Hip-hop, much like America itself, is rarely a meritocracy. More often than not, the artist who combines a lithe, unpredictable delivery with clever writing and the consciousness-expanding ethos of KRS-One and Rakim is not the same artist who goes platinum. They’re not the same artist who headlines Coachella and possesses the cross-generational reach to be bumped by middle-aged law professors (for instance, Barack Obama). And yet in 2017 it is indisputable that Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive — and also the biggest.
Kendrick is a student of history without being beholden to it. His musical DNA contains within it the LA beat scene, West Coast lyrical miracle types such as Ras Kass and Freestyle Fellowship, the G-Funk of Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, jazz, funk, soul and rock and roll. Unlike many, his music does not reflect pop but instead projects it — simply by dint of his stature, whatever type of music he happens to be making at the time becomes the style du jour.
His album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” revived the notion of the rap record as storytelling device; his follow-up “To Pimp a Butterfly” flooded the pop culture sphere with radical blackness. “DAMN.,” Kendrick's latest effort, might be his best yet. In many ways it’s a synthesis of his previous work, amplifying his dedication to artistic boldness in a way that furthers his dominance over hip-hop at large. To celebrate the eternal domination of Kung Fu Kenny, take a stroll through the best songs from Kendrick's past and present.
24. "Poetic Justice" (feat. Drake)
Before Kendrick started indulging in idle potshots at America’s favorite Canadian rapper (with a wink on "King Kunta"; with jarring directness on "Control"), Drake offered Kendrick a guest verse for this "good kid, m.A.A.d." city alley-oop of a Janet Jackson-sampling slow jam.
23. "Vice City" (Jay Rock feat. Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul)
This Cardo-produced Black Hippy posse cut is the aural equivalent of a Dali painting. Kendrick sets the tone, letting his vocals nearly melt into the disorienting instrumental. The rest of Black Hippy follows suit, making for one of the trippiest displays of lyrical acumen this side of "Beat Bop."
Self-love is important, and sometimes reminding people to love themselves is important too. That’s the rationale behind Kendrick’s feel-good single "i," which too many dismissed as Kendrick trying to craft a pop smash in the vein of Pharrell’s "Happy." But where "Happy" was all smiles and gigantic hat memes, the whirring psychedelia and kinetic vocals of "i" give the track a distinct edge. It’s less a message of sunny optimism and more an acknowledgment that yes, the world is hell, but you can make a bad situation a little better by being OK with who you are.
21. "King Kunta"
Another single off "To Pimp a Butterfly," "King Kunta" is all pastiche — a bit of James Brown’s "The Payback" here, a LOT of DJ Quik’s beat for Mausberg's "Get Nekkid" there, the "yams" metaphor from Ralph Ellison’s novel "Invisible Man" used for framing and a fuzzy guitar solo that would have made P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel proud. But it’s brilliant pastiche, a commitment to self-determination in realness in a world marred by the untrue.
20. "The Heart Part 4"
The latest entry in Kendrick’s multi-part “The Heart” series found Kendrick laying waste to the fakers and fools who populate the hip-hop industry. “Don’t tell a lie on me, I won’t tell the truth ‘bout you,” he chants on the hook, laying waste to culture vultures and Donald Trump, and putting every rapper who ever doubted him on notice.
19. "Live Again" (Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar and CurT@!n$)
Though "Live Again" showed up on Schoolboy Q’s "SetBacks," it’s more of a Kendrick track than anything else. That’s Kendrick on the hook and his leadoff verse sets the ominous, world-weary tone. "George Bush got some nerve, fuck a war, we’re trying to serve," he raps with unsmiling determination, positioning himself at the nexus of street savvy and political urgency. Meanwhile, he offers a sly tease with the line, "Lord forbid, for the good kid, they took his life," foreshadowing "good kid, m.A.A.d. city," Kendrick’s landmark hip-hop Bildungsroman waiting just around the corner.
18. "untitled 01 | 08.19.2014"
Ironically, Kendrick's B-sides collection "untitled unmastered," which he released on a whim earlier this year, is actually one of his most cohesive works to date. Kendrick’s always had a kinship with jazz, but on "untitled unmastered" he uses his voice for flights of impromptu rap prowess. On the record’s breakneck opener, Kendrick renders catastrophes like global warming, 9/11 and Flight 370 as signs of the end times.
17. "Money Trees"
DJ Dahi flips Beach House’s makeout-playlist staple "Silver Soul" into a slow-motion soundscape for Kendrick to rap about riding around Los Angeles with his homies, listening to E-40 and swapping freaky tales before settling upon a prospective lick in a fancy neighborhood. It’s a track about the powerful pull of money, exemplified by Kendrick’s story and hammered home by Jay Rock’s blunt-force closing verse.
16. "Never Catch Me" (Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus are a match made in heaven, as FlyLo’s frenetic, free-associative instrumental spurs Kendrick to drop some of his most abstract and metaphysically minded verses. According to an interview FlyLo gave to "Rolling Stone," Kendrick recorded the track at the influential LA producer’s house and later was so tickled with the results that he asked to keep the track for himself.
In Kendrick’s 2011 breakout "A.D.H.D.," the young rapper weaves a tapestry of romance and woe whose conceptual wizardry is reminiscent of something Phillip K. Dick might have dreamt up if he’d been a straight-edge millennial rapper. Boy meets girl at party, boy goes back to girl’s apartment, girl shuts boy down. It’s Kendrick’s rolling, multisyllabic pyrotechnics that carry the day, hammering home the witty, unpredictable talent and natural game hidden within the rapper’s shy persona.
No matter how big Kendrick Lamar gets, he’ll always be a product of the underground, as proven by "DAMN.’s" closing track “DUCKWORTH.” The beat is provided by 9th Wonder, who cut his teeth as a member of North Carolina true-schoolers Little Brother. Here, he shuffles blunted samples around for Kendrick to wax poetic over. The track tells the story of a young man inspired by hard times to rob a KFC, only to have second thoughts at the last second because the guy behind the counter was too nice to go through with it. “Life is one funny motherfucker,” Kendrick raps — turns out the would-be robber eventually went on to to head Kendrick's label and the KFC clerk, well, he was Kendrick’s Dad.
13. "Swimming Pools (Drank)"
It’s a ballsy move to make your first major single a party song about how drinking will ruin your life, yet that’s exactly what Kendrick Lamar did in the lead-up to "good kid, m.A.A.d. city." The track’s hook and T-Minus-produced instrumental were both so undeniably massive that they obscured the 18th Amendment-rehashing verses. The fact that the song was a hit at all is subversive in its own way, Kendrick infiltrating the machine in order to dismantle it from the inside.
12. "untitled 05 | 09.21.2014" (feat. Jay Rock)
Kendrick Lamar is such an effective voice within hip-hop because he’s too thoughtful to preach or posit easy answers. Instead, he simply offers perspective. On this "untitled unmastered" track, Kendrick raps as the id and ego of a man who nearly commits a murder; his Black Hippy compatriot Jay Rock joins him for the final verse in which they offer perspective on institution-bred hopeless. In the hands of a lesser artist things could turn messy fast, but Kendrick inhabits these personas the same way a stage actor might, projecting his full-bodied fury as a quiet storm led by Thundercat’s bass rages around him.
Tucked into the tail end of his 2011 album "Section.80," "Rigamortis" was one of Kendrick's first flashes of brilliance. The beat is little more than a horn loop and some drums, but it’s more than enough to give him the backdrop he needs to rev himself up to spit syllables at a blistering pace. Unlike too many showcases of technical skill, "Rigamortis" is genuinely fun. Kendrick’s voice sparkles with an enthusiasm that’s infectious.
10. "How Much a Dollar Cost"
This "To Pimp a Butterfly" track has developed a certain mythology around it and for good reason. It’s the moment on Kendrick's acclaimed album in which he literally meets God, after all, and President Obama declared the song his favorite of 2015. Then there was the identity of its anonymous producer LoveDragon — it was rumored to have been Kendrick’s backing band, an alter ego of TDE head honcho Top Dawg, or even a legend in disguise like D’Angelo or Dr. Dre. LoveDragon turned out to be a duo comprised of LA hip-hop stalwarts Terrace Martin and Josef Leimberg, which is less enticing than the idea of a secret Dr. Dre beat but makes the results no less thrilling.
9. "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe"
Undoubtedly the most thoughtful song ever to contain the word "bitch" in its title, this "good kid" track is both an ode to solitude as well as an indictment of the hip-hop industrial complex. The violins on the lush, Sounwave-produced instrumental recall the distinct sound of Kanye West’s "Jesus Walks," whose sinner-saint dichotomy helped create the template for Kendrick’s nuanced world view.
8. "Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst"
The narrative centerpiece of "good kid, m.A.A.d. city" is by far the record’s most ambitious moment, with Kendrick's narrative voice jumping from the perspective of one Comptonite to another, relaying their stories with both journalistic objectivity and humanizing compassion.
On every Kendrick Lamar album there’s at least one track meant to remind the world that Kendrick Lamar can rap anybody under the table over any beat. On "DAMN.," that responsibility fell to “HUMBLE,” which was essentially Kendrick saying to the world, “No, THIS is how you rap over a Mike Will Made-It beat.” The producer takes his signature piano plinks down an octave or two as Kendrick more or less disassembles the beat in front of our very ears, proving that anything you can do he can do better (and that when he’s rapping, you need to sit down and/or be humble).
6. "The Blacker the Berry"
Most of the time, Kendrick tones down his revolutionary rhetoric in service of whatever track he’s working on, often manifesting subliminally within his careful character studies of those society has left behind. He cranks his righteous sense of rebellion to 11 on "The Blacker the Berry," which serves as a vital moment on "To Pimp a Butterfly." The album critiques the system through deconstructing hip-hop’s conventions and refusing to play by the genre’s rules, but "The Blacker the Berry" is the moment when Kendrick launches into an all-out mutiny against the system.
5. "Cartoon & Cereal (feat. Gunplay)"
There’s little else out there like this loosie, which was released in the build-up to "good kid, m.A.A.d city." It begins with stuttering, pitched-up abstractions until guest rapper Gunplay gate-crashes the art-rap party, lurching and swelling for nearly seven minutes. Kendrick’s holistic approach helps the deceptively thoughtful but often over-rowdy Gunplay focus his mania, creating an unlikely pairing that goes together like cartoons and … oh, you know the rest.
4. "Backseat Freestyle"
It seemed that from the very moment Kendrick stepped onto the scene, he was hailed as an important new voice within the real of hip-hop, an artist who possessed both the virtuosity and sheer vision it takes to move the genre forward. "But," asked the (unwashed, basement-dwelling) masses, "Does he have bangers?" Enter "Backseat Freestyle," a song so massive that it sonically steamrolls everything that comes between it and your ears.
Over little more than a thundering bassline and a sparse guitar loop, Kendrick Lamar revels in the multiplicities his work presents — going from rags to riches; hanging with gang-bangers to winning Grammys. The track’s music video, which finds Don Cheadle mimicking Kendrick's distinctive movements in front of the rapper’s face, is perhaps his best.
2. "Control" (Big Sean feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica")
Like Kendrick’s West Coast O.G. E-40 once said, sometimes your greatest weapon can be the element of surprise. And what more unlikely a vehicle for announcing your hostile takeover of the rap game than a guest verse on a Big Sean song? That’s exactly what happened in 2013 when Kendrick hijacked Big Sean’s "Control" to diss damn near the entirety of hip-hop by name, including Sean and Jay Electronica, the song’s other guest. Kendrick’s verse was both a mage-level troll and a showboating lyrical exercise, an open challenge to any and all comers to best him, delivered with a confidence that indicated Kendrick already knew nobody was going to come close.
"Alright" is truly an anthem for our times: A forceful, confident and determined protest song for those whose problems are so vast that it’s almost impossible to enumerate them. Its chant of "We gon’ be alright" became the de facto slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement and its beat, featuring production from Pharrell and Sounwave, along with sax from Terrace Martin, felt like a path toward a new day.