Last week, many people lost their shit because Kendrick Lamar released his first studio album in 5 years. I was one of these people. Lamar is (along with a couple of others) my favourite working artist, thanks to a run of stellar albums – two of which I, and many others, believe can be regarded as classics.
Instead of writing another review of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, in which I’d just be repeating much of what Pitchfork or The Needle Drop have already said, I thought I’d create a little playlist for those who aren’t already on board. If you don’t get the hype, or you’ve never really listened to Kendrick Lamar, this is for you.
I’ll preface this by saying that the best Kendrick Lamar playlist is a Kendrick Lamar album, so if you haven’t previously heard 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City or 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, please stop reading this article now and listen to those instead.
But if you’re saying, “I cba, just give me 10 songs in chronological order from across his career so I can hear what the fuss is about”, here you go.
#1: ‘The Heart Part 2’ (feat. Dash Snow) (2010)
You might have seen that in the week preceding the release of Mr. Morale, Lamar released ‘The Heart Part 5’, the latest in an anthology of tracks that tend to precede his new projects. They’re kind of ‘dispatches from the heart’; Lamar taking a moment to survey his present worldview before a new release changes that forever.
The first two in this series arrived in 2010, and ‘Part 2’ is the first track on the non-streaming version of his Overly Dedicated mixtape. I only discovered it years later when I saw a video of Saba naming it as his favourite hip-hop verse. It’s fascinating listening in hindsight; a song which shows the dazzling technical talent he possesses – before most of the world has realised.
#2: ‘A.D.H.D’ (2011)
From first album Section.80, this was the first Kendrick song I heard and I’ll admit that I was hardly being blown away by it. On the face of it, it’s an R&B-inflected rap song about drugs, and at the time it didn’t feel like anything that stood out from a field of similar-sounding tracks. But dig a little deeper and it’s Kendrick very deliberately using the woozy instrumental to put you in the mind of what he describes as his drug-addled generation. Like a lot of his songs, it works better when in context of the rest of the record, but it’s an early example of Kendrick using sound to enhance the depth of his lyrics.
#3: ‘Cartoon and Cereal’ (feat. Gunplay) (2012)
‘Cartoon and Cereal’ was released as a standalone single in early 2012. It was intended for Lamar’s major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, released later that year, but there were problems with clearing the samples. In hindsight, it seems unthinkable how this would have tied into the airtight narrative of GKMC, but like many of the songs on the final record, it’s a fine example of the way Kendrick uses sound and atmosphere to immerse the listener, emphasising his mesmeric wordplay and narratives. The sinister instrumental and cartoon samples evoke a childhood in the underprivileged surroundings of Compton, where young innocence is surrounded by a reality of something more uncomfortable.
#4: ‘Money Trees’ (feat. Jay Rock) (2012)
In October 2012, Lamar released Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a concept album about his adolescence in Compton. And, man. Hearing Section.80, the odd single, and his feature on Drake’s Take Care album, it was clear the guy had talent. But you know when something – a film, a play, a piece of music just blows you away? I remember buying the album after reading the acclaim of Pitchfork’s review and pressing play on my morning commute. From hearing the sound of the tape start rolling, and the voices reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I was captivated.
It’s hard to pick a standalone song from such a narrative-driven album, but ‘Money Trees’, with its trap-via-Beach House beat is not only a catchy-as-hell track, but it’s the closest thing to a summary of the album in miniature – as Kendrick and Jay Rock ponder the crossroads that young people in environments like Compton face at a certain point in their lives.
5: ‘Nosetalgia’ (Pusha T feat. Kendrick Lamar) (2013)
Now for a couple of features. Off the back off Good Kid, M.A.A.D City being widely heralded as a modern classic, Kendrick spent 2013 on something of a victory lap, stamping his authority all over the world of hip-hop. Along with his labelmates on Top Dawg Entertainment, he took part in an explosive ‘cypher’ at the BET Awards, taking verbal aim at his competition in the hip-hop arena.
More low-key but equally impressive was his verse on Pusha T’s ‘Nosetalgia’ from his My Name Is My Name album. A coke rap song, the wordplay and ingenuity displayed across a verse that is a little over a minute and a half long is frankly, insane. This video explains it best.
#6: ‘Control’ (Big Sean feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica) (2013)
‘Control’ isn’t even that good a song, and not just because it’s a Big Sean track. It has this quite annoying, repetitive beat that doesn’t seem to meaningfully progress over nearly 7 minutes. But it doesn’t really matter because the only bit that is worth listening to is the incendiary 3-minute verse from Kendrick Lamar, who took this moment in 2013 to set the internet on fire, by calling out every big name in hip-hop and asserting his superiority. Even though we’re approaching a decade since its release, the audacity is still breathtaking.
#7: ‘The Blacker The Berry’ (2015)
Lamar’s first single ahead of 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly was ‘i’, a slightly confusing, upbeat-sounding poppy tune. It seemed to lack the bite that was needed at a time of increased publicised killings of Black people at the hands of the police in the US, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a song about self-love, but something seemed to be missing.
Then he released the second single, ‘The Blacker The Berry’. This was the polar opposite of ‘i’, a furious, incendiary address over a murderous beat and a killer chorus from Assassin that took aim at American society and cast a self-critical glance at the African American community. Neither fully prepared us for what to expect on To Pimp A Butterfly, a wildly ambitious masterpiece about the Black experience that surpassed even the high expectations of a Good Kid, M.A.A.D City follow-up.
#8: ‘Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.’ (2016)
Now widely regarded as the Best Rapper Alive™, Lamar could do no wrong at this point, but still took the time to release the Untitled, Unmastered mini-LP, with some offcuts that didn’t make To Pimp A Butterfly. Predictably, it was still somehow a perfectly sequenced series of delightful, soulful tunes, the best of which was ‘Untitled 05’.
One of the best songs in his whole discography, it features a bass-driven, contemplative beat from Sounwave and Terrace Martin, as Kendrick and a few regular collaborators detail the different ways of coping with the injustices of the modern world.
#9: ‘Fear’ (2017)
The release of Lamar’s fourth album Damn was met with hysteria akin to last week’s. Reactions ranged from Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg calling Lamar the best rapper of all time, to the Needle Drop slightly harshly giving it a mere 7 out of 10.
While Damn isn’t quite as near-flawless as the previous two records, it does have some stunning moments. ‘Fear’ is its centrepiece, a near 8-minute epic where Kendrick examines how fear has governed his life from the perspectives of himself at ages 7, 17 and 27. Once again, it’s a masterful composition.
#10: ‘Father Time’ (feat. Sampha) (2022)
And so we arrive at the present day. Just so you don’t go into the 73-minute Mr. Morale without anything familiar to hang onto, here’s ‘Father Time’. It’s a Sampha-featuring highlight, where Kendrick touches on the “daddy issues” that have led him to the present day difficulties in his personal life which dominate the agenda on the new record. The keyboard hook is delightful, once again demonstrating Kendrick’s incredible ability to marry rich musical detail with enthralling, purposeful storytelling.
Kendrick Lamar is a deeply thoughtful, generational talent, and when you connect with his music, you connect with it strongly. I hope these songs have brought you at least some way towards getting on board.
Words by Tom Burrows