Well, arguably, the easiest way to dive into his tracks is to start with his best albums and go from there. So, to make sure you start in the right place, here are Kendrick Lamar’s top five albums, with our recommendations of which songs you need to tune into from each.
To Pimp A Butterfly
Kenny’s defining album, without a doubt, is his 2015 release – To Pimp a Butterfly. An exploration of the ‘negus’ lifestyle and a celebration of black kings and queens, every song on the production is alive with flair, soul, and jazz, presenting Kendrick at the pinnacle of his creative talents.
When you strip back the funk and dive into the lyrics, you’re treated to Kendrick’s position on issues including colorism, classism, and corruption. One of the album’s most popular tracks – Alright – has cemented its place as a protest song and perfectly exemplifies Lamar’s ability to take complex topics from the sidelines and project them into the mainstream.
With multiple Grammy awards and wins, as well as a victory for the Best Rap Album, To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick’s piece de resistance and one of the finest rap albums of all time. He wraps up the album with Mortal Man, a sit-down with Tupac Shakur from 1994. In it, the pair discuss the wisdom of using their platforms as a way to redefine the black experience in America.
Top songs on To Pimp A Butterfly:
- King Kunta
- How Much A Dollar Cost
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
For Kendrick at his storytelling best, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is where it’s at. An undisputed rap classic, Kendrick does an impeccable job of exploring his childhood thanks to tracks that are full of self-deprecation and honest realism.
There’s so much to love about this expose of Kenny’s life in Compton. He takes us on a journey, and so much of it is relatable. From being rejected by a girl he fancied to getting caught up in a bad crowd and taking the wrong path, there’s a cathartic element to each track on this album that so many of his fans can resonate with.
The production’s standout is Money Trees, a collab with Jay Rock. A track about the hustle of everyday life, who hasn’t cranked this up at a house party and recited the lyrics by heart?
Although often overshadowed by TPAB, we think Good Kid, M.A.A.D City might be Kendrick’s most refined studio production.
Top songs on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City:
- Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
- Money Trees
- Swimming Pools (Drank)
- Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
In Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar showcases his most inquisitive and daring musical endeavors to date. Kendrick fearlessly explores new artistic directions and experiments with different vocal styles, indicating a continuous desire to evolve and learn. Evidently, he took a deliberate break from his phone, which seems to have influenced the creative process positively.
Kendrick Lamar’s pursuit of innovation goes beyond mere deconstruction of traditional verse-hook-verse formats. Drawing inspiration from his past work on Untitled, unmastered, he presents an array of diverse song structures. While not every experimentation fully resonates, it exemplifies the inherent nature of taking artistic risks, openly scrutinizing aspects of life where he admits to lacking mastery.
Despite being a top-tier lyricist and a brilliantly imaginative artist, Kendrick acknowledges that he hasn’t entirely sharpened his focus on examining the systemic elements that underlie the traumatic pain he dissects in his work. However, this seems to be the very essence and intention of the entire album – to recognize and explore the imperfections and ongoing journey towards understanding and grappling with such complex issues.
Top songs on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers:
- Die Hard
- We Cry Together
- Rich Spirit
Boasting some of Kendrick’s most refined lyrics and dynamic flows, DAMN is a masterpiece that is often overlooked. In his fourth album, we’re treated to a songwriting exhibition in which Kendrick experiments with throbbing 808s, jumpy piano, and incredible beats.
The pick of the album is Humble, which earned Kendrick his first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single. Collabs on DAMN include those with Rihanna, U2, and Zacari, so it’s not difficult to see why this album is super popular with his fans.
If you want further inspiration to tune into DAMN, Kenny picked up a Pulitzer Prize, seven Grammy Award nominations, and five Grammy wins for this release. Kendrick made history as the first-ever rapper to win the Pulitzer for music. Quite a feat!
Top songs on DAMN:
The album that more or less announced Kendrick’s arrival on the hip-hop scene, Section.80, was Kendrick’s debut without a major backing label. Completely reforming his style, Kendrick dives deep into west-coast, freestyle rap filled with hard-hitting lyrics and uncanny wit.
While this is far from Kendrick’s most popular album, Section.80 came when the rapper was redefining his musical canon. Formative and boundary-pushing, there’s a lot to love about his insightful social commentary and his retreat from his tried-and-trusted style.
Collaborations with GLC, Ashtro Bot, and BJ The Chicago Kid give Section.80 another dimension and ensure his fans sit up and take notice of his ability to transcend hip-hop sub-genres so effortlessly.
Top songs on Section.80:
- Hol’ Up
Arriving less than one year after To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick teamed up with Nas to deliver Untitled Unmastered in 2016. The album is essentially a compilation of tracks that didn’t make it onto TPAB and features Kendrick in a somewhat raw and unpolished light.
It’s one of his few albums that you can get into the unfiltered thoughts of Kenny, bouncing between incredible highs and periods of meditation from track to track.
If you haven’t tuned in, prepare yourself for Kendrick Lamar as you’ve never heard him before. Contrary to its title, this is a genuinely masterful album. Different, but far from a lazy release of shelved tracks that have no other place in Lamar’s pantheon.
Top songs on Untitled Unmastered:
- untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.
- untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.
- untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016.
- untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.
Kendrick Lamar is a once-in-a-generation talent. While he has cemented his place as a literary great, he is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning social commentator who has projected the struggle of black Americans into mainstream consciousness.
He also has a beautiful knack for redefining hip-hop sub-genres and reconceptualizing what many of us thought possible in the industry.
The five albums above should be your starting point into Kendrick’s music, but there’s so much more for you to explore when you’re done.
Soon, you will appreciate precisely what has solidified Kendrick’s place as a hip-hop icon and use him as a benchmark from which to compare other musicians in the space.