Wednesday will mark the eighth anniversary of the release of Kendrick Lamar’s seminal album To Pimp A Butterfly.

With a cover featuring a group of black people on the lawn of the whitehouse holding liquor bottles and cash, the album cemented the Compton rapper’s status as the voice of his hip-hop generation.

Since then Lamar has had number one singles, been nominated for an Oscar and provided one of the most iconic Glastonbury headline sets of recent times, ending his performance ‘bleeding’ from a crown of thorns and repeating the mantra “they judged you, they judged Christ/God speed for women’s rights” in protest at the overturning of Roe vs Wade.

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He’s one of the most interesting artists working today, and this is his life told through his own words.

HIIIPOWER (Section.80, 2010)

The first official single released by Lamar of his independent album Section.80, ‘HiiiPoWeR’ was a taste of things to come, featuring references to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Kurt Cobain.

SWIMMING POOLS (DRANK) (Good Kid m.A.A.d City, 2012)

While ‘The Recipe’ featuring Compton legend Dr Dre made waves on the hip-hop charts, ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ was Kendrick’s first mainstream hit. The title may suggest an ode to partying, but the song itself is a meditation on alcoholism.

COLLECT CALLS (Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, 2012)

Included as a bonus track on breakthrough album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City ‘Collect Calls’ shows Lamar’s power as a storyteller. It tells the tale of a gang member named Dante facing prison time and desperately reaching out to his mother for help, only for her to respond “I’d rather see you locked up than dead” and testify against her son.

THE BLACKER THE BERRY (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)

Perhaps the finest example of Lamar’s social commentary, this track opens with the stark line “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015”. From there the Compton rapper rails against America’s history of racism and the legacy of slavery before turning the tables in the final verse: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?/When gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?/Hypocrite!”

ALRIGHT (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)

A more hopeful take on life became the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Inspired by a visit to South Africa, its pre-chorus declares “we hate the po-po/wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho-sho” before Pharell Williams comes in to assure that, nevertheless, “we gon’ be alright”.

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BAD BLOOD (1989, 2015)

If any further evidence was needed of the stratospheric success Lamar enjoyed off the back of To Pimp A Butterfly it was his guest appearance on Taylor Swift’s single ‘Bad Blood’ off her world-dominating album 1989. Both albums would be nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammy’s, with the ‘Bad Blood’ remix going to number one.

HUMBLE (DAMN., 2017)

Lamar’s first number one as a solo artist followed shortly after with what may well be his most recognisable song. A piano and 808 beat backs a thunderous lead single full of ironic braggadocio in which the rapper invites his competitors to “sit down, be humble”.

ALL THE STARS (Black Panther: The Album, 2017)

Having been asked to provide a couple of tracks for the soundtrack to Marvel’s Black Panther, Lamar went the whole hog and curated the entire album. It won rave reviews from critics and topped the U.S chart, with single ‘All The Stars’ – a collaboration with SZA – nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.

THE HEART PART 5 (Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, 2022)

Released as a promotional single ahead of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, the eye-catching video for ‘The Heart Part 5’ was a genuine ‘break the internet’ moment. Using deepfake technology, Lamar turned into six controversial or tragic black American figures: OJ Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle.

SAVIOR (Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, 2022)

Having found himself an unofficial spokesman for socially conscious hip-hop, not least thanks to ‘Alright’ and its association with BLM, Lamar looked to vacate the role on his 2022 album. “Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your saviour”, he begins on this highlight track that muses on political correctness, Covid, capitalism and the war in Ukraine.


KING KUNTA (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)

Referencing Kunta Kinte in the title, the third single from To Pimp A Butterfly sees Lamar declaring himself the king of hip-hop and taking aim at rappers who employ ghostwriters: “oh no, I swore I wouldn’t tell/but most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”.

NO MORE PARTIES IN LA (The Life of Pablo, 2016)

Kanye West’s well-documented mental issues were clearly affecting his work by the release of The Life of Pablo but moments of brilliance still shone through, none more so on this collaboration with Lamar.

i (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)

The poppiest moment on a confrontational album, ‘i’ incorporates ‘That Lady’ by the Islay Brothers, with Ronald Islay re-recording his vocal rather than having it sampled by Lamar. As ever there’s a sharp turn, with stopping the song to address deaths from gang violence in spoken word.

N95 (Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, 2022)

While named after the surgical masks used during the Covid pandemic, ‘N95’ sees Kendrick take aim at the fashion industry: “Tell me what would you do for aesthetic?/Would you sell your soul on credit?”

M.A.A.D City (Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, 2012)

A searing takedown of Compton gang culture featuring the hook “if Pirus and Crips all got along/they’d probably gun me down by the end of this song”.