Kendrick isn’t just great for his lyricism. His choice of beats/instrumentals elevate his words to another level, and his music is as sonically pleasing and challenging as his verses are poetically and politically brilliant and razor-sharp.
I’ve selected the best beats and their producers from his five full-length projects: Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp A Butterfly, untitled unmastered., and DAMN.
A.D.H.D – Sounwave
This beat has a surreal quality to it that removes your soul from your body and takes you on a psychedelic trip– intoxicating and brilliant.
Rigamortus – Willie B & Sounwave
Instant earworm. Coupled with Kendrick’s nonstop delivery, the DGAF attitude of the beat establishes him as one of the best in the game.
HiiiPower – J. Cole
There is something nostalgic about this beat, even fron his first album, that gives him a deeply introspective edge that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Who knew J. Cole could produce so well? Perhaps a better question is: who doesn’t like a Kendrick/J. Cole collaboration? I hope they do more projects together.
This one and TPAB are full of gems. Honestly, those entire albums could be on this list, so hold on tight as I go through more tracks…
Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe – Sounwave
Clean, refreshing, classy. It creates the perfect mood for someone on top of the game looking down at the rest of the crowd.
Backseat Freestyle – Hit-Boy
Is there any better way to boast about yourself? The thundering bells and claps are as satisfying for the listener as it is for 16-year-old Kendrick to talk about his power, his skills, and his ladies.
Poetic Justice – Scoop DeVille
A romantic song doesn’t have to be sappy or sentimental to convey genuine curiosity and attraction. This beat perfectly paints the picture of a young Kendrick searching for a girl to return his feelings. Janet Jackson’s sampled voice never ceases to amaze, and the claps in the background complement the lyrics well.
good kid – Williams
The other titular track aside from the immensely popular and haunting “m.A.A.d city.” But I’ve always liked “good kid” as much. The two need each other. The beat of “good kid” is rueful– a deceptive calm before the storm. Like the wind rushing through your ears, the instrumentals tread suspensefully, like an innocent child before witnessing what he can never unsee.
m.A.A.d city – Sounwave, THC, Martin
It’s impossible to talk about Kendrick Lamar without talking about “m.A.A.d city.” The harrowing beat is as relentless and unforgiving as the tale of street life Lamar recounts in his bars. If the first half wasn’t already enough, the second half is even more haunting. The isolated keyboard, the gunshot effects, and both ascending and descending rolling sound effects sends chills down your spine. We may never know the trauma of growing up next to bullets and gangs, but Lamar gives us a glimpse through the two beats of this track.
Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst – Like, Skhye Hutch, Sounwave
This track is the marathon of the album. The beat is resigned, a kind of meditation after the memories of violence and horror in preceding tracks. There is something deeply reverent about this beat as a track that never makes itself known too loudly. In the absence of all pride, Lamar draws us in closer to the nostalgia and introspection of the beat.
Wesley’s Theory – Flying Lotus, Flippa, Sounwave, Thundercat
One of the best openers in the history of hip hop– maybe music– both sonically and lyrically. Dense, dazzling, and funkadelic at the same time, “Wesley’s Theory” refuses to stand still. This beat is hard to forget.
These Walls – Martin, Dopson, Sounwave
From the snaps in the opening bars, it is clear Kendrick Lamar is delivering yet another unconventional yet uniquely truthful love song. “These Walls” can be compared to “Poetic Justice,” but they are different. The glittering sound effects, blares, and smooth guitar chords all create a world of a more mature, perhaps more implicitly provocative song. Lamar distances himself from the politically charged remainder of the album, like an out-of-body experience searching for physical and emotional fulfillment.
u – Arnold, Whoarei, Sounwave
The most noticeable and disturbing part of this track is the disconnect between the instrumentals and Kendrick’s voice in the first half– how the jazz seems to go on playing gleefully in a separate world from the nasally, growling voice and how we must reconcile these two. The brass in the second part grounds in reality Kendrick’s drunk, barely sane voice, just enough for us to hold onto our minds by a single thread like Kendrick did.
Hood Politics – Tae Beast, Sounwave, Thundercat
From the groovy and almost lazy-sounding jam in the beginning, Kendrick quickly plunges into a biting voice contrasted against backing vocals wailing nostalgically. This beat is cold-hearted; regretful but never sad. Though Kendrick is boasting about his position in the rap game, there is a kind of emotional void in the music that can never be filled by materialistic success.
How Much a Dollar Cost – LoveDragon
I was first interested in this song because it was Obama’s favorite song of 2015. It has hit me deeply ever since, perhaps more than any other Kendrick Lamar song. The low keyboard in the beginning is melancholy, and the mournful trumpet blare in the distance is painful to listen to. As Kendrick’s narrative unfolds, the instrumentals must march forward but the wailing brass continues echoing. The contrast between the two, combined with Kendrick’s voice, builds the brilliant structure of this track. One of the most moving beats of all time.
i – Rahki
“i” is of the best beats of all time, and a truly uplifting one. This song can work magic. After the guilt, doubt, and self-hate that has pervaded the album, “i” rallies up all those who listen for a celebration of the self. The funky harmonies of guitar chords surround the various vocals perfectly. “i” is relentless–relentless love.
Mortal Man – Sounwave
The long last stretch, and an emotional and narrative journey like no other. The keyboards and fluttering brass from the beginning foreshadow the fragmented, controlled chaos that will return again and again throughout the track. The bass harmonies and limping beat seeps into your head like water on dry ground. Brass and strings add surreal touches. And a free jazz band begins to accompany Kendrick and Tupac in the background, again distant and detached but deeply enriching. Finally, when Kendrick reads his complete poem, and the music builds to a wonderfully chaotic climax and finally one last drum beat before Kendrick is left searching for Tupac forever– music has never been more important.
untitled 03 – Astronote
This beat is great at building up anticipation over the stretch of the entire track. The incessant drum, alternating chords, and trilling flutes are exhilarating. Note: please, please listen to the live version rather than the recorded one.
untitled 07 | levitate – Egypt Daoud, Cardo, Yung Exclusive, Frank Dukes, Swizz Beatz
This beat is astonishing. The psychedelic synths are addicting, not to mention the booming bass. This is a standout from all of Kendrick’s beats.
BLOOD. – Bekon, Top Dawg
Sometimes the best say what they need to say in the fewest words… or in this case, notes. Though repetitive at its most basic level, the instrumentals introduce a new level of anxiety, self-doubt, and inner turmoil. The strings add a layer of chilling suspense. As the first track on DAMN., this beat clearly shows the new kinds of inner conflict that comes with age and perfectly sets the tone and themes for the rest of the album.
LUST. – DJ Dahi, Sounwave, BadBadNotGood
This is the best beat on this album and also my favorite. Anxious, calculated, tense and seductive at the same time, it shifts from the left side of your headphones to the right: the ultimate abandonment. Like a plunge into your deepest temptations– there can be no better accompaniment to the lyrics.
LOVE. – Walton, Sounwave, Kurstin, Top Dawg
Cool, clean, and fresh. Like the seaside waves of the gorgeous music video, the beat has a wonderful summer night feeling to it.
FEAR. – The Alchemist, Bekon
“FEAR.” is a very close second to “LUST.” and it is certainly my favorite on certain nights. The beat is haunting, elusive, surreal, and nihilistic. The instrumentals wind around in the air like the smoke rising from Kendrick’s joint to “smoke the fear away.” There is no better beat for being introspective on a late night alone in your room.