Sunday Morning: 20 Kendrick Lamar Songs That Made You a Fan
Kendrick Lamar has the rap world in the palm of his hands. The Compton MC surprised fans with the early release of his highly anticipated album, To Pimp a Butterfly, on Monday (March 16) and has dominated the conversation ever since it arrived on iTunes. With the buzz around him at an all-time high, it seems fitting to look back at what brought the talented rapper to this point.
In a market that has become increasingly reliant on finding one-hit wonders to score easy success, Lamar’s rise to the top is an anomaly. The Top Dawg Entertainment signee has made waves through his growth and evolution as an artist, flying in the face of the get-rich-quick thinking that has proliferated how many rappers and singers are developed today.
The rhymer is an example of hard work paying off in the long run and this new album showcases his full potential — he even beat Drake’s previously-held Spotify record as a result of the opus. With all that in mind, The Boombox asks you to join us as we take a look back at the tracks he’s released during his career thus far, making us pay close attention to this transcendent artist. Check out 20 Kendrick Lamar Songs That Made You a Fan.
“Young & Black”
Kendrick Lamar’s ascent to the top started like many young rappers today. Known as K. Dot during his humble beginning, he gained some recognition on the West Coast and throughout the blogosphere with everything from collaborations with his TDE cohort Jay Rock to footage of him battling Charles Hamilton going viral. 2009 was a pivotal year, as he finally began to put the pieces of his rap puzzle together. His Lil Wayne-inspired C4 mixtape marked the final project he released as K. Dot and the bonus track “Young & Black” feels like a breakthrough in retrospect. On a mixtape that saw Lamar heavily incorporate Wayne’s style, this song was a dramatic departure and a clear sign that Lamar had broken away from mimicking his influences and began developing his distinct voice as an MC.
“Poetic Justice” Feat. Drake
There’s not much to say about Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city album that hasn’t been said before. The LP is widely considered a classic and it has earned that distinction from songs like “Poetic Justice.” The track samples Janet Jackson and features Drake, one of Lamar’s contemporaries in the race for hip-hop’s top spot. The relationship subject matter made Drake a natural fit for the song, but it’s Lamar’s pen game which dazzles here. “Every time I write these words, they become a taboo / Making sure my punctuation curve, every letter here’s true / Living my life in the margin and that metaphor was proof / I’m talking poetic justice, poetic justice / If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” he raps.
This loose track emerged on the web a few years ago and proved how diligent a student of the game Kendrick Lamar is. Lamar had shown a deep adoration for his predecessors, but “Kurupted” took that appreciation to a new level. The track sees Lamar paying tribute to Tha Dogg Pound member Kurupt in a very special way. Lamar seemingly becomes Kurupt on the song as he captures the West Coast legend’s flow and delivery with absolute precision. “It was like a dedication strictly to myself,” Kurupt told DJ Skee in a 2014 interview. “I was just startled.” Kurupt clearly loved the tribute as he would include it on his 2014 mixtape Moon Rock as a bonus track.
“Ignorance Is Bliss”
“Ignorance Is Bliss” is one of the most important songs of Kendrick Lamar’s career. On its own, it’s an amazing piece of work and one of the highlights of Lamar’s 2010 release Overly Dedicated. But on a larger scale, it was this song which got caught the attention of the one and only Dr. Dre. Like many hip-hop fans, Lamar’s ability to confront life’s contradictions in the song caught the ear of the legendary producer. Soon, Kendrick Lamar would find himself in the studio with Dr. Dre and later signed a deal with the veteran rapper’s Aftermath label. Who knows what would’ve happened if Lamar never crafted this song.
While GKMC received widespread acclaim, you’ll find plenty of Kendrick Lamar fans who will argue that 2011’s Section.80 is still his best work. Lamar’s work up to that point had been quite good, but the project was his statement that he was one of the best. “Hol’ Up” immediately caught on with its catchy hook and smooth beat provided by TDE in-house producer Sounwave. And while the track is pretty straightforward compared to some other cuts from the album, Lamar still dazzles with his rhymes. “I lived my 20’s at 2 years old, the wiser man / Truth be told, I’m like ’87 / Wicked as 80 reverends in a pool of fire with devils holding hands / From the distance, don’t know which one is a Christian, damn / Who can I trust in 2012? There’s no one not even myself / A Gemini screaming for help, somebody,” he raps.
As previously mentioned, 2009 was an important year for Kendrick Lamar. The most obvious reason for this was him dropping the K. Dot moniker and going by his real name. But it was releasing the Kendrick Lamar EP that marked the most important development in his artistry. The project was his first with a fully formed voice. This was no longer K. Dot playing rapper, this was Kendrick Lamar being himself and conveying his story. “Vanity Slaves” off the EP stands up with Lamar’s best work. In a reflective manner that would become a defining trait, Lamar evaluates the roots of vanity within black culture. There’s no hook here, just brutal honesty as he speaks to himself and the listener over the course of one verse. The song gives us the raw convictions of a young man making sense of the world around him.
“Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)”
“Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)” is one of the prime examples of Kendrick Lamar’s ability to paint a picture. Over a chaotic soundscape provided by Tae Beast, Lamar transports listeners into the life of an ’80s baby living in Compton. Lamar vividly describes the chaos around him in a way few rappers can. “Let’s hit the county building, gotta cash my check / Spend it all on a 40-ounce to the neck and / In retrospect, I remember December being the hottest / Squad cars, neighborhood wars and stolen Mazdas / I tell you mothaf—as that life is full of hydraulics / Up and down, get a 64, better know how to drive it / I’m driving on E with no license or registration / Heart racing, racing past Johnny because he’s racist / 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves off / Your front porch with a machine blowtorch, I’m really out here my n—-,” he delivers.
“Night of the Living Junkies”
“Night of the Living Junkies,” off Kendrick Lamar’s 2010 project Overly Dedicated, is not as ambitious as some other tracks featured on this list, but it’s just an impactful. The title is a nod to Public Enemy’s classic “Night of the Living Baseheads.” Lamar uses a chorus here comparing listeners waiting for his music to crack addicts fiending for dope. The verses are mostly bragging and boasting, but it’s an entertaining twist on a familiar trope.
“HiiiPoWer” served as the lead single to Kendrick Lamar’s album Section.80 and it was a great selection. The vibrant production of J. Cole is matched by Kendrick Lamar’s energy. Lamar comes out firing on the opening verse too. “Visions of Martin Luther staring at me / Malcolm X put a hex on my future, someone catch me / I’m falling victim to a revolutionary song, the Serengeti’s clone / Back to put you backstabbers back on your spinal bone / You slipped your disc when I slid you my disc / You wanted to diss but jumped on my dick / Grown men never should bite their tongue / Unless you eating p—y that smell like it’s a stale plum,” the TDE signee rhymes. The single was a declaration that Kendrick Lamar was coming for the hip-hop thrown.
“Let Me Be Me”
The Kendrick Lamar EP was a special moment for Kendrick Lamar. Up until this project, he was mostly just rapping for the sake of rapping. But on this release, Kendrick Lamar became the Kendrick Lamar we know today. “Let Me Be Me” encapsulates this as you peer into his mindset. The MC is battling outside pressures in both his daily life and music career. He brings the listener into his thought process as he fights against the norm and wants to represent himself in the right way. It’s a powerful song, especially today, because Kendrick Lamar did get to do it his way. It’s rewarding to know that he stood his ground and carved out his own path to success.
K. Dot’s good kid, m.A.A.d city LP was a massive success that turned him into a bona fide star. The single “Backseat Freestyle” certainly helped raise his profile, even if it didn’t accurately represent what he’s all about. Out of context, the song seems like battle rap braggadocio that’s not breaking any new ground. But within the context of the album, Lamar is reverting to his teenage years and delivering his best bars at the prompting of his friend. It’s a brilliant way to feature this type of song on a high concept album and it worked well as a single with its trunk-rattling production courtesy of Hit-Boy.
“Poe Mans Dreams (His Vice)” Feat. GLC
The soulful production of TDE’s Willie B on “Poe Mans Dreams (His Vice)” was tailor-made for Kendrick Lamar. And to make things even better, Lamar got the help of Chicago’s GLC. GLC’s velvet smooth vocals on the chorus and outro compliment Lamar in the best way. In his rhymes, Lamar focuses on his higher aspirations in life as well as his connection to his family, friends and fans. “The city got my back, and for that, I give them my torso / You think about it, and don’t call me lyrical / Cause really I’m just a n—a that’s evil and spiritual / I know some rappers using big words to make their similes curve / My simplest s–t be more pivotal / I penetrate the hearts of good kids and criminals / Worrisome individuals that live life critical / So won’t you bear witness while I bare feet / So you can walk in my shoes and get to know me,” he serves. It’s no surprise “Poe Mans Dreams” is quickly brought up as a favorite track off Section.80 by many fans.
“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is one of the quintessential Kendrick Lamar songs. Everyone from ardent hip-hop heads to people barely familiar with his music love this track. The single helped keep good kid, m.A.A.d city in the pop zeitgeist long after its release. Jay-Z would jump on the remix and Erykah Badu would even help Kendrick Lamar perform a rendition of it at the 2013 BET Awards. This song will always hold a special spot in Lamar’s catalog and be remembered for years to come.
“A.D.H.D.” proved why Kendrick Lamar was brilliant at flipping perceptions and highlighted the intricacies of his rhymes. Drug rap had begun to take over and this guy went the opposite way. He spoke on the ills an entire generation’s dependency on drugs and did so in such a way that he had everyone singing along with him. “A.D.H.D.” also provided a formula that Lamar would soon use again and reach new heights with it. This Section.80 cut stands out to this day and found new life as part of the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack.
“m.A.A.d city” Feat. MC Eiht
Kendrick Lamar’s admiration for rap pioneers was referenced earlier, but “m.A.A.D. city” is another instance where the MC showed his love for the legends. Not many artists would think to bring out an O.G. like MC Eiht as a guest on their major label debut, but that’s exactly what K. Dot did. The results were great as the Compton’s Most Wanted member was in vintage form. Much like he did on “Ronald Reagan Era” did, Lamar transports us into the chaos of Compton with the help of MC Eiht. The now familiar line of “Every time I’m in the streets, I hear YAWK YAWK YAWK” sets the mood and does its best to prep you for the frenetic adventure ahead on the track, which is an intersection of the new and old school, collaborating in a way that sounds both vintage and modern at the same time.
“Faith” Feat. BJ the Chicago Kid & Punch
If you told someone Kendrick Lamar made “Faith” in 2015, it would make plenty of sense. It’s amazing that he crafted this gem back in 2009, on his Kendrick Lamar EP. This remains one of his finest creations to date and speaks directly to so many people of his generation. The solemn production of Sore Losers’ King Blues sets the stage for the rapper contemplating his belief in God. Lamar takes us through the struggles many people have as they lose faith. It’s a level of honesty you rarely hear from a rapper of his stature as he’s completely vulnerable here. And even if you don’t come to a similar conclusion as Kendrick Lamar does, the details of his story are sure to hit home.
“Swimming Pools (Drank)”
“Swimming Pools (Drank)” is the track that propelled the MC to superstar status. The whole world took notice when this single took over during 2012. And in typical Kendrick Lamar fashion, he flipped the theme on its head and made it represent who he is. The catchy chorus had people in clubs and parties around the world chanting along like the song was a drinking anthem. Of course, he made this song the polar opposite of that. Instead, he spoke on the peer pressures of drinking and alcoholism. There’s still listeners to this day who may miss the meaning, but the jokes on them for overlooking the message of Kendrick Lamar.
“Cartoon & Cereal” Feat. Gunplay
It’s a damn shame “Cartoon & Cereal” did not get to appear on good kid, m.A.A.d city. A victim of sample clearance issues, the song still made its way to public release on the internet and fans are surely grateful for that. The effort was one of the best tracks of 2012, and helped change perceptions of Gunplay through his guest appearance. Largely perceived as just another Rick Ross associate, Gunplay delivered one of the best performances of his career and made the world take notice of his talent. Lamar has to be applauded for providing such a platform. And make no mistake, he shined here too. “Light speed living in the world you know / Little old me, feeling like a live wire / Bet I put some new tires on a lightning bolt / ‘Til I wreck into a pole, like a right to vote / I’m from the bottom of the jungle / Living in the bottom of the food chain / When you get a new chain, n—a take it from you / A new name, want stripes, and you a zebra look-alike / Hope another homicide don’t numb you and none do,” he raps. Despite never appearing on an album, this song will always hold a special place in the career of Kendrick Lamar.
“F— Your Ethnicity “
The opening salvo of Section.80 could not have set things off any better. “F— Your Ethnicity” is Kendrick Lamar taking charge and leading the way. No matter their race, color or creed, he brings his fans along for the ride. “Fire burning inside my eyes, this the music that saved my life / Y’all be calling it hip-hop, I be calling it hypnotize / Yeah, hypnotize, trapped my body but freed my mind / What the f— is you fighting for? Ain’t nobody gon’ win that war/ My details be retail, man, I got so much in store / Racism is still alive, yellow tape and colored lines / F— that, n—- look at that line, it’s so diverse / They getting off work and they wanna see Kendrick / Everybody can’t drive Benz’s, and I been there, so I make it my business / To give ’em my full attention, ten-hut! Man, I gotta get my wind up / Man I gotta get down with God cause I got my sins up,” Lamar raps. It’s a powerful message that endeared him to his fan base and set the tone of the album.
“Money Trees” Feat. Jay Rock
As you’ve seen, there’s many great Kendrick Lamar songs, but if you’re looking for one where he’s clicking on all cylinders, it’s hard to beat “Money Trees.” The DJ Dahi-produced beat is hypnotic and the song follows the narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city in supreme fashion, complete with a skit at the end featuring his mother. Lamar unleashes dope bars and crafts an exceptional hook, which is better than many verses. It also doesn’t hurt that his fellow TDE label mate and Black Hippy member Jay Rock adds one of the most impressive guest verses in recent memory. And you have to love that K. Dot got the whole world saying “ya bish” off this song. There’s plenty of contenders for the best Kendrick Lamar song, but every fan loves “Money Trees.”