Kendrick Lamar's 20 Best Songs: Critic's Picks
Kendrick Lamar's transcendent lyricism has him holding the torch as the leader of the new generation in hip-hop. The TDE rapper's certified double-platinum fourth album DAMN. postured itself at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- solidifying the cathartic LP as his highest-ranked yet.
Still, K-Dot has been delivering more than Shakespearean conscious raps and Compton-based visuals. After notching five Grammys, including a sweep in the major rap categories, Lamar has his eyes set on delivering the hotly anticipated Black Panther: The Album on Friday and hitting the road with his Top Dawg comrades for their label-driven Championship Tour.
Until then, coast through some of the best Kendrick Lamar songs, as Billboard compiles 20 of his most outstanding tracks.
20. Maroon 5 feat. Kendrick Lamar - “Don’t Want to Know”
Maroon 5's breakup jingle "Don't Wanna Know" features an unusually remorseful Kung Fu Kenny. Many can relate to becoming their true love's afterthought, and Lamar questions, "Do he lay it down for you, touch your poona like this?/ Matter fact, never mind, we'll let the past be/ May be his right now, but your body's still me, whoa," to his old flame about her new beau. The upbeat repentance has amassed more than 500 million streams on Spotify alone.
19. Travis Scott feat. Kendrick Lamar - “Goosebumps”
Travis Scott's "Goosebumps" earned a Hot 100 position and a certified-platinum plaque. Its trippy visual consisted of vampy women, neon panoramas and hallucinogenic references. Lamar flexed, "(I can) buy the building, burn the building, take your bitch, rebuild the building just to f--- some more/ (I can) justify my love for you and touch the sky for God to stop, debating war." Following the tune's success, La Flame devotees buzzed viral claims of the pair incorporating hidden messages -- making for some rock star conspiracies.
18. Kendrick Lamar - “ELEMENT.”
Kendrick Lamar visually tipped his hat to the iconic photojournalist and musician Gordon Parks through the record "ELEMENT." The moving video for this song included elements of playful children, bloodied faces, affectionate women and beyond. With lyrics like "If I gotta slap a p---y-ass n---a, I'mma make it look sexy/ If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'mma make it look sexy," a groundbreaking connection was made between the record and filmed violence.
17. Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar - “Bad Blood”
Over 1 billion YouTube views were amassed thanks in part to Lamar's verses on Taylor Swift's double-crossing anthem "Bad Blood." Their futuristic assassin-plotted music video featured daredevil stunts and cameos from Selena Gomez, Cara Delevingne, Zendaya, Hayley Williams, Jessica Alba, Cindy Crawford and more. His lyrics -- "Remember when you tried to write me off?/ Remember when you thought I'd take a loss?/ Don't you remember? You thought that I would need ya" -- are a funky gut-punch to the rappers' detractors.
16. Sia feat. Kendrick Lamar - “The Greatest”
K-Dot's spoken-word iterations were riveting on Sia's empowerment anthem "The Greatest." His verse, which is speculated to refer to depression and suicidal ideations, became pain medicine for others. The vulnerable lyrics -- "I transform with pressure, I'm hands-on with effort/ I fell twice before, my bounce-back was special" -- pulled heartstrings, as bravery is necessary for anyone to ascend from a dark head space.
15. Kendrick Lamar - “The Recipe”
Not many artists can boast commercial introductions from legends. However, K-Dot's mainstream debut was as Dr. Dre's protégé with the hypnotic Compton collab "The Recipe." What many listeners failed to realize is Lamar had long been behind the scenes of the Beats by Dre headphones mogul. And his development toward hip-hop's upper echelon glared on the Californian hook "From all around the world for the women, weed and weather/ Got that women, weed and weather/ Don't it sound clever, come and play/ What more can I say? Welcome to L.A.!"
14. Kendrick Lamar - “Swimming Pool (Drank)”
"Swimming Pools (Drank)" connected the dots between the mainstream market and Lamar's expertise in reprogramming audiences' subconscious. What at first listen plays as an upbeat party number is craftily delving into the destructive social graces leading to alcoholism. The TDE savior's drunken narrative unfolded on screen as he symbolically splashed through liquor pools.
13. Kendrick Lamar feat. Drake - “Poetic Justice”
Twenty years after Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur's film Poetic Justice was released, Lamar re-created its magic alongside Drake. The rapper's gift of interweaving over-your-head punchlines with timeless samples was made no clearer than with this Janet Jackson "Anytime, Anyplace" fragment. Bars like "If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room/ Would you trust it?/ I mean, I write poems in these songs dedicated to you when/ You're in the mood for empathy, there's blood in my pen" made for one of Lamar's most charming gems. The single dominated airwaves, but the plot twist of its pictorial was ghastly.
12. Kendrick Lamar - “i”
An exploration of self-love became Lamar's out-of-the-ordinary West Coast portrayal "i." The song sampled "That Lady" by The Isley Brothers. Appearances from pioneers Ronald Isley and the Parliament-Funkadelic bandleader George Clinton proved to be iconic. Not to mention, Lamar almost collaborated with Prince on To Pimp a Butterfly, prior to the musician’s untimely death, in 2016. Subsequently, the revered LP received two Grammys for best rap performance and best rap song, at the 57th annual ceremony -- placing the artist's infectious joy at the acceptance podium.
11. A$AP Rocky feat. Kendrick Lamar, Drake and 2 Chainz - “F---ing Problem”
Despite this not being a Kendrick Lamar song, K.Dot is confident in his cameo, blowing his horn like never before on A$AP Rocky's triumphant "F---in' Problems." He, Lord Pretty Flacko, Drake and 2 Chainz hammered out debauchery on their certified double-platinum success. The ordinarily uplifting K-Dot sputtered, "Got your girl on my line, world on my line/ The irony, I f--- 'em at the same damn time." Its gripping rhythm was assisted by OVO's Noah "40" Shebib on production, incorporating Nelly's memorable "Flap Your Wings." Static Major also received posthumous sample credits for his work on the late Aaliyah's unreleased track "Quit Hatin'."
10. Kendrick Lamar - “King Kunta”
K-Dot presented the question everyone on the come-up ponders: folks who failed to support but now have their hands out. "Bitch, where was you when I was walkin'?" he blurts on the magnetic "King Kunta." The MC dances above the scaffolding of the Compton Fashion Center, while his 'hood celebrates below, in the organic Director X spectacle. And, taking his competitors' skill set into account, he brags, "I was gonna kill a couple rappers, but they did it to themselves/ Everybody's suicidal, they ain't even need my help." Yikes!
9. Kendrick Lamar - “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
"Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" served as a testament to K-Dot's not-so-subliminal frustration with mainstream success. The entertainer was vying to maintain creative control, and the video received a hilarious cameo from comedian Mike Epps. Still, the hit was penned with an assist from Lady Gaga in mind. That collaboration never came to fruition, as a result of the MC's then fast-approaching LP deadline. All was not lost: Lamar later earned a remix from JAY-Z.
8. Kendrick Lamar - “A.D.H.D.”
Ethereal soundscapes and singing raps pervaded over the drug-induced lullaby, "A.D.H.D." The chorus -- "Eight doobies to the face, f--- that/ Twelve bottles in the case, n---a, fuck that/ Two pills and a half-weight, n---a, f--- that/ Got a high tolerance when your age don't exist" -- highlighted millennial self-medication. Hip-hop tastemaker Vashtie directed the video, and lyrical acclaim burst forward following the independent release of the lyricist's first LP, Section.80.
7. Kendrick Lamar feat. Rihanna - “LOYALTY.”
The trustworthy verses on "LOYALTY." marked Lamar and Rihanna's first studio collaboration. The CEO of TDE (Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith) produced the single's classic samples from Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," and JAY-Z's "Get Your Mind Right Mami." Its radio-friendly chorus -- "It’s a secret society/ All we ask is trust/ All we got is us/ Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty" -- became virtually inescapable. More heroics followed the hit's adventurous video, as the duo earned a Grammy for the infectious tune.
6. Kendrick Lamar - “Backseat Freestyle”
The bombastic "Backseat Freestyle" took Kendrick Lamar's talents from Compton to Paris. The recurrent verse "All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower/ I pray my di-- get big as the Eiffel Tower/ So I can f--- the world for seventy-two hours" fueled an intense Parisian video scene. But its black-and-white pictorial highlights Hollywood's distractions too. A twerking seductress proved to be unsuccessful in her pursuit of removing the MC's focal point away from hip-hop.
5. Kendrick Lamar - “m.A.A.d city”
"Me an Angel on Angel Dust" offered fans an unpredicted refrain from Lamar. It was in correlation with his label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Acknowledging his hometown's opposing gangs, Pirus Bloods and Compton Crips, his thumping introduction of "m.A.A.d city" lyrically depicted Compton's often-lethal issues. The haunting beat samples two songs: "Growin' Up in the Hood" by Compton's Most Wanted and "A Bird in the Hand" by Ice Cube.
4. Kendrick Lamar - “Alright”
The Pharrell Williams-co-produced aria “Alright” is a hopeful moment of clarity for Lamar. Through divine wordplay, the MC is able to learn from his misadventures. And he purposed them as a guiding light toward his highest self. Well-aware of the unjust climate, K-Dot highlighted the unanswered pain people of color share. While the "Alright" video shined a light on unremitting police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, it also earned the MC four Grammy nominations -- two of which he won.
3. Kendrick Lamar - “LOVE.”
Kung Fu Kenny kicked some challenging questions toward his lady on “LOVE." "If I didn't ride blade on curb, would you still love me?/ If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?" Lamar questioned on the track. The Zacari-honeyed chorus offers insight into the rapper's life with his high school sweetheart-turned-fiancée, Whitney Alford. The fan-favorite song beautifully portrays a realist version of loyalty.
2. Kendrick Lamar - “DNA.”
The chaotic rhythm of Cortez Kenny's earworm, "DNA." was fashioned around the ink of his in-your-face bars. "I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA" is a personal declaration of benefits and burdens. Still, Lamar's storytelling is best illustrated onscreen. Alongside the actor Don Cheadle, the twosome pulsated the needle of a polygraph. Together, they rap on-camera and deepen the narrative of where the rapper's gift stems from.
1. Kendrick Lamar - “HUMBLE.”
The Top Dawg emcee hailing from Compton appears in a pope suit, prepared to preach the standout lyrics of “HUMBLE.,” his first-ever Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 record. The “HUMBLE.” video’s imagery captivated all. Between a Mike WiLL Made-It piano-based beat and guitar strings, Lamar rapped about the trend of social media magnifications. "I'm so f---in' sick and tired of the Photoshop/ Show me somethin' natural like afro on Richard Pryor/ Show me somethin' natural like ass with some stretch marks," he spits. And renowned directors Dave Meyers & the little homies portrayed just that.