Kendrick Lamar’s 10 greatest music videos

K. Dot’s adventurous albums are only matched by his equally legendary visuals.

Getty Images, Jeffrey Coolidge
Culture

There’s more to being a rap GOAT than having classic albums, intricate rhymes, and indoctrinated fan bases. Emblematic images are also a part of the equation; music videos that not only capture an MC’s star power but also demarcate moments in hip-hop. In a nostalgic culture, these sights might inspire questions like, “Remember when Big and Puff drove the Benz backward in ‘Hypnotize?’ Or Hov and Dame’s yacht party in ‘Big Pimpin’?’ How old were you the first time you saw Eminem in ‘My Name Is?’” Historically, the greats are even greater when they’re on-screen. The same rule applies today.

With Kendrick Lamar in current GOAT contention, it should surprise no one that he has as many memorable visuals as those who came before him. While superyachts and exotic whips aren’t really his thing, it’s impossible to consider his career without recalling equally impressive images. The era of music videos as events may be long gone, but the value that generation-defining artists find in documenting their evolution seems to be evergreen. In honor of the latest installment in Lamar’s videography, “We Cry Together,” which might be remembered as “the video for that weird Baby Boy-sounding song,” we ranked the boldest, coolest, and most creative music videos K. Dot has ever made.

10. “A.D.H.D”

The video for “A.D.H.D” features two blog-era hallmarks: the multitalented Vashtie Kola, and the creative oasis that is lower Manhattan. Years before Lamar would controversially crown himself “The King of New York” in “Control,” the Compton native donned an “I Love NY” hoodie in this Kola-directed visual and hung out in front of a bodega the way A$AP Mob, Pro Era, or Flatbush Zombies might have at a similar time. The image of soon-to-be West Coast royalty looking right at home in the narrow streets of LES was as striking then as it is now.

Rigamortis” is another Section.80 video shot in the Big Apple, but what sets “A.D.H.D” apart is the way it captures the carefree spirit of kids in the city. With a true New Yorker directing each scene, conceptually, the visual is held together by shots of the baby-faced Lamar roaming backstreets and an abandoned office building with the familiarity of someone born and raised there.

9. “Swimming Pools”

Of the videos from Lamar’s breakthrough album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, “Swimming Pools” stands out as the one that depicts the imagery of its lyrics the most succinctly. The eerie-sounding song describes a man’s descent into alcoholism as its visual shows Lamar falling through time and space into a “swimming pool full of liquor.” Providing a clear view of the disorienting effects of addiction, the video is an example of what can be achieved when the enigmatic artist avoids his tendency to overthink things.

8. “DNA.”

Few fans would begrudge a person for saying DAMN. is their favorite Kendrick Lamar album. That’s mostly a result of the competitive spirit that surges through songs like “DNA.” Lamar’s fourth studio LP is the most listenable he’s ever been, even as he maintains dense and difficult concepts in his lyrics. Similar to some of the “theories and suspicions” throughout DAMN., the video for “DNA.” doesn’t always make sense, but it benefits from energy so propulsive it doesn’t allow time for knit-picking.

What does Don Cheadle mean by “Dead Nigger Association?” What exactly is happening to him as he loses control of his body and battle raps Lamar in the interrogation room? And what the fuck does a lie detector test have to do with DNA? The answers to these questions couldn’t possibly matter less as Kung Fu Kenny furiously raps his way out of incarceration and dominates every moment of every frame he’s in. The agility of director Nabil’s camera work matches the acrobatics of Lamar’s rhymes at such a pace that one’s left wondering what they just watched and why they feel so compelled to run it back. That’s also a question that doesn’t need to be answered. Just play it again.

7. “These Walls” feat. Bilal, Anna Wise, and Thundercat

Another video with a celebrity cameo and a lack of self-seriousness is “These Walls.” Featuring a hilarious dance routine performed alongside Terry Crews, the visual shows Kendrick Lamar at his funniest, thus his most fearless. This may sound counterintuitive, but To Pimp a Butterfly is so uniformly urgent that a lighthearted short film set in a jail cell and a house party is in some ways the most daring offering from Lamar’s 2015 LP. During a time in the Pulitzer Prize winner’s career that ultimately elevated people’s estimations of his intellect, he granted himself the freedom in this video to act a damn fool. The result is as refreshing as the sex he’s subtly rapping about throughout the song. Even though “These Walls” isn’t as rewatchable as “DNA.,” it represents an element of Lamar’s artistry that isn’t quite as potent anywhere else in his videography.

6. “The Heart Part 5”

Two facts: deep fake technology is dangerous and unethical, and “The Heart Part 5” is the best-intentioned use of it that anyone could hope for. Throughout the fifth installment of his ongoing freestyle series, Lamar offers indictments of “the culture” while embodying OJ Simpson, Kanye West, Jussie Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle. What do an alleged murderer, a bipolar billionaire, a con artist, a disgraced Oscar winner, a champion with a rape accusation, and a senselessly slain poet have in common? Not much. But Lamar seems to believe that the culture facilitated each man’s demise in one way or another.

“The Heart Part 5” is one of those instances in which the validity of Lamar’s rhetoric matters less than his delivery. It’s almost the inverse of the most common criticism of Eminem. Whereas some say Marshall’s double-timed flow can’t hide the fact that he’s rapped about a whole lot of nothing at certain points in his career, Lamar often receives as much credit for his willingness to write about complicated subjects as he does for his athletic ability to somersault syllables. Agreeing with an artist’s point of view isn’t completely necessary when you respect the skill it took for them to illustrate it. This applies to both the superhuman rapping throughout “The Heart Part 5” and the concerningly convincing nature of its counterfeit cameos.

5. “HUMBLE.”

A less unnerving example of technology complementing Lamar’s natural creativity is “HUMBLE.” Robotic camera rigs, 360-degree shots, and impressive CGI help bring the rapper’s first solo No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single to life. Like “DNA.,” “HUMBLE.” is a DAMN. track that finds Lamar turning the braggadocio up a notch and effectively hitting the reset button after To Pimp a Butterfly. In both songs, he raps as if he’s attempting to prove a point that might have gotten lost throughout the woke ambitions of his previous album. In the case of “HUMBLE.,” that point paired with this cinematic visual earned him the coveted Video of the Year award at the 2017 VMAs.

4. “Family Ties” with Baby Keem

The pgLang flag flying throughout “Family Ties” is appropriate, as this video felt like the official arrival of Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free’s multi-disciplinary creative collective. Though the imprint released three Baby Keem visuals and a Calvin Klein campaign before this single from The Melodic Blue, its first music video to feature Kendrick Lamar felt like a coming-out party. Triumphant horns and sophisticated collaging techniques give the sense that pgLang is here to not only create culture, but to conquer it. All artistic expressions are within Lamar’s reach as he promises to smoke on top fives.

“Family Ties” marks the beginning of an era in Lamar’s career. Teasing “new flows” throughout his verse with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers still in the vault, he ignited anticipation for his fifth studio album more intentionally than he has for any other record in the past. That declaration turned out to make more sense with time, as certain parts of the project are as unconventional yet undeniably memorable as this standout feature.

3. “We Cry Together” feat. Taylour Paige

As mentioned earlier, “We Cry Together” is truly bizarre. The song itself is ill-conceived and highlights the limitations of Lamar’s constant quest for profundity. He raps in a way that seems to suggest he’s playing a character, yet the misogyny he spews mirrors the more straightforward hotep logic in other areas of his discography. Suspending disbelief in this instance becomes particularly difficult when homophobic slurs and Kodak Black verses also appear on the same album. But as cringe-worthy as the song’s lyrics are, the success of its imagery is a testament to the power of a well-executed music video.

A soundstage, an impossibly long tracking shot, and live vocals that must have been rehearsed dozens of times make the single feel like the play it was always meant to be. Outside of the context of Lamar’s music and instead set in the home of “Dante S” and his enraged girlfriend, the story unfolds in a way that displays the incredible talent of the rapper and his scene partner. Rhyming back-and-forth for the length of a full song while hitting marks, staying in character, and matching each other’s energy throughout a five-minute take is one of the most impressive things either Kendrick Lamar or Taylour Paige has done on-screen. While the track is an abject failure, the “We Cry Together” music video is an achievement in the art of performance.

2. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”

“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is the most beautiful visual in Kendrick Lamar’s videography. With mourners dressed in white, a homegoing service turns into a true celebration of life in the video as Lamar and company pop bottles and bury a loved one. The 2013 clip isn’t inherently political, but it contains a powerful optimism that wouldn’t be matched until Kendrick began to make official protest music a couple of years later. Although life was lost, the characters in the video refuse to let their vibe die as well. The smiles, the dancing, Pastor Mike Epps’ prom poses in front of the casket — they’re all statements of undeterred, unwavering, and, yes, unapologetic black joy. There are more ambitious, more expensive-looking, and even more creative music videos in Lamar’s catalog. But “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is undoubtedly his most moving visual to date.

1. “Alright”

“Alright” is the most iconic music video of Kendrick Lamar’s career. That word is often misused, as people usually mean something more like “memorable” or “exciting” when they say it. But the definition of something that’s iconic — a thing that’s “widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence” — fits “Alright” perfectly. Twenty years from now, it’s the video that’ll play during tributes to Lamar at award shows, just as it’s played in nearly every documentary on the Black Lives Matter movement today. It’s the work of art that best defines what he meant to people at the peak of his popularity. As he soars above the streets of Los Angeles, the scene feels like a multi-layered metaphor: Kendrick is rising above the madness in his city and hoping to lift his people up with him, but in a meta sense, he’s been held up as a savior at a time when political art is tragically sparse.

Years later, there’s no neat bow that can be put on Kendrick Lamar’s identity as a political artist. Most people who’d have him be that either feel let down by how he’s carried himself since 2015, or want more than he’s intellectually equipped to give. But no matter how little he speaks up in crucial moments, or how hair-brained some of his more recent rhymes may sound, or how many times he capes for abusers, the culture will always have this evergreen anthem to remind us things will be all right — whether or not our modern-day GOAT makes anything this consequential again.