Welcome to 10 Best, a brand new series in which we highlight—you guessed it—an artist's 10 best songs to date, handpicked by the DJBooth staff.
Diehard fan? Let us know which selections you agree with and, of course, where we got it wrong.
Never been a fan and not quite sure where to start? Consider this your starter pack, or beginner’s guide, giving you the necessary starting point to determine whether you're ready to dive deeper into their catalogue or whether you think they’re trash.
Head to our Spotify for the full list and more with our Best of Kendrick Lamar playlist.
10. “How Much a Dollar Cost” ft. James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley (To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
Christianity has been a subject that Kendrick has explored from various vantage points throughout his praiseworthy career. Look no further than "Faith," a shining early example from 2010's Kendrick Lamar EP. While that Kendrick was much younger, full of questions and wonder, he once again confronted his beliefs five years later on To Pimp A Butterfly, his celebrated sophomore major label album. Much of the magic from TPAB sprouts from the album's unexpected guests―Lucifer as Lucy blew minds and the ghost of Tupac was a resurrection no one foresaw―but the biggest surprise was the son of God as a homeless man on “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Kendrick doesn’t know the homeless man is Jesus, all he sees is a panhandler begging for money to feed a starving addiction. The exchange that takes place over a dollar between the two is riveting. His faith is once again being tested, but this time by the man himself. It's a display of Kendrick’s beautiful understanding of how incredible storytelling is art, and how it can still be one of the most captivating approaches to rap music. Kendrick is truly a special artist, and "How Much a Dollar Cost" is one example of that greatness at work.
9. “The Blacker the Berry” (To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
Social commentary has always been prevalent in Kendrick’s music. His gaze doesn’t divert from what plagues people but rather sharpens the focus, especially when it comes to the black community. “The Blacker the Berry” is one of several songs on To Pimp a Butterfly that takes a plunge into the darkness of problems that exist in our present-day world and the one that most aggressively faces them head-on. There's a chilling sense of dread when the drums hit like you’re about to witness a man commit an act so violent even a church full of holy men wouldn't forgive him if confessed. Kendrick’s voice only adds to the impaling paranoia; he has a growl in his tone as if he were channeling the Darkman who taught us It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, the focus squarely on being black in a society where racism doesn't just exist, it thrives. Every word carries weight, he is a dragon breathing the kind of fire that can melt steel beams, you can almost hear the microphone melting under the weight of his scorching, politically charged assault. While "The Blacker the Berry" is one of his more controversial singles, there’s no question that the overall message the song provides is a necessary one. Thunderous and powerful—when Kendrick wants to send a message you feel it in your bones.
8. “u” (To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
Self-love is what Kendrick preaches on “i,” the first single from TPAB―a song reinforcing a positive perspective to combat depression. The uptempo tune is sweet and carries an incredible message, but Kendrick also understands how difficult it is to battle against depressive thinking and suicidal thoughts. He exposes his own personal scars on “u,” arguably his most personal and revealing song to date.
The initial screaming that begins the song is piercing, the sounds of a man who is being haunted by something so bone-chilling all he can do in response is release a cry of agony. “Loving you is complicated,” Kendrick recites over a brooding, jazzy foundation. His words drip with pain and passion, the internal conflict is suffocating and enthralling; how can you not have empathy for this soul on the brink of breaking down? When the beat switches, the epically gripping track enters an even more ominous space. Listeners hear the words of a man who has had too much to drink and too much time to think, musing over his every shortcoming in the mirror. Kendrick doesn’t sugarcoat his self-analysis, the guilt overruns like a bathtub filled with the blood of every friend and family member that couldn’t be saved. “God himself would say you fucking failed” is still one of the most heart-dropping lyrics heard in a rap song. Kendrick doesn’t just rap, he's almost like a method actor the way he’s able to convey different sides of himself―the lyrics puncture but it’s how he delivers them that truly leaves you in a state of awe.
7. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” (good kid, m.A.A.d city, 2012)
Radio has never been Kendrick’s target. To date, Kendrick's catalog hasn't produced a plethora of options that would have Clear Channel music directors salivating, though, he did score a couple of moderately big hits with his universally acclaimed major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. While "Swimming Pools" was the bigger hit, but “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” (which peaked at No. 39 on Billboard's Hot 100) was the better song, a timeless feel-good jam that eventually garnered a remix from Jay Z.
Few sentiments in life are more relatable than “I am a sinner and I’ll probably sin again,” by far one of the more honest and Christian-inspired rap hooks on the radio in 2012. There’s something ageless about the single—it wasn’t the forced radio jingle, but a catchy song that had enough depth to give it an impactful message. It feels good and pure, the perfect song to play when you're leaving the club and when you're headed to church.
6. “Money Trees" ft. Jay Rock (good kid, m.A.A.d city, 2013)
Kendrick’s m.A.A.d city wasn’t just gunshots and funerals—beauty can be found in chaos, fun can be found in bleak surroundings, and the lightness of “Money Trees” was meant to show Compton wasn’t without a bit of sun. Sure, there's darkness there, but propelled by the DJ Dahi production, for just a moment, Kendrick sounds like a good kid from paradise―music for lying under palm trees and reminiscing on the best of days. Daydreams and hopeful schemes, “Money Trees” is the song you play to remember what languorous, adolescent summers felt like, along with being our introduction to "ya bish" and giving us the choice between Halle Berry and Hallelujah.
Jay Rock’s feature is like watching a batter run victoriously around the bases after knocking the ball into another galaxy. His verse isn’t just rapping, it's is gliding. It's levitation, and the perfect way to close an already excellent song. Ya bish.
5. "Cartoon & Cereal" ft. Gunplay (Non-album single, 2012)
Cartoons with sugary cereal is a child’s right of passage, the best combination that isn’t a Happy Meal or cake and ice cream. Kendrick takes this innocent pastime and twists it into the greatest nightmare. “Cartoon & Cereal” explores the dichotomy of being a good child born in a city engulfed in lunacy―the overarching theme of a lot of Kendrick’s early material. Sadly, “Cartoon & Cereal” was released only as a loosie due to sample clearance hiccups and not a song on good kid, m.A.A.d city, where it would have fit perfectly.
THC's booming beat quakes underneath the weight of juggernaut bass, like Godzilla stomping across Japan. Few songs display how well Kendrick can capture the sheer terror of his surroundings like "Cartoon & Cereal"; he personifies the soul of Compton through the lens of someone who breathed the gunfire and smoke that filled the air. It’s pure mayhem, but the true shining moment comes with the appearance of MMG’s Gunplay―who performs a show-stealing verse that no one imagined he could conjure. He is spellbinding, his verse filled with so much pain, passion and tenacity that it cuts through the skin―Gunplay doesn’t rap this verse, he injects it into veins, that’s how pure and potent his offering is. To this day, we can only wish that “Cartoon & Cereal” was a part of Kendrick's classic debut, as it's too flawless a record to be forgotten when looking back on his career.
4. "The Heart Pt. 2" ft. Dash Snow (O(verly) D(edicated), 2010)
Being seen as elite has never been enough for Kendrick, his mission has always been to be viewed as the best. It's standard for rappers to proclaim their status as the best breathing, but Kendrick tends to show more than he says, confirming as much on the intro to his 2010 mixtape, O(verly) D(edicated). OD is the second project released after Kendrick changed his name from K-Dot, a breakthrough release that shot him to new heights as an artist to watch.
Album introductions are pace-setters, the welcome mat you see before entering the home that is the entire project. “The Heart Pt. 2”—the second installment in Kendrick's beloved "The Heart" series—isn’t a welcome mat, the song would be better described as a sneak attack, like suddenly being punched before ringing the doorbell. Nothing about the song feels predictable, from the emotional spoken word intro from deceased artist Dash Snow to the lyrics themselves—his every line is a punch to the face, thrown with the grace of Ali and the force of Tyson. When I think of Kendrick the lyricist, this is one of the first songs that comes to mind, and Kendrick would agree, having once named the track as his own favorite verse ("...it got so emotional in the booth I actually dropped a tear...").
Kendrick is in his element, with no hook to cease his tirade. He’s like a car switching gears, by the time he reaches the fourth he’s a ball of fire, so entranced that the need to fill his lungs with air is the only reason his words ceased. It's the kind of song that sets the bar for the rest of your career, and seven years later it's still a fan favorite.
3. "m.A.A.d city" ft. MC Eiht (good kid, m.A.A.d city, 2013)
Every movie has a moment of climax, where all actions lead to a single culmination―"m.A.A.d city" is that moment on Kendrick’s major label debut. Every song is just another baby step closer to the city revealing itself, a grand unmasking of its true form. Madness, chaos, insanity―it can all be felt the moment the final “Yawk!” is shouted and the beat drops―it's what the zombie apocalypse will sound like if it sprouts from Los Angeles. Kendrick is possessed the way he flows over the most menacing strings. The first half is pure aggression, like if “Knuck If You Buck” were crafted by a group of Compton teenagers who needed a song to bust a bottle over an enemy's cranium. The beat switch is anarchic, full of disorder but leaning heavily on a classic West Coast synergy. OG MC Eiht adds to the vintage vibe, and the entire record feels definitive, what we will remember long after the madness leaves the city.
2. "Alright" (To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
Kendrick’s GKMC was focused on the home he grew up in, the chaotic place he knew best. He followed up with an album that’s about leaving home and confessing all that he uncovered while out in the world. To see the world is to see the ugly. Police are murdering unarmed civilians, institutionalized racism is still an anvil holding people down, and hope dies a little bit more as the news reports one tragedy after another—you can’t close your eyes to this. Kendrick’s “Alright” has resonated with so many people because it came at a time when the message was so sorely needed. It’s more than a song, it became the chant that protesters recited when walking against the odds, hoping that their cries will be heard by using the words Kendrick gave us.
A wave of comfort washes over the soul moments after hearing the stuttering sample supplied by Neptune's most prominent skateboarder. There’s a warmth, almost like an embrace from a favorite family member. The arrival of Kendrick is positive reinforcement, he is a knight in gleaming armor prepared to fight tooth and nail for peace, happiness, and solace. He crafted a rare, genuine anthem that will be recited for the rest of eternity. In the darkness, in doubt and in uncertainty, Kendrick’s voice will be there as a reminder that all will be well, that all will be alright.
"Alright" was a message the world needed to hear then, and one we need to hear still.
1. "Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst" (good kid, m.A.A.d city, 2013)
Storytelling is at the heart of hip-hop. It's a culture that immortalizes people, places, and songs in music so that they can live beyond the limits of time. Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is a time capsule, the story of a good kid who survived in the belly of a beast named Compton. What makes his world so real is the people that inhabit his surroundings. He isn’t alone, but his company isn’t full of saints and angels, rather gangsters and young men and women who have strayed from the light. “Sing About Me” gives you their stories in such an engrossingly vivid manner that it feels more like a movie scene than a song. Enriched with the details of a screenplay, enchanted by chilling lyricism, it's an experience that captivates up until Kendrick’s final note. Chills will run down your arm as gunfire interrupts the pleading gangster, as the voice of an angry prostitute is swallowed by silence while screaming that she will never fade away, and as Kendrick questions himself, wondering whether all the trials and tribulations were worth it to be at this point.
The song's second half, “I'm Dying Of Thirst,” puts listeners in the dead of night. You understand the gravity of his surroundings and you can almost feel the hellfire. It’s another trip down Kendrick’s rabbit hole, a vivid memory of the night his friend died and how a woman saved his spirit by delivering the Lord’s Prayer before revenge could be sought. An atmosphere is what Kendrick creates, like being pulled into a memory and reliving all the swirling emotions.
No other song captures the genius of Kendrick Lamar like “Sing About Me," the crowning jewel of the career of one of hip-hop's all-time biggest talents.