topics that Kendrick forcefully attacks on “DNA,” and all of them are worth your time. Kendrick has many strengths, and he was able to put them all together on this Mike Will-produced masterpiece.
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