Being the best rapper alive has more to do than just technical ability. As Jay-Z so memorably put it, “If skills sold, truth be told, lyrically I’d be more Talib Kweli.” It’s more than just sheer rapping; sometimes the best rappers don’t know how to put together a song, how to choose the right beat, how to construct a hook, or how to market themselves. Kendrick Lamar was anointed the best rapper alive last year with the release of Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. MTV named him the hottest rapper in the game. So since his album, Kendrick has seemed to be everywhere, with major label success offering more exposure than he has ever experienced. Has this led to…dare I say it…an oversaturation of Kendrick? Is there a thing as too much Kendrick?? No, of course not, but this year has produced the most unmemorable appearances of his career. He has had to balance being a pop star with being a rap star, and that tension has put him on awkward ground. For each time he has used his new found fame to his advantage…
…he has also completely fumbled some big looks and revealed himself to be the awkward nerd that he probably is deep down.
But throughout it all, he’s still Kendrick, and when he wants to be is the greatest rapper alive. So here are his Top Ten appearances since GKMC. They’re a lot different than the type of features he was doing before pop success. He has had to do more R&B Remixes, hop on tracks with other hot rappers, and all the while keep his core fanbase happy. In some ways, it’s way harder than just rapping his ass off every time. And there has still been enough good to make up for the not as good. Lucky for you, I’m here to help you find it.
#10: Let Us Move On – Dido
Coming out late last year, this was the first big WTF moment of Kendrick’s superstar career. I suppose Dido was trying to chase that rap money she saw when Eminem sampled her. However contrived it may seem, the collaboration works and Kendrick just kills his verse. Over a moody beat, Kendrick equates the lost love theme of Dido’s verses into a metaphor for him escaping his old life. With lines wise beyond his years (I heard emotions burn deep, I heard when you fall out of love the drop is steep), and every syllable in its proper place, this was a good indication of how successful he would be on pop radio.
#9: Memories Back Then – T.I. ft. B.o.B.
T.I. is a good example of a rap star who transitioned into pop radio while keeping his core fans happy. At least until he went to jail and then went to reality television and lost that talent. But he’s still in the top 5 rappers I would pick to spit a 16 on a pop song, and he’s still great at it (check out his verse on Blurred Lines). This song, another one about a former lover, was supposed to go on T.I.’s last album, but didn’t make it in time and is being pushed back onto Grand Hustle’s album. T.I. tries to get introspective, B.o.B. struggles through some real world situations and Kris Stephens sings an unbelievably saccharine hook, but then Kendrick comes on and just snaps on it. The verse falls into some uncomfortable misogynistic territory as Kendrick tells the cliched tale of the girl who is only after money. But it succeeds because of the detail put into the verse and the audible pain Kendrick feels for not being good enough for this girl. And, after learning she only deals with “rich niggas,” he screams “fuck you and Mitt Romney.” This is one of the times he does black out on the track, changing his flow every few lines, going rapid fire and playing with effects. Makes the whole song worth it.
#8: 1 Train – A$AP Rocky ft. Joey Bada$$, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Big K.R.I.T.
A$AP Rocky’s major label debut was a frustratingly disappointing listen. For every good idea he had, he drowned it out with a terrible one. So half of the album was great, and the other half I’ll never listen to again. Luckily for us, 1 Train was one of the great ideas — grabbing together a collection of the blog generation’s greatest rappers from around the country and having them rap on an old school, no hook, 90’s sounding cypher. Hit-Boy handled the production, captured the perfect vibe, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them lit it up. Kendrick doesn’t necessarily have the best verse (that would be Danny Brown), but he goes in with the concept the best. He carries the same flow from Rocky’s verse into his, makes gun noises and eating noises, and even breaks out his OD era “I’m-gonna-rap-so-hard-it-sounds-like-I’m-out-of-breath” voice and it sounds amazing. Every crew needs to have a posse cut like this to remind the world that they can still rap.
#7: Next To Me (Remix) – Emile Sande
This is one of the best examples of Kendrick on the pop remix. Another label-created pairing, Kendrick still does his thing over the rolling piano riff. Emile sounds like a happy Adele, carrying over the retro 70’s soul pop that took over radio a year ago, and is a great type of song on which to feature Kendrick. He says some stuff about fame and how it changes people and it’s good and all, but the beauty here is how at home he sounds on the beat. He gets his voice into a semi-new tone, sounding gruffer and stronger, able to manage the weight of the piano. This also started a relationship between the two, and you can find Emile on the European remix of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” I’d much rather see Kendrick collaborating with these types of singers rather than pop riff raff.
#6: R.I.P. (Remix) – Young Jeezy ft. YG, Chris Brown
There’s only one thing I need to say about this. Kendrick + DJ Mustard = a hit. L.A.’s best rapper meets L.A.’s best producer and the results are outstanding. Try to forget about Chris Brown ending the song and just appreciate the ratchet madness that is this beat. I’ve already talked a lot about how great DJ Mustard is, but the pairing with Kendrick is a dream, allowing lil’ K.Dot to come out of his shell and flex on lames. All the negative space in the beat works perfectly with Kendrick’s zany rhythms, letting him go all over the place yet still being perfectly on beat. Let this happen more!
#5: U.O.E.N.O. (Black Hippy Remix) – Black Hippy
“U.O.E.N.O.” is a song by Rocko that was transformed into a hit thanks to Future’s hook, Childish Major’s mind absorbing beat, and Rick Ross’ incredibly dumb date rape lyric. The song became controversial as Ross was targeted for his idiocy, ripped off the song and lost his deal with Reebok. Despite all that, the song survived and even thrived thanks to that eerie beat, one of the best of the year. The star studded remix replaced the original Rick Ross version, and every rapper and their mother offered up their own take on the beat. Black Hippy stole the show, continuing the trend of only rapping on remixes, and affirming my belief that if they just made a mixtape of rapping over established industry hits it would be the best thing in the world. All four members go in and Jay Rock probably has the best verse, but Kendrick comes in a close second. I don’t know Kendrick would brag about bribing his way to the top when his whole schtick is how he made it with talent, but if the man wants to stunt, let him stunt! I mean, he just fucked up the rap game and u.o.e.n.o. it.
#4: Street Dreamin – Bridget Kelly
Now take a trip with the narcoleptic. This is the type of song that Kendrick should be on. Old school R&B, a 2pac sampling beat, Kendrick rapping on train tracks while rocking a fitted cap. And he just goes off, chopping up his rhyme scheme like his words are jenga blocks that he’s stacking up right until Bridget takes it over. I have no idea why I don’t hear this on the radio every time I get in the car.
#3 – Looks Good With Trouble (Remix) – Solange
Until we get the incredible collaboration between Kendrick and Beyonce, we’ll have to settle for her little sister. Solange Knowles is an R&B star in her own right, albeit much more quirky than her sister. She’s the reason that Bey-Z went to see Grizzly Bear at Coachella and responsible for the couple’s growing taste in eclectic music. And that sensibility works with Kendrick here. Rather than a surefire Top 40 tune, “Looks Good With Trouble” is slow going, all atmosphere and sensuality. When the synths drop out and Kendrick appears, it’s one of the most honest verses of his career. Jam packed with detail, K. Dot tells the story of a time he was in London, wanting to get into something, and trying to call up this girl. He talks about the bunk beds on his tour bus, how he doesn’t drink but still has a cup, and how he’s having trouble conveying his feelings through a text message. You can feel the London cold, right before he turns a cute Popeye reference into a heartbreaking closer. It’s beautiful and a great moment of vulnerability from the rising star.
#2: Collard Greens – Schoolboy Q
Schoolboy Q is the next to blow from TDE and his upcoming album Oxymoron should be what pushes him into Kendrick’s realm. But for some reason he doesn’t have a release date (seriously what’s up with that?) so K.Dot drops by to assist on his second single. Usually a Kendrick/Schoolboy collaboration is a momentous event, where Q starts speaking truth and Kendrick is his motivational spirit guide telling him about the power of music. Here, however, they just turn up and have fun, and it is just as amazing. Buoyed by THC’s aerobic beat and synth flourishes, the two Black Hippies go nuts on the beat. Quincy just plays around, captures a mesmerizing hook, shouts “icky icky icky” and brags how no one has robbed him yet and how he smokes with his mom. You’d think that he’s the best rapper around if Kendrick wasn’t in the middle of the song, pulling out all the stops and murdering the beat. I don’t even know to begin to describe the destruction that happens here, but he rhymes toupee with touche, goes “DOO DOO DOO DOO,” and blacks out in Spanish. Bitch that be K.Dot.
#1: Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix) ft. Jay-Z
The single art says it all. Jay-Z and Kendrick. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. The torch passed from one generation to the next. For Kendrick, it’s a victory lap, a chance to stunt on all his doubters, an homage to the greats that preceded him, and a statement of purpose. For Jay-Z, it’s a chance to play with the best of them again, to link himself to the current generation, and to remind everyone that he’s the greatest of all time. I shouldn’t have to tell you that they go off. Kendrick literally blasts everything and everyone in his path to the top, and Jay-Z talks about how he stands next to Hillary Clinton while he smells like dank. It’s something special. In the internet age, everything happens so fast that songs get absorbed and deleted without any thought. It’s one of the reasons I made this list, to catalog the sheer amount of music that Kendrick was releasing and highlight the best of it. But this remix was a moment, where the entire rap world was forced to recognize what was happening, whether they liked it or not. It’s a generational touchstone and above all an incredible song. Just appreciate the vibe.