Like finding a short line at the DMV or entering a political Facebook debate, ranking the songs on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a futile exercise. Widely regarded as one of the best hip-hop records of the decade to date, separating these dozen tracks is splitting hairs.
Each song is fantastic in its own right. Rankings these tracks comes down to how much they mean to the album’s greater storyline (here’s a pretty good guide to the narrative, in case you’re unfamiliar), the depth, sonic appeal, and lasting effect on the genre. The most popular songs are not necessarily ranked near the top, and some of the deep cuts are, well, deep cuts for a reason.
Here are all 12 of GKMC’s songs, ranked:
12. “Poetic Justice” (feat. Drake)
The Drake feature certainly helped move some extra units, but this love song is one of two of the most dispensable tracks on the LP. While Drake is a bit of an antithesis to Kendrick’s West Coast-conscious style of rap, he fits like a glove here. However, this track feels a bit forced, as if Kendrick wanted to check off the “ballad” box to round out his album. This track does little more than emphasize his crush on Sherane; remove it and the story still makes perfect sense.
11. “Compton” (feat. Dr. Dre)
If good kid, m.A.A.d. city was made into a movie, this is the track that would roll during the credits. Just Blaze puts together a banger beat infused with West Coast synthesizers, a theme reinforced with a verse from West Coast legend Dr. Dre. This is a celebration of Compton, even if in somewhat of an ironic sense, considering what Kendrick Lamar just endured during GKMC’s story. Like “Poetic Justice,” however, this track could be removed from the album altogether without altering its story.
10. “Sherane aka. The Master Splinter’s Daughter”
This bone-chilling intro track sets the tone for the album, in both a sonical and lyrical sense. Behind a cryptic beat, Kendrick kicks good kid off by jumping to a pivotal moment in the story — he is set up to get jumped by the high-school sweetheart he was on his way to meet Sherane. A captivating introduction, this song only falls this far down the list because its replay value is relatively low. Without context of the story, this track doesn’t serve much of a purpose.
9. “good kid”
The first of two title tracks on the album, “good kid” gets somewhat lost in the mix of so many tremendous tracks in large part because it serves more as an interlude than a full, fleshed-out song. Nonetheless, this track marks the turning point in the album’s tale, the moment Kendrick becomes aware of the evils surrounding him.
8. “Real” (feat. Anna Wise)
Sonically, this is perhaps the weakest song on the album. Kendrick’s nasal, uninspired hook (“I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real”…really?) and monotonous delivery sound more like the underdeveloped mixtape Kendrick than the Dr. Dre protege.
Nonetheless, this is one of the most vital tracks on the album purely because of the message it sends. The last “story” track on the album (only proceeded by the “Compton” finale), this is the maturation of a young Kendrick, who has come a long way from his rambunctious ways on “Backseat Freestyle” and “The Art of Peer Pressure.”
Speaking on self-respect and truthfulness to one’s character, this track foreshadows one of the major themes of To Pimp a Butterfly. Tracks such as “i” and “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” echo the same sentiments originally said on this track.
7. “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Like so many other hit singles, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is an anthem about drinking and partying. On first listen, without any context as to the type of artist Kendrick is, it almost sounds as if he is holding a bottle of liquor to your mouth and telling you to drink up.
Taking a further step into the lyrics, this track is no glorification of a party lifestyle. Instead, Kendrick slips in between levels of awareness, battling his conscience while he tries to navigate the untested waters of underage drinking. Having grown up around continuous alcohol abuse — his album cover is a baby photo of himself beside a table of 40s — Kendrick finds himself once again at odds with peer pressure and what he knows deep down is the responsible decision.
Laid over a synthetic trap-flavored instrumental, this track was the most commercially successful on the album, albeit ironically considering the song’s content. While he did compromise a bit with the trendy production, Kendrick brilliantly masked his deeper meaning behind a song that sounds like a club hit.
6. “Backseat Freestyle”
Kendrick scared his fans half to death when he released “Backseat Freestyle” as a single. Without context of the album, the song is an ignorant anthem of money, cars, women and drugs — completely out of character for the leader of Black Hippy.
Its placement within the album, however, excuses Kendrick for his rather obnoxious bars (“I pray my d*ck get as big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can f*ck the world for 72 hours”). This track marks the beginning of the story, as Kendrick is literally freestyling in the backseat of a car without a care in the world. If anything, Kendrick went out of his way to make his lyrics as flamboyant as possible to emphasize the type of character this younger version of himself was.
The beat itself makes this one of the most replayable tracks on the record, whether Kendrick was being tongue-in-cheek or not. The massive bass and ringing bells make this short kid from Compton’s bars seem larger than life.
5. “The Art of Peer Pressure”
Part of what makes GKMC such a tremendous body of work is that, while a detailed story of a young man from Compton, it carries themes that almost any adolescent can relate too. The aptly named “The Art of Peer Pressure” depicts a typical scene of Kendrick living his trouble-causing lifestyle in Compton.
At heart, Kendrick is a caring, sober individual — unless he’s “with the homies.” Kendrick doesn’t have a mean heart and doesn’t like to drink, but here he is, gangbanging and robbing houses, narrowly avoiding a trip to the pen. Kendrick sheds light on the fact that while gangsters are viewed as nothing but mindless criminals, they are not much different from the average teenager following the crowd.
This track also features one of the slickest set of bars on the record “hot-boxing like George Foreman, grilling the masses of the working world.” Combined with masterful storytelling, this is Kendrick flexing his lyrical muscle to tell a tale his listeners won’t soon forget.
4. “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”
This is perhaps the only song that does not have a direct tie-in to the story. If “Compton” is the song played during the closing credits, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” is the intro to this musical movie.
On this track, Kendrick is taking a moment to reflect on his position in rap, how he deals with detractors and leeches, and the state of rap in itself. Kendrick flows so fluidly on his bars that he makes extremely tight rhymes come off easy behind a guitar strum that will put the most stressful mind at ease.
Even without adding directly to the story in GKMC, this is a beautifully done, introspective track that will stand as one of the cornerstones of Kendrick’s catalogue.
3. “m.A.A.d. city” (feat. MC Eiht)
If GKMC was a superhero movie, this is the part when the bad guy’s plan is set in motion and it looks like the world is about to end. Kendrick is now fully caught up in the not-so-glamorous part of Compton life, surrounded by gang violence, drugs (m.A.A.d is an acronym for “My Angels on Angels Dust,” referring to a dusted blunt he smoked on “The Art of Peer Pressure”), and police brutality.
The song is cut in two halves; the first is Kendrick’s cracking voice (either out of fear or perhaps a symbol of puberty) behind a harrowing string instrumental. When the beat switches (m.A.A.d. also stands for “My Angry Adolescence Divided”), West Coast legend MC Eiht bridges the gap before Kendrick delivers his final verse filled with regret over the life he has found himself in.
Plenty of songs have been written about these same topics of violence and death, but few have come close to depicting these scenes with such personal, thrilling, movie-like detail as this title track.
2. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
Kendrick Lamar has a lot of great qualities as an artist, but what makes him unique as a storyteller is how he takes an event and presents a side to it that no one would have assumed. This 12-minute double track takes place after one of Kendrick’s homies is shot dead, sparking an incredibly unique and thought-provoking moment of self-reflection.
“Sing About Me” is in reference to”Keisha’s Song,” a track from his debut album, Section .80, that told the story of a young prostitute who was murdered. As it turns out, Keisha was the sister of this friend who was just killed. From both his and Kendrick’s own perspective, Kendrick raps about the morality of writing such personal songs. He does not mean to offend, but as he concludes, telling these tales is nothing but telling the reality of the world he lives in.
“Dying of Thirst” is a tired and fed-up Lamar looking for meaning — specifically from religion — as to why his world is falling apart around him.
This long sequence isn’t a track for the radio, but this type of introspective thinking is rare from any artist, never mind one as young as this version of Kendrick. The beats and rhymes are not what make this song so great — rather, it is Kendrick’s other-worldly ability to become self-aware enough to harness these emotions and speak on them from such a unique perspective.
1. “Money Trees” (feat. Jay Rock)
Kendrick does not rap all that well on “Money Trees,” but it stands alone as the top song on his sophomore masterpiece. This track is not about tight flows and killer bars — “Money Trees” stands out because of its instrumental, hook, and Jay Rock.
The crooning strings, complete with birds chirping in the background, strike the perfect emotional balance between feeling powerful with Kendrick’s newfound money while battling a haunting sense of uneasiness. At this stage, Kendrick is starting to get some recognition for his raps, but he is still knee-deep in a life of gangs and violence without the promise that a music career will ever quite pan out.
“Money Trees” also features one of the most quotable and profound lines on the record: “Halle Berry…or hallelujah?” Lust or peace? Ambition or tranquility? These are the types of life-altering questions that Kendrick tries to answer while rhyming in a parked car.
Jay Rock’s verse rounds this track out in grand fashion. Kendrick spends most of the song glorifying his lifestyle of backpack rapping with loose, carefree bars, but Rock comes in just in time to bring Kendrick back to the reality of street life in South Los Angeles. Rock’s brilliantly direct style is the perfect yang to Kendrick’s yin.
To this day, Rock’s verse on “Money Trees” is his most memorable set of bars in his catalogue. It even inspired him to make a sequel track, “Money Trees Deuce,” on his LP 90059.