Kendrick Lamar turns 28 today, and as this week of celebrating Hip Hop legends and legends-to-come continues — where Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Tupac are all born in the same week — we turn to cuts by Kendrick that are already classics just three albums into his short career.
There are more, to be sure, but here are 12 glorious cuts from the Kendrick oeuvre so far.
Before “Swimming Pools,” K.Dot was already well known for creating tracks thematically about anti-inebriation while sounding like he endorsed drug use. Section 80’s third track “A.D.H.D.” is one of the better examples of Lamar’s stance on staying drug-free. “12 dubbies to the face, fuck dat, twelve bottles in the case nigga fuck that,” he delivers in a Drake like, sing-song melody that’s intoxicating as hell. Then there’s the commentary that maybe post-crack epidemic babies have a higher tolerance for drugs. It’s thought provoking yet entertaining and works perfectly.
Overly Dedicated was K. Dot’s coming out party. It was a direct foreshadowing of Kendrick’s future sound. He’d found his voice, and over a sped up sampling of The Roots “Clock With No Hands,” he handled both the chorus and a superlative verse while washing the palette for Ab-Soul’s great verse as well. Of course, there’s also the sarcastic, “I’m going through something with life / But pussy and Patron make you feel all right.”
Produced by Sounwave and Willie B, “Rigamortus” was a smoky jazz set fleshed out into concrete prose by and up-and-coming Kendrick Lamar. Deprecating his flow, young Kendrick compressed his normal 4-4 time into a variant to match the rhythms around him. We also saw that he was not afraid of jazz, which up to that point had been relegated to the graveyard of music’s past. He also showed he wasn’t afraid to get metaphorical about murdering your favorite emcee, a trend we would see in full bloom on Big Sean’s “Control.”
“Frightening / So fucking frightening” could also be likened to Dot’s flow on this densely layered motif on power, God, poverty, and the ghetto. It combines slavery with Egyptian edicts, which have become a civilization looked back on by African-Americans as a counterexample to European supremacy put forward by the normative historical record. This suitcase was stuffed to the brim with ideas, and there was more than enough in there for just about everyone.
The other half of the uber positive “i,” “u” describes in detail Kendrick’s depression caused by a myriad of mitigating factors. Success anxiety, for one thing, but there are others. On the album, this one floated in toward the beginning, as Kendrick Lamar sifted through his soul looking for warmth. He wouldn’t find it here, repeating “Loving you is complicated” interspersed with screams in the beginning. “You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend.” Morality is heavy in Kendrick, and this, his darkest, most straightforward and honest work gives you a hint into the soul of the man.
“The Heart Pt. 2”
Arguably one of the most poignant songs of Kendrick’s career, “The Heart Pt.2” samples The Root’s “A Piece Of Light” from the criminally underrated How I Got Over. And, featuring a sampled interview with the now deceased Dash Snow, the theme of the track is “What keeps you alive?” Kendrick answers furiously, James Joyce style as his stream-of-consciousness reaches a fever pitch. And, of course, he drops his modus operandi: “Fuck a funeral, pay my music respect…”
“Sing About Me/Dying Of Thirst”
When good kid m.A.A.d. city officially dropped, there wasn’t a track on the album that hit the emotional core like the twelve-minute epic “Sing About Me/Dying Of Thirst.” Speaking from the perspective of two different people before turning the light on himself, the track features Lamar’s poignant lyricism and little touches that only enhance the track’s collective feelings. Was it gunshots as his friend gives his last words of advice to him? Or maybe it was the fading voice of Keisha’s sister? A drastic change takes place mid-way that ends with Lamar turning to a higher power for wisdom and understanding. If one didn’t understand good kid m.A.A.d city before track ten started, the ending made things very clear.
The vibe of To Pimp A Butterfly is classic. There are various takes on funk, R&B, jazz and even gospel throughout the album’s hour and 19 min runtime. More in line with contemporary Hip Hop, “Alright” could be considered the album’s sole turn-up anthem. Lamar spits rhymes more in line with perseverance and hope at a high tempo before Pharrell jumps in with the best hook of 2015.
“That money just might fuck yo main bitch, that’s just how I feel,” sings Lamar over the DJ Dahi production. If good kid m.A.A.d city gave a detailed look into life in the poverty-stricken area within Compton, “Money Trees” gave insight to the type of extremes the need for money does to that community. TDE brethren Jay Roc even adds his point-of-view on the track when he describes, “What else is a thug to do when you eat cheese from the government, gotta provide for my daughter and them, get the fuck up out my way bish.” There’s an honest portrayal of what dire conditions can do to anyone.
Unlike “A.D.H.D” and “Swimming Pools,” Overly Dedicated highlight “H.O.C.” blatantly explains why he doesn’t indulge in weed consumption. “I might hit the Gin once a month, but I’ll let you inhale, just like an atheist,” says before explaining how he’s able to make intoxicating music without the famous herb. In K.Dot’s world, weed isn’t needed when the reality is more surreal at times.
“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
To Pimp A Butterfly was an accumulation of black history and the music inspired by it. Then there were the cultural sprinkles that gave everything soul. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” featured Kendrick basically acknowledging that lying about what one has to impress others is unnecessary. Outside of sounding like something someone’s cool uncle would play during a backyard BBQ, the album’s fourteenth track offers silky smooth light jazz production by LoveDragon just sounds so warm.
Before Lamar almost fractured his fanbase with “i,” good kid m.A.A.d city’s visceral hood tale closed with an uplifting beat through “Real” featuring Anna Wise. Campton’s champion spit about what exactly means real. Is it cars, clothes, clubs, women or something greater? Let’s not forget Lamar’s voicemail recordings of his parents laying down true knowledge. Remember, “Real is God nigga.” That level of consciousness would obviously be heightened in his follow-up To Pimp A Butterfly. “Real” also served as a great showcase for Terrace Martin’s production.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.
Ural Garrett is a Los Angeles-based journalist and HipHopDX’s Senior Features Writer. When not covering music, video games, films and the community at large, he’s in the kitchen baking like Anita. Follow him on Twitter @Uralg.