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The 50 Greatest Kendrick Lamar Songs

Kendrick is the most important and groundbreaking rapper of the last 15 years — a Pulitzer winner who raises the bar with each new banger. Here are the finest moments in a career that’s been pretty much nothing but high points

Photographs in Photo Illustration by Amy Harris/Invision/AP; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

Kendrick Lamar’s discography has a subtle kind of depth. His catalog is full of gems you either missed or were never aware of. Maybe you forgot about his brilliant 2016 project, untitled unmastered, or his standout run of mixtapes released in the years preceding his mainstream breakthrough. And when it comes to the hits, he has a way of outdoing himself so thoroughly that each banger replaces the last in our collective psyche. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is one of the greatest songs of the past decade, and it exists on the same album (2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city) that has “Backseat Freestyle,” which is, somehow, even better. His instantly iconic LPs To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. are similarly stocked with classics. 

Now, with his final Top Dawg Entertainment album on the way and his Super Bowl appearance with Dr. Dre. and Snoop Dogg booked for next year, we thought it would be the perfect time to look back on how far he’s come. So we’ve compiled a list of his 50 greatest songs, from monster hits like “Humble” to anthems like “Alright,” to must-hear deep cuts. Ranking the list wasn’t easy — with an artist like Kendrick, who’s spent his entire career going from high point to high point, it’s nearly impossible. But at least we can say we tried. 

From Rolling Stone US

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“FEEL.” (2017)

Over O.C. Smith’s much-sampled song “Stormy,” Lamar raps, “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me,” on the fifth song on DAMN. It’s a list of all the issues that are on his mind; Kendrick sounds ferocious as he alienates himself from the rest of the world, including his family and friends. —J.B.

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“Element” (2017)

“I’m willin’ to die for this shit,” Lamar screams on this competitive rap track from DAMN. First introduced by LeBron James on Instagram, the song riffs on Kendrick being the best in the rap game, his daddy’s jail money, and his fights in front of his mother. Produced by James Blake, this track planted K.Dot’s flag as the best rapper alive, without a doubt. —J.B.

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“Untitled 07 | 2014-2016” (2017)

Kendrick is in a universe entirely on his own when it comes to vocal agility. Across his verses, there’s a dynamic cadence that refuses stagnation, floating between pitches and tempos with unimaginable ease. On “Untitled 07” he’s elastic and fluid stretching lines like “life won’t get you high,” like they were Play-Dough. His voice draws out, long and expansive, before he quickly collects the slack, twisting another lyrical knot. The track closes on a softer, almost jazz-like sensibility. It’s almost unfair how good he is.  J.I.

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“m.A.A.d City,” feat. MC Eiht (2012)

Paranoia, filtered down into a long hit of something strong. A horror show, live from the back seat. It’s the continued building of Kendrick Lamar as witness and participant, secrets kept tight until the silence is so loud. Connect that with MC Eiht, and two generations link up for more of the same: casualties of capitalism and state intervention, leaving working folks riddled with bullets and needles. Chaos is the constant; everyone else varies within it. —M.P.

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“King Kunta” (2015)

Made with L.A. legend DJ Quik, “King Kunta” is Kendrick Lamar’s effective stab at G-funk, a sound he has largely bypassed since early collaborations with the likes of the Game. It’s a raucous, hard-funkin’ party track that finds the newly crowned GOAT declaring supremacy. “Bitch, where was you when I was walking?/Now I run the game, got the whole world talking,” he brags. —M.R.

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“Cartoon & Cereal,” feat. Gunplay (2013)

As on “Money Trees,” Kendrick builds tight constraints around his verses on “Cartoon & Cereal,” confining each to a careful meter and controlled momentum to set up a showstopping climax by a guest star. This time it comes from Gunplay, the uncontrollable Florida rapper whose outburst is pure, furious catharsis. THC’s beat is perhaps the most innovative Kendrick has ever rapped on, through, deep inside of. —P.T.

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“Loyalty,” feat. Rihanna (2017)

Despite his greatest gift being his ability to craft delicately intricate maps of his inner self, Lamar Kendrick isn’t necessarily a didactic or “conscious” rapper. He’s too dynamic to be pinned down by an easy categorization. He’s also just too damned good at making straightforward pop hits. Take “Loyalty”: The Rihanna-assisted track on 2017’s DAMN. has all of the ingredients of a bonafide hit, and Kendrick takes it into a new realm with his inventively acrobatic cadence. Naturally, the lyrical depth is there, but Kendrick is as good as any rapper at having a good time, too. —J.I.

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“Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014” (2016)

“I’m sick and tired of being tired,” Kendrick croons at the start of “Untitled 02,” before imploring in the song’s otherworldly refrain for someone to “get God on the phone.” There is indeed something mystic underpinning much of Kendrick’s output. You get the feeling that these are songs intended to access something beyond, or at least something deeper. Here, he might as well be a prophet. The layered texture of his vocals lands like hearing someone imbued with a spirit. For what it’s worth, Kendrick seems right at home. —J.I.

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“The Blacker the Berry” (2015)

“I’m African American, I’m African, Black as the moon,” raps Lamar in a frenzied, sharp flow. With a roaring chorus from dancehall artist Assassin and a thumping jazz-funk rhythm led by Terrace Martin, this is a forceful in-your-face statement. Lamar evokes the fiery, pro-Black rhetoric of the Panthers, despite a curiously poetic admission that “I’m the biggest hypocrite in 2015/Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean.” —M.R.

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“Sing About Me (I’m Dying of Thirst)” (2012)

“Sing About Me (I’m Dying of Thirst)” legit sounds like a Faulkner title. And unsurprisingly, Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick gives us something worthy of the literary greats. His questions to himself (about why he chooses to immortalize his close friends in his songs) feel as poignant as the dialogue from a timeless unreliable narrator. If Kendrick has doubts about his responsibility as an artist, we have none about him being the best of his generation. —W.D.

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“Rigamortis” (2011)

“Aiming at your celebrity/This is studio felony,’’ says the young upstart from Compton on “Rigamortus.” Recorded in three takes, with Kendrick rapping in a double-time flow over a taut, jazz-inflected beat, this highlight from his first album, Section 80, got him on Drake tours, made him a new Interscope signee, and had people thinking about changing the name of their favorite rapper. —J.B.

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“Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils),” feat. RZA (2011)

“Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)” is about the first generation of crack babies. Kendrick, who was born at the peak of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” initiative, details how it felt to live in Compton during that hellish period. “1987, the children of Ronald Reagan/Rake the leaves off your front porch with a machine blowtorch,” he deadpans. He’s too young to remember smiling pictures of the former B-list actor turned right-wing demigod, but he’ll never forget those battering rams in his hood. —W.D.

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“HUMBLE.” (2017)

Partly inspired by piano-driven hip-hop classics like Marley Marl’s “The Symphony,” “HUMBLE.” finds Kendrick Lamar at his crowd-pleasing, arena-rap peak. Its chorus, spoken with a cadence akin to a head nod, is instantly memorable, while Mike Will Made It’s beat pushes along with a hard pulse. However, Lamar’s lyrics caused controversy: When he rapped about being “sick and tired of the Photoshop,” he was accused of being misogynistic about how women choose to present themselves. —M.R.

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“Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” (2016)

This appealingly jazzy outtake from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions finds Lamar and Co. at their loosest. He drops a verse about a troubled man “living with anxiety, ducking on sobriety,” but it sounds casually tossed off, like a freestyle. Anna Wise offers a dreamy chorus about someone jumping into the pit of hell; Top Dawg Entertainment head Punch makes a rare vocal appearance; and Jay Rock and Lamar close with a verse that brings the song’s theme of crisis into sharper perspective. —M.R.

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“A.D.H.D.” (2011)

Here K.Dot is in the corner of the function tryna’ politic, party, and parlay, but never in the same order. Section.80 found him zeroing in on this balance, and “A.D.H.D.” gave the strongest glimpse into his future of crafting anthems from collective trauma and overindulgence. These remain salient callbacks, much like his penchant for tilting pronunciations into earworms. Is it “Fuck that” or “Fuck thought”? Kendrick loves leaving us options. —M.P.

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“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” (2012)

Lamar’s call for inner peace despite being “a sinner” remains one of his most soulful tracks. Producer Sounwave’s warm grooves include samples from Boom Clap Bachelors’ “Tiden Flyver,” a canvas on which Lamar raps about scarring changes in his life. Remixes and alternate versions with Emeli Sandé, Jay-Z, and surprisingly, Lady Gaga abound, but the album edition with frequent collaborator Anna Wise on vocals is arguably the best. —M.R.

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“Swimming Pools (Drank)” (2012)

Addiction and escapism are as old as the vices they’re associated with. But on “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Kendrick taps into how he and his generation are affected. How did kids in the meme era escape the moment? Here, over moody keys he admits, “Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem.” Kendrick doesn’t wanna go where everybody knows his name; he just wants to “see the crowd mood.” —W.D. 

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“Backseat Freestyle” (2012)

“All my life, I want money power,” Kendrick Lamar repeats on the chorus of this good kid, m.A.A.d city highlight. “Respect my mind or die from lead shower.” Hit-Boy’s beat, originally made for Ciara, offers Kendrick a wealth of tools. As one of the most dexterous vocalists in rap history, the almost freewheeling melody lets him run loose, experimenting with a dazzling variety of tempos and vocal registers, making for his most purely exciting verse yet. In interviews, Kendrick has said that the verse was modeled from the cadences of Eminem. Kendrick sounds like only he can, though, and this track is dazzling. —J.B.

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“Alright” (2015)

Shortly after its released, “Alright” became an anthem for the emerging Black Lives Matter movement, chanted at marches and protests. But to call this the “new civil rights anthem” only gets at part of its greatness. The brilliance of Kendrick is in his obliqueness. So why did this one resonate? “Alright” is what the movement looks and sounds like. Pharrell’s hook is not lofty — it doesn’t conjure up the divine, per se. It’s just a hands-on-your-shoulders-to-straighten-you-out affirmation. Fatigued from murder after senseless murder, Kendrick gave us all a triumphant moment to breathe easier. —W.D.

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“Money Trees,” feat. Jay Rock (2012)

Listen to the way Lamar Kendrick raps “Ya bish” on his 2012 single “Money Trees.” It’s a syrupy, effortless drawl that lives on as one of the most enduring turns-of-phrases in modern pop culture. He’s rapping over a warped sample of Beach House’s dreamy indie-rock hit “Silver Soul,” courtesy of producer DJ Dahi. And the song, a benchmark for Lamar as a songwriter, finds him at his sharpest. The “Money Trees” in question are the trappings of success, and in what remains the best execution of his career, he confronts the demons that linger beneath ambition, and how the cost attached to reaching the top never seems quite worth it in the end. He measures his elevated skill without compromising any depth. It turns out that Lamar thrives in dichotomies, in the space between two poles — in the real world. —M.P.