When I first heard Kendrick Lamar’s 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated, I wouldn’t have guessed that the good kid from Compton, California, would become one of the most praised voices of this generation. Not that I wasn’t immediately impressed. He was lyrically deft with a depth and message that challenged rap standards—all surefire ways to earn yourself a spot in the bargain bin next to Dead Prez and Immortal Technique. Yet, somehow, K.Dot managed to hijack the industry, turn an anti-drinking song (“Swimming Pools”) into a chart-topping smash, light a fire under the asses of his peers and shift the culture of his genre—all while snagging a ton of awards and honors. (Memo to the Grammy committee: Don’t fuck up the Best Rap Album award this year.)
If you’re debating the top five emcees, dead or alive, Kendrick should rank no lower than No. 3—and that’s only if you’re being respectful of the dead.
While Kanye was a name of contention during last year’s Life Is Beautiful lineup reveal because of his arrogance and extravagance, Kendrick is the antithesis—a humble everyman who lives in a $500,000 home, raps about the homeless and isn’t afraid to smile in photos.
Complain about the lineup if you must, but know there isn’t a better rapper for this year’s festival than Kendrick Lamar. A more effective use of your time would be to get familiar with the following essential tracks, while I keep my fingers crossed in hopes they make his set list:
“Untitled” (unreleased). Before Kendrick’s hotly anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly came out in March, fans got what they thought was a preview of the album in December when he and an ensemble band delivered the powerful final musical performance on The Colbert Report. (Colbert joked: “Keep in mind: Paul McCartney, R.E.M., Jack White and Nas were your opening acts.”) In this song, Kendrick shares conversations with an Asian man who advises him to meditate, an Indian man (Native American, I’m assuming) who tells him to invest in land/real estate, a black man who reprises the adage that “nookie is power” and a white man—a record label executive—who wants Kendrick to “put a price on my talent.” The Internet exploded in response … but the song didn’t end up on the album. An interview later revealed that the thing was never recorded at all; it was intended to live in that one moment. Hopefully, it’ll be resurrected onstage Downtown.
Verse from “Control” (promotional single for Big Sean’s Hall of Fame). Kendrick Lamar may have been a featured guest on the track—another that was never made available for purchase—but he made the song, overshadowing Big Sean and Jay Electronica, and twisting a lot of rappers’ panties. In his three-minute verse, Kendrick calls out a dozen of his contemporaries (I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas) and claiming I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the King of New York. The song sparked countless “diss” responses, but it did its job by forcing others to step up their games. Big K.R.I.T., J. Cole, Big Sean, Tyler and Wale—all of whom were named on the record—dropped their strongest works after “Control.” Coincidence? I think not.
“How Much a Dollar Cost” (from To Pimp a Butterfly). A reminder for myself and anyone else who sidesteps the blatant homeless problem Downtown, this Christian-leaning song details a run-in with an incessant beggar. Kendrick continually refuses to give him a single penny. In the final few bars comes the plot twist: The homeless man is God. Cheesy? Yes. But next time you’re spending $10 on your limited-keg Imperial IPA and admiring those neat murals Downtown, maybe don’t be a dick to the dude sleeping behind the utility box.
“u” and “i” (from To Pimp a Butterfly). These two songs stand in direct contrast with one another—the former dreary self-loathing, the latter a flourish of self-love. Although they appear nine tracks apart on the album, they’d pair perfectly in a live setting, transitioning from a dark fit of depression to the rousing funk of the Isley Brothers-sampling radio hit. I can already picture thousands of us shouting in unison: I love myself!
“m.A.A.d city” (from good kid, m.A.A.d city) x Imagine Dragons “Radioactive” mash-up. The only time I’ll sit through “Radioactive” is when watching a clip of it at the 2014 Grammys. That’s because 20 seconds in, lead-Dragon Dan Reynolds is interrupted by yawk! yawk! yawk! Kendrick surprised everyone with the unlikely collaboration, mixing his autobiographical opus “m.A.A.d city” with the rock hit. Already pulsing with urgency, the track took on a monstrous new life thanks to the hometown Dragons. It was a welcome to the New Age, indeed. With both acts headlining this year’s Life Is Beautiful, I can’t think of a better closer.