How, exactly, does a rapper manage to kill a track? When broken down, it’s usually through one of four common means of attack: via ornate sense of melody that renders a flow too catchy to resist (see Drake or Young Thug), through fierce rhythm and projection (YG, Migos), with sheer lyrical precision (Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Electronica), or just by barking that one hilarious, unforgettable line that makes every other bar of the song sound monotonous in contrast (Kanye West, 2 Chainz). Many rappers manage to master one of these techniques and thrive, but there is one rapper who is able to summon every one of these attacks at once and hurl it all into one verse like some sort of hip-hop spirit bomb.
And as we look back on the quieter days of Kendrick Lamar now, after his high-profile features with the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, becoming the favorite rapper of the first US president with a favorite rapper, and scoring the royal headline on this year’s Coachella poster, the journey he made out of Compton (and back again) in the past decade is sure to bring tears of joy to anyone holding onto a dream despite the odds.
So as his ever-expanding fanbase restlessly awaits this week’s release of his fourth studio album, DAMN., please accept this HUMBLE. offering of selections from the Kendrick Lamar archives that you may have missed or forgotten, from dusty old K-Dot cuts to slept-on Soundcloud features to gems buried among gems on To Pimp a Butterfly.
9. “Dreams” (2009)
Kendrick released the twenty-six-track Training Day mixtape back in 2009, when he still rapped under the pseudonym K-Dot. The album cover sees Kendrick in a Plies sideways snapback doing a Birdman hand-rub next to a 50 Cent bullet hole. The tape radiates 2000s gangsta rap indeed, but “Dreams” reveals that Kendrick has been the same artist since the very beginning. Penned over J. Dilla’s “Believe in God” instrumental, the track finds Kendrick paying his respects to the late legend of hip-hop production, who died a year prior to the song’s release: “Moment of silence for J. Dilla, he on his way home / I know he hear me spilling my heart.” The chorus only delves deeper into the quandaries of mortality, and we could expect nothing less from a Kendrick production, even in his amateur stages.
8. “Thuggin’” (2015)
Over a beat inspired by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Foe tha Love of Money,” Kendrick teamed with South Central LA heavyweight Glasses Malone and Killer Mike for a track that epitomizes the term “hidden gem.” In fact, Kendrick doesn’t even have the hottest verse on the track, as a Sanders campaign–ready Killer Mike spat one of the most politically charged sets of sixteen bars of his career (not an honor to be taken lightly for the Run the Jewels lyrical mastermind). However, even in one of the only tracks in history in which he’s been bested, Kendrick surely doesn’t underwhelm.
7. “We Ball” (2012)
Dom Kennedy is no household name nationwide, but if you don’t know this song, don’t expect to be taken seriously as a fan of hip-hop anywhere on the West Coast. Kendrick’s blissfully barbaric lines in the second verse mark a peak of any LA DJ set, and remind us of his unmatched ability to toggle between conscious raps and turn-up raps with no lapse in quality whatsoever.
6. “Drop it Like it’s Hot (Remix)” (2005)
Kendrick Lamar rapping over Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like it’s Hot” beat at sixteen years old… Is that something you might be interested in? Don’t thank me; thank K-Dot’s 2003 debut mixtape, Y.H.N.I.C., alternately titled Hub City Threat, Minor of the Year. Besides having multiple titles, this project is fascinating as a glimpse into the fact that even the world’s greatest talents were, well, not the greatest at one point. But that’s by no means meant to overlook such quips as “Pants hang low / Born with the best flow since LL was rockin’ a Kangol.”
5. “Love Game” (2013)
This list may lean heavily on Kendrick’s more cerebral cuts, but on The Marshall Mathers LP 2 from 2013, he and his lifelong influence Eminem doubled down on smutty punch lines, oozing with OG-versus-young-blood competition from start to finish.
4. “Average Joe” (2010)
Above all, Kendrick’s most admirable quality is teaching every archetype of music listener—from a YG fan to a Maroon 5 fan—the importance of standing up for the disenfranchised. He’s able to do it because he’s a superstar that truly came from nothing, and if you’d like a reminder of just how much the average Compton kid has to endure on the way to his dream of becoming the next Dr. Dre, just listen to “Average Joe.”
3. “Momma” (2015)
In an interview with VICE, Kendrick admitted that he has donated significant portions of his wealth to Compton and its public schools, but he tries to keep the matter private because he doesn’t like the idea of using donations as publicity. Or as he puts it in To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Momma,” “The way I’m rewarded, well, that’s God’s decision / I know you know that line’s for Compton School District / Just give it to the kids, don’t gossip about how it was distributed.”
It’s important to Kendrick that his fans know his generosity is not a mere persona. The song also provides a trail of breadcrumbs for any curious hip-hop fan trying to map the morality of money. In just a few lines, he professes that payment is but an incidental reward for doing what he loves, and that using excess wealth for anything but giving back is foolish. There are few other albums in hip-hop—hell, in music period—that so profoundly denounce American materialism, and this is the thematic climax of To Pimp a Butterfly.
2. “Dear Moleskine (Remix)” (2012)
In the ancient ongoing debate over the world’s top emcees, Jay Electronica (also known as the Indomitable Flowman) may be the only true living threat to King Kendrick’s crown—in fact, Jay himself once said on a carried-away Periscope broadcast that “Kendrick would tell you himself he couldn’t body me,” then called him his “son” and even his “baby.” He apologized for inciting beef shortly after, but he never retracted his assertions, and Kendrick never commented on Jay’s claims.
This is what makes their only collaborative track (apart from their co-feature on Big Sean’s “Control,” which is subject to much less debate over the champion) so monumental—a relic wherein the two disputed champions of the rap game exchange takes on young life in the ghetto—and the resulting lyrical content is heartbreaking. In “Dear Moleskine,” Kendrick speaks from the perspective of Johnny, a microcosmic Compton teenager too “fascinated by mayhem” to be saved. The verse ends with interruptive gunshots, portraying Johnny’s untimely murder before he gets a chance to break away from the affiliations of a city gone mad. Over haunting production from Just Blaze, it would be a gross underestimation to deem this a mere classic.
1. “His Pain II” (2012)
Arguably Kendrick Lamar’s most moving piece of writing ever, it’s perplexing that he’d just toss this opus onto the debut album of BJ the Chicago Kid—and yet it’s also downright typical of the self-proclaimed hip-hop rhyme savior to jot enough album-worthy bars to give away to homies on a whim. Few verses throughout his entire discography capture such contagious lament, and one listen of “His Pain II” vividly illustrates the domino effect that prolongs the horrors of a crime-laden city. Ultimately, the only justice a journalist can do this song is through copying, pasting, and embedding, so listen carefully.