“1, 2, 3, 4, 5 / I am the great-est rap-per a-live,” proclaims Kendrick Lamar on “The Heart Part 4.” The surprise comeback track dropped in March, preceding DAMN., which will surely be considered among the best records of 2017. With his flows more varied than ever, his beats more innovative and his subject matter simultaneously ultra-personal and wide-reaching, DAMN. caps off one of the best three album streaks in recent memory.
But while he’s already cemented his musical legacy before age 30, it’s time to turn to an arena where K-Dot doesn’t get enough love—his music videos. While his early videos show more promise than quality, the Compton native eventually found a balance yielding visual accompaniments as iconic as the songs themselves. Consistently thought provoking, political and fun, Lamar’s 29 music videos are valuable tools to help fully understand his artistic vision.
29. “Compton State of Mind”
It’s amazing that only three years separate “Compton State of Mind,” an outrageously corny Jay-Z and Alica Keys remix, and good kid, m.A.A.d City, known as one of the better albums of the decade. “Compton State of Mind” is another entry in a sea of YouTube covers of “Empire State of Mind” from 2009, though that being said, Kendrick’s flow here is better than almost anyone else’s. The video is exactly what you’d expect – a collection of Kendrick rapping at different places around his hometown, including high schools, city squares, parks and strip malls. The video quality isn’t much more than that of an iPhone 3 or earlier. But just three years later, Dee.Jay.Dave was still behind the camera, directing both “Backseat Freestyle” and “Poetic Justice,” two videos that will be featured much later in this piece.
28. “Bitch I’m In The Club”
Kendrick’s first music video, also directed by his childhood friend Dee.Jay.Dave is nothing more than a live video shot with a low quality camera. The sound is muffled and the visuals are fuzzy, especially when Dave leaves black and white to mess around with infrared camera effects and alternates filming from the audience’s perspective rather than just onstage. At the end of the day, this isn’t much more than a shitty iPhone live video uploaded to YouTube the day after a concert.
27. “Michael Jordan”
Director: Fredo Tovar
There are some redeeming parts of this music video (particularly the scenes where Kendrick reenacts a line from the song literally, quite literally stopping the traffic, on a freeway onramp with the Los Angeles skyline in the background), but so much of this clip revolves around Kendrick trying on shoes. The video kicks into a higher gear when ScHoolboy Q’s verse hits and the two share the stage and a tour bus, with the video’s frequent camera cuts adding to that. The random song lyrics flashing on screen are an unnecessary touch however, distracting from the rest of the video. It’s definitely the worst of the Overly Dedicated clips, but just as Dee.Jay.Dave’s film techniques and stylistic decisions improve over time, so does Fredo Tovar’s.
26. “The Heart Part.1”
Portraying a sort of week-in-the-life, “The Heart Part.1” follows Kendrick around a record store, a ride on a tour bus, hanging out in a parking lot and onstage. It’s a fun look at K-Dot’s life pre-fame, hanging out with his friends and looking genuinely excited to simply be on tour. Once again, the video quality isn’t great, but it’s better than in the three aforementioned efforts. The close up shots of Kendrick rapping and staring into the camera are nice pseudo-artistic moments, something that was previously missing.
25. “Cut You Off”
While Calmatic would go on to direct one of the better music videos of the decade (that would be Anderson .Paak’s “Come Down” from last year), he got his start with the Black Hippy collective in 2010, directing videos for Ab-Soul and Kendrick. “Cut You Off,” the only K-Dot clip he has done to date, is another DIY video. Early on, directors would consistently include material of a calm Kendrick rapping close to the camera with the most interesting stuff happening behind him. In this case, the video is heavy on studio footage, including shots of Kendrick rapping with friends and family members in the background, seemingly angry and on their phones. As a result, the video for “Cut You Off” is still very amateurish, but it’s starting to get better.
24. “Monster Freestyle”
Nikki Minaj’s verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” is one of the most instantly iconic features in recent rap history, spawning thousands of covers and remixes from rappers trying to prove themselves. One of which comes from Kendrick, who absolutely destroys it. The corresponding clip, made in advance of Overly Dedicated, is simple, but to the point. There are no frills whatsoever; the focus is 100% on Kendrick’s technical skill and Calmatic made sure there were zero distractions. Filmed in front of a fire exit sign, the camera never leaves Lamar as he repeatedly states, “I am the best rapper alive,” before launching into a boastful diatribe attacking Kanye, Lupe Fiasco, Nas, Eminem and more, an early precursor to his infamous “Control” verse. Calmatic didn’t do much here, but in this instance, simplicity was crucial.
Director: Jerome D
A week in advance of Overly Dedicated’s release, Kendrick teased “H.O.C.,” a track about being a non-weed smoker in a city chock full of them, with a short minute-plus video. Though the chorus goes, “Bet you think that this some high shit that I wrote / Probably think I’m off the kush or hydro / I don’t even smoke, I don’t even smoke,” the clip features visuals of people smoking marijuana interspersed with Kendrick rapping in front of a white background. There’s not much going on, but the actual video quality is a career best at that point. Jerome D, a close friend of Lamar’s, sits in the director’s chair for this one and will go on to shoot a few more videos that will be featured later in this list.
22. “Jason Keaton & Uncle Bobby”
Director: Brandon Dimit
The first time we see a lot of promise from Kendrick’s early videos. “Jason Keaton & Uncle Bobby” is a well-shot, black and white clip featuring a somber Lamar rapping all around Los Angeles. Though it utilizes more than a few hip hop video clichés—the slow, serious walk down the street with about a dozen friends, the shots with different city landmarks in the background, etc.—he does it in a way that works (unlike “Compton State of Mind”). Ultimately, “Jason Keaton & Uncle Bobby” is the best of the very early Kendrick videos, and director Brandon Dimit (then a complete unknown), did a solid job bringing the track to life. Bonus: in the interview following the conclusion of the song, Kendrick actually says, “The half of the story of kids in Compton is just basically good kids in the mad city. I’m a good kid in the mad city.” Three years before good kid, m.A.A.d city, he already knew the title.
21. “Ignorance is Bliss”
Directors: Dee.Jay.Dave & OG Mike Mihail
Like “H.O.C.,” “Ignorance is Bliss” is another short teaser promoting the impending release of Overly Dedicated, though for the first time in his career, the music video has a plot. Directed by his close associates Dee.Jay.Dave and OG Mike Mihail, the latter of which would eventually rejoin Kendrick & co. on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the minute and a half clip follows Kendrick mourning the loss of a friend at a cemetery and then avenging his death in a drive-by shooting. Kendrick shows lots of self-doubt, signified by his heavy breathing in the car and unsure eyes while staring at his enemy just before pulling the trigger. This likely would have been his best pre-good kid, m.A.A.d city video had it been longer.
Director: The ICU
“Rigamortis” is one of Kendrick’s best songs. His flow and rhyme schemes on the Section.80 highlight are largely unparalleled throughout rap history. It’s just a shame that The ICU’s video doesn’t reflect the fast-paced, 100mph beat for the promo clip itself. The video follows K-Dot around New York’s East Village as he hangs out in an art museum, strolls along a cemetery and begs for money in the middle of Bowery on a rainy day. A horn-led band follows him around, playing behind him in the street, but it all feels like a missed opportunity; as Kendrick shifts into his highest gear, the video doesn’t follow suit. It’s better than most of his early promos, but it is in no way better than anything that would follow.
19. “She Needs Me/I Am”
Director: Jerome D
Probably the cutest song in Kendrick’s back catalogue, “She Needs Me” follows Kendrick shares the story of a relationship, where his girlfriend becomes very successful, but at the end of the day, she still needs him just as much as he needs her. Jerome D’s video depicts the little moments in their story—laughing on the couch, hanging out at the kitchen table and greeting her when she comes home after a long day of work. The director changes pace for the second half of the clip, though, utilizing a sort of found footage technique for “I Am.” In blurry black and white that scrolls up the screen, Kendrick’s body gets split in two as he raps in the middle of a Compton street.
18. “Tammy’s Song”
Director: Jerome D
With a simple background, strobes, mirroring and other visual effects featuring moving body parts, it’s clear that “Tammy’s Song” is one of Kendrick’s earliest professional-looking videos. The clip itself isn’t as visually memorable as others that follow it, but it just looks better than its predecessors. The frequent use of strobes really helps the drums and synth line pop. Jerome D clearly had many more tools at his disposal for this one and he used them wisely.
17. “P&P 1.5”
Director: Jerome D
“P&P 1.5,” another Jerome D-directed effort, is the best-shot video pre-Section.80. The dark visuals give the whole clip a brooding and mysterious feel; at times it’s tough to make out Kendrick’s face clearly. Granted, the video comes off as an almost advertisement for Patron, though it’d be tough not to include the tequila in a song that repeatedly references it. It’s clear Kendrick loves using black and white in his music videos, but this is one of the first times the technique works effectively.
16. “Look Out For Detox”
Director: Fredo Tovar
Less than two weeks after the much lower ranked “Michael Jordan,” Fredo Tovar returns with this frenetic pseudo-3-D video. Like “Monster Freestyle,” the star is K-Dot’s otherworldly flow. Tovar utilizes a blue and red color scheme, lending a stereoscopic effect that combines with multiple superimposed images of Kendrick to make a chaotic, yet ultimately impressive promo visual for Dr. Dre’s long-awaited but ultimately cancelled album, Detox.