(By: Tommy Rodriguez)
Have you ever heard music that sends a shiver through your whole body? If it’s a shiver of pure fear, awe, or intensity, no one rapper can give that adrenaline jolt through your veins like Kendrick Lamar does. The West Coast, Compton native has been the pinnacle of commercial and critical success throughout his storied career, and every year the lingering question always arises: “Is K- Dot gonna drop?”. After hearing rumors of a new Kendrick solo album to be released this year (via words stated by TDE team member Isaiah Rashad and several news outlets), I got an itch for listening to Kendrick’s discography. And the amount of times I got chills listening to his music is countless. Many of these powerful lyrical odysseys may just go down in rap history, but I decided to challenge myself. Here are 20 of the most bone chilling Kendrick Lamar verses you’ll ever hear!
Album: Section 80.
Chill Factor: Unabashed Skill
In the past, many people have faulted Kendrick for not being a flashy MC when it comes to complex rhyme schemes or breath control. Every time someone says this, I point to “Rigamortus” to show them that they’re out of their damn mind. A pure showcase of lyrical dexterity with internal rhymes, clever similes, and swaggering determination, this well known cut from Section 80 must have blown first-time Kendrick fans’ minds. Hearing Lamar’s voice get higher and higher as his body struggles without oxygen as he raps without breathing in between bars is both terrifying and jaw dropping, especially considering his career was just starting.
Album: Big Fish Theory
Song: “Yeah Right”
Chill Factor: Pure, Raw Energy
It’s not often you can catch Kendrick pulling some pure braggadocio on a track, especially over a clattering, bass heavy hip-house beat. And yet, Kendrick comes in at the tail end of “Yeah Right” to completely steal the show. His flow is just as forceful as a tsunami wave crashing on a shore, his stopping and starting breath control gifts unto you a whirlwind of lyrical dexterity that includes wrist popping, Asian food, and bear fighting. It’s exhilarating, to say the least. If we could find a way to get this kind of energy under our control, we could power the whole West Coast.
Album: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Song: “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
Chill Factor: Gripping Detail
A lot of Kendrick fans will point to his 12 minute opus, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” as the mission statement of Kendrick’s rap career: telling stories of himself and those damaged by the system through his verses and character portrayals. The first verse of the track, in which Kendrick plays the role of an old friend of his (whose brother has just died in a gun fight at this point of the album), is a haunting deep dive into the depressing reality of gang violence and emptiness some feel when facing death. It’s horrifying and peaceful all at once in its calm flow and detailed lyrics. Kendrick’s verse is all but cut short by a gun shot, the bullet rounds clattering on the floor as the song continues on, just as life seemingly goes on for those not killed in gang wars.
Album: To Pimp a Butterfly
Song: “For Free? (Interlude)
Verse: The Whole Track
Chill Factor: Absolute Insanity
I have no doubt in my mind that 95% of Kendrick fans had a mental conniption after hearing “For Free?”. The second track on To Pimp a Butterfly has some of Kendrick’s craziest vocal inflections yet, teetering between comedy and maniacal anger as he proclaims to the listener (and all of America) that “this d*ck ain’t freeeeee!”. It serves as a perfect example of the experimental approach Lamar took on TPAB, as well as going over its main themes of abuse of wealth, love, African Americans being “pimped” by America, and racial stereotyping. In terms of memorability, it’s nearly impossible to find a verse as uniquely funny and badass as this.
Song: “Deep Water”
Chill Factor: Metamorphosis
Kendrick’s rise to rap stardom could make for a fascinating movie or stage play; this is always exemplified by his frequent references to his past experiences as a boy growing up the violent streets of Compton. His caliber of expertise was obviously noted by Dr. Dre, as he employed Lamar to give several amazing verses on the underrated Compton album. “Deep Water” has the best feature from K Dot, However. In a span of one verse, you watch Kendrick grow from a depressed gang banger that finds solace in wanting to move drugs and drink to a rapper that has made it out of the deep ocean of urban chaos. Coming to terms with his past and using the wisdom he’s gained from his past mistakes makes Kendrick acknowledge his readiness to deal with the ups and downs of both the rap game and his hometown.
Album: To Pimp a Butterfly
Song: “How Much a Dollar Cost?”
Chill Factor: The Plot Twist
“How Much a Dollar Cost” plays like a modern day verse of the Bible in its soulful, operatic runtime. With unflinching detail, Kendrick describes an encounter with a homeless man that throws the true greed in his heart to the forefront, refusing to give even a nickel to this homeless man. The encounter goes on and on with a more uncomfortable edge, almost as if the beggar is staring directly at you, not Kendrick. We watch as Kendrick spirals more and more into a selfish and unmerciful Individual, only for the homeless man to reveal that he is God. What’s even worse, is that the dollar Kendrick refused to give him cost him a spot in heaven. It’s such a harsh turn of an ending, devastating in its implications and leaving Kendrick at one of the most ambiguous points he’s even been in on a record…
Album: The Sun’s Tirade
Song: “Wat’s Wrong”
Chill Factor: That FLOW
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade being full of jaw drops, hyped yells, and head bangs. I experienced all three of these feelings when I heard Kendrick’s verse on the soulful “Wat’s Wrong”. Easily one of his most effortless sounding features, Kendrick rides the beat like he’s driving a convertible through an empty highway. The brags are absolutely infectious and memorable (“I told Zay I’m the best rapper since 25, Been like that for a while I’m 29”), the cadence of the rapping changes as easily as Kendrick putting on a new expression, and his distinct vocals match the druggy beat damn near perfectly. Listen to it close enough, you may start levitating.
Chill Factor: The Backstory We Never Knew We Needed
Thank God for two free biscuits! In all seriousness, the storytelling on the closing track to DAMN. is easily the most biographical of the album and an excellent ending note. The whole track is comprised of one verse as Kendrick ascends his biological and musical family trees. As he rhymes about future labelmate Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith resorting to crime to make a living, he simultaneously plants the seeds for his future in picture perfect detail. He only goes on to reveal that his father, nicknamed Ducky, had crossed paths with the criminal Tiffith, giving him free biscuits at KFC to avoid robbery. Through these interactions, Kendrick fast forwards to describe how he meet Top Dawg, and that because of a simple action taken by his father, he could go on to serve the world as a number 1 rapper and still have a father in his life. DAMN. is a pure dissection about what it means to be human, and this natural coincidence makes for one of the most human stories in Kendrick’s rap catalogue. DAMN!
Album: Section 80
Song: “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”
Chill Factor: Horror
Kendrick Lamar isn’t fearful to face the scary realities of life, especially in his hometown of Compton. Inspired by seeing his friend selling herself on the street, “Keisha’s Song” is a narrative track that details the life of Keisha, a prostitute that has been forced to live her painful days as a sex worker to make ends meet. In the final verse of the track, Kendrick takes the story far back to Keisha’s early life, where her mother’s carelessness led to Keisha taking drugs and being molested at 9 years old. Flashing forward to the numbness she feels now, Lamar describes an encounter Keisha has with a client that leads to her abrupt death and harsh end to the verse. The realism of the track is stomach churning, especially in its quick end; a quick end that reflects how some people’s lives can be turned into a tragedy in an instant.
Album: My Name is My Name
Chill Factor: Grit
Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T on the same track sounds like a match made in raphead heaven. After Pusha T drops one of the hardest drug rap verses in his recent career, Kendrick steps up to the plate and rides the harsh guitar notes of “Nosetalgia” with a verse as gritty as a Compton drug deal. Lamar is slow, but methodical as he unpackages his rough upbringing in a drug-rampant Compton, detailing his father’s career as a dealer and his dedication to his own form of moving dope: moving verses. It’s a unique take on an age old concept in hip hop, and proves Kendrick’s worth as an MC; not many can claim to be on the same track as Pusha T and have lived to tell the tale.
Album: To Pimp a Butterfly
Song: “King Kunta”
Chill Factor: Peak Royalty
Sometimes, good times can give you chills! Kendrick, while mostly serious in his subject matter, can take a break to make a fun track full of quotables and charisma. “King Kunta” is a perfect example of this, especially in its final verse. As its funky beat breaks down, Kendrick fully acknowledges his rise to royalty as King of the Rap Kingdom, sampling Michael Jackson in his bars, causing other rappers’ careers to end, and comparing life to a woman’s…ah, maybe you should listen to it for yourself. It’s a verse only a king can spit.
Album: Untitled Unmastered
Song: “Untitled 05”
Chill Factor: Character Portrayal
Kendrick’s stint as a crack dealer on 50 Cent’s “Power” was far from his first time playing a character; he often sheds his vocals and puts on the voice of a new character that plays a role in telling a larger story. “Untitled 05”, beyond having one of Kendrick’s most impassioned deliveries ever, is equivalent to a short film starring Kendrick in the lead role. He fully develops his character here, a drunken criminal that watches others with skepticism and fear as he constantly remains drunk to calm himself down. As Kendrick’s character nearly murders someone for some money, a crying child stops the violence, making him speed off in the rain. Not only is this verse’s delivery simply jaw dropping, but it’s also a great display of the humanity that even the most vile people can have.
Chill Factor: A Perfect Representation of Fear
“FEAR.” may just be one of the magnum opuses of Kung Fu Kenny’s storied career, as he completely dissects the concept of being afraid through three separate times in his life, revealing its constantly changing anatomy. The second verse of the track is the most impactful, however; writing about his fear of being another casualty in the broken system, Kenny raps about police brutality, the reality of death at 17 years old, and how one wrong step may put a bullet into his head. The tension of living in a regularly institutionalized system is truly felt here, further emphasized by Lamar’s unemotional and muted delivery. He’s used to this kind of fear, and he fully expects to succumb to the dark before he makes it past his teen years. DAMN.
Album: N/A (For Obvious Reasons)
Chill Factor: A Challenger Arises
“Control” was a single that was supposed to promote Big Sean’s upcoming album back in 2013…and never made it to the album. And how could it? Kendrick Lamar annihilated both rappers on this track, Big Sean Jay Electronica, with one of the most important verses in his career. He not only managed to call out every single rapper in the mainstream (from Big Sean to J. Cole to Drake), did so with the power of a thousand suns in his voice. This was the voice of a man ascending to the top of the mountain, and willing to kill anyone in his way on a track. Kendrick knew he was untouchable, and proclaimed himself God in Rap Church on a feature verse. He embarrassed Big Sean and Jay Electronica on the track, challenged everyone all at once, and got himself a response from nearly every big time rapper in the game at that point. It’s ludicrous to think that Big Sean is saying he didn’t get bodied here; every rapper at the time got harmed in some way.
Album: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Song: “m.A.A.d city”
Chill Factor: Lost Innocence
Yes, the first verse of the 2nd title track of Kendrick’s cinematic Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is indeed iconic; even your grandmother and Imagine Dragons fans have heard that verse at least once. I feel that the last verse of the track is the most sobering of the song, however, and it’s one of the most mellow on the whole album. With his vocals shifted, Kendrick’s adolescent confusion is made all the more apparent as he dissects his dark past of violence and poverty, discussing a potential murder he may have helped cause, the infusion of drugs and alcohol into the lives of Compton youths (who he compares to the children in Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”), and the simple “shoot and leave” lifestyle so many of his companions lived. To see this coming from a person as young and mentally fragile as Kendrick is in this track, it’s truly depressing and insightful to the “belly of the rough” that is Kendrick’s hometown.
Album: To Pimp a Butterfly
Song: “The Blacker the Berry”
Chill Factor: Political Firepower
To Pimp a Butterfly is labeled by a lot of people to be Kendrick’s most political album in his discography. While it does have levels of political commentary in its masterful runtime, it extends far beyond simple complaining to paint Kendrick’s frustrations in a stark sonic landscape, like in the anger-driven “The Blacker the Berry”. On the eye-widening final verse of the album, Kendrick lists African American stereotypes, shouts in a gravelly voice that he is fed up with institutionalized racism and warring African tribes, only to realize in a sobering final line that while he was upset over Trayvon Martin’s death, he killed another African American in gang violence. This verse serves as a perfect closer to one of Kendrick’s most frustration-fueled songs in his career.
Chill Factor: Red Hot Rage
The first beat switch on “XXX.”, one of the standout tracks from DAMN., is one of the most defining moments for Kendrick’s career period. With meteoric bass and drums accompanying the blaring car engines and police sirens in the background, Kendrick’s angriest verse in his entire career takes off with the tact of a machine gun. Never has Kendrick had this level of anger, decrying black-on-black crime and gang violence, only to scream in frustration that he would kill anyone if they hurt his family. He renounces his spiritual knowhow to succumb to his darkest instincts, the instinct to kill and commit crime, only to end the hellfire of a verse by changing his whole demeanor to discuss gun control. DAMN.
Album: To Pimp a Butterfly:
Chill Factor: Crushing Sadness
“U” is a front running contender for Kendrick Lamar’s most depressing song, especially on its second half. Kendrick’s drunken depravity is extremely tangible on the track, not just because of his tear-jerking monologue on his failure to be there for those he loves, but because of his performance itself. The flow is as slippery as the alcohol he takes massive swigs of in between verses, the tears Kendrick clearly feels on his face coming through in his high pitched self hatred and blame. It’s a heart wrenching moment that not only displays Kendrick’s humanity, but his ability to let you truly experience the emotions he may feel in every sense of the word.
Album: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Song: “The Art of Peer Pressure”
Chill Factor: Suspense
Lots of movies have scenes that are considered some of its best even if they aren’t the climax of the narrative; “The Art of Peer Pressure” is one of the best parts of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and its only the 4th track. On its final verse, Kendrick becomes the director and actor we all envision him as, describing in disturbingly real detail about his regrettable actions robbing a house, only to find that someone else was in there with him and his pushy friends. As they rob the house, the nail biting suspense is tangible in every line spoken, as we think over and over that Kendrick will be arrested, or worse, killed. As the police chase him and his friends, the listeners’ heart rates go through the roof as Kendrick makes a left, right, left, and a right only to narrowly avoid capture. As a sigh of relief, Kendrick closes it all off with a simple but earth shattering statement: “One lucky night with the homies”.
Album: You’re Dead!
Song: “Never Catch Me”
Chill Factor: The Truth
It was a bit odd to place this feature at the end of this list, but I feel like this verse is a simple culmination of all that Kendrick has built his entire rapping career off of. The flow is fast and frenetic, Kendrick displays his excellent lyrical themes and stage presence, and he simply dominates anything that may stand in his way (including the maniacal electro funk beat). He seems to be speaking the truth in this verse: he understands his power, his dominance of the line between accessible and experimental, fun yet deep all the same. No one’s probably going to catch Kendrick Lamar, and these verses are all the evidence anyone may need…
Here’s to a new Kendrick album this year!