“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Directors: Fredo Tovar & Scott Fleishman
“HiiiPOWER” is the first time Kendrick gets really political with his music, and the video for Section.80’s lead single perfectly reflects. With footage of protests, legendary speeches, police brutality and more, K-Dot turned in his most serious and self-reflecting clip to date, not realizing that just a few years later, his lyrics would become a rallying cry in some of the most important political rallies and protests of this generation. He may not have had the star power and influence in 2011 that he’d have just a year or so later, but the video for “HiiiPOWER” is a sign for what was to come.
Director: Darren Romanelli
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is arguably Kendrick at his storytelling best; the track is full of vibrant, horrific tales of trying to survive in Compton, largely inspired by Kendrick’s own peers. Director Darren Romanelli, also a famous designer, completely changes the song’s concept for a video about an artist making a graffiti-based art piece in a studio. It’s beautifully shot, again in black and white, but there’s a noticeable dichotomy between the song’s lyrics and the video itself.
Director: Vashtie Kola
Shot in Manhattan’s East Village, the clip for “ADHD” is the best video of the Section.80 era. Biking in slow-motion down tree-lined streets, the video later finishes in an empty white office building where Kendrick and his friends mess around and have fun. After about a dozen melancholy videos about how tough life is in Compton, it’s a welcome surprise to see K-Dot and his friends actually enjoying themselves. Vashtie Kola sits in the director’s chair here, and she’d shoot the meme-ified “Hotline Bling” video a few years later.
Directors: The Lil Homie & OG Mike Mihail
On “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the breakout hit from 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d City, K-Dot gives us his most symbolic video up to that point. Beginning with an all white funeral, Kendrick and the funeral attendees all travel to gorgeous golden hills to send their friend off in style. Comedian Mike Epps’s random baptism in a pool full of liquor is a weird and relatively inexplicable addition to the video, breaking up the church funeral scene with the later countryside visuals. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” also shows how vastly improved OG Mike Mihail’s directing has come along from his work on “Ignorance is Bliss.”
Directors: Kendrick Lamar, Jerome D & Dee.Jay.Dave
The first time Kendrick is listed as a director, “Backseat Freestyle,” takes place is both Compton and (of course) Paris underneath the Eiffel Tower, a landmark that’s consistently referenced throughout the this good kid, m.A.A.d City track. Like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” this video features another cameo that breaks up the song, this time, it’s Kendrick’s dad yelling about Domino’s Pizza. The clip returns with Sherane—K-Dot’s childhood crush who’s mentioned frequently throughout the album—twerking next to an old convertible.
Directors: Alexandre Moors & The Little Homies
For his highly anticipated return in 2014, Kendrick enlists Alexandre Moors (co-director of “Niggas in Paris” and creative consultant on “Runaway”) to depict “i,” one of his most positive and upbeat songs. The result is a strikingly colorful clip in which Kendrick walks from party to party in Los Angeles, winding from a music venue through a block party and eventually arriving at a huge sunrise rooftop shindig. For the song’s outro, Lamar raps out of the backseat window of a car as it drives down a busy street, only to pass out at the verse’s conclusion. The color schemes here are almost Wes Anderson-esque, beautifully reflecting the sun as it rises over the downtown L.A. skyline. “i” also marks the first time The Lil Homies, made up of Kendrick and Dave Free (fka Dee.Jay.Day) are credited as directors.
Directors: Colin Tilley & The Little Homies
“These Walls” is Kendrick adding a little bit of comedy to his videos. Like “i,” “These Walls” follows a very distinct color scheme heavy on blues, reds and pinks. Depicting a wild house party busted up by Terry Crews, the two accidentally find themselves onstage at a talent show, performing a hilarious dance. The physical comedy between the two, Crews as a tall, otherworldly muscular bodybuilder and Kendrick, who is anything but, is incredible. “These Walls” is one of the funniest visuals in K-Dot’s video catalogue and stands out for exactly that reason.
Director: Jerome D
“Swimming Pools (Drank),” the song that made Kendrick a star, is accompanied by a music video that garnered his first two VMA nods. Director Jerome D returns for a video largely featuring a falling K-Dot in a red suit with a solid black background, later depicting a creepy party with ominous red lighting. The party scenes are a perfect depiction of the song itself, a track about alcoholism and the peer pressure to drink. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” marks the first video where Kendrick becomes the pioneering visual artist that we know him as today.
Director: Director X
Director X has worked on some of the most iconic music videos of the past two decades; it was only time before Kendrick would reach out to him. The result is a fun and lively video for “King Kunta,” perhaps the most upbeat track on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Filmed in an aspect ratio readymade for Instagram, “King Kunta” shows Kendrick dancing and partying in the streets of Compton, but the clip’s most iconic shot comes midway through as King Kendrick squats on a throne, surrounded by dozens of friends. Everything about “King Kunta” screams Southern California, acting as a love letter of sorts to Compton, this time in a much less cliché way than “Compton State of Mind.”
Directors: Nabil, The Little Homies
With more than a simple nod to Keanu Reeves’s 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Kendrick hooks up with famed director Nabil for an epic video featuring Don Cheadle. They recreate the film’s interrogation scene, complete with a seizing and rapping Cheadle and a lie detector test. When the beat switches up midway, the video follows suit: Kendrick hangs out with his friends on the street, ends up in a casket and performs in black and white. Cheadle and Lamar are a match made in heaven; here’s to hoping they collaborate again in the future.
Directors: The Lil Homies, Dee.Jay.Dave & Dangeroo Kipawaa
“All characters in this visual are entirely fictional. The events that occur are purely symbolic and should not be taken literal,” begins the music video for “Poetic Justice,” potentially K-Dot’s biggest song off good kid, m.A.A.d City. Filmed in slow-motion as Kendrick reconnects with a lover and a block party goes horribly wrong. Drake phones just a little too late, distracted by having sex, he returns Lamar’s missed call just after K-Dot and his girlfriend are shot and killed, dying on top of her as everyone else looks on. It’s a highly symbolic and incredibly well-filmed, the best of the visuals from good kid, m.A.A.d City.
Directors: Joe Weil & The Little Homies
“For Free? (Interlude)” may be the shortest song on To Pimp a Butterfly, but its corresponding music video sure left an impression. The track is far and away the jazziest thing Kendrick has ever done: Luminaries like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and others help drive the song along with Kendrick’s flow, yielding one of the most impressive technical rap songs. Yet, the corresponding music video is lighthearted enough to almost make of a joke out of it. K-Dot sports a full Uncle Sam costume as he chases a woman around a mansion. There’s chaos, strobe lights, crazy eyes, animal figurines and Kendrick practically scatting. At the end, about a dozen Kendricks stare at the camera in bewilderment, summarizing our feelings the first time we saw this vid.
“u” directors: Jack Begert & The Little Homies; “For Sale?” directors: PANAMÆRA & The Little Homies
The “God is Gangsta” video actually comprises two songs off To Pimp a Butterfly, “u” and “For Sale?” While “i” was the celebration of self, “u” is its polar opposite as Kendrick delves deep into his personal demons and self-doubt. Its analogous video is pitch perfect. For the pandemonium spurred on by screaming and out of sync horns, we see the most fucked up Kendrick to date—a drunk and stumbling man who eventually gives way to one full of tears. Everything switches up as “For Sale?” hits, which acts as a possible precursor to “u.” “For Sale” takes place at a house party where Kendrick struggles to maintain normalcy and balance, falling into a pool and failing at fitting in on a packed dancefloor. It’s almost a real life version of the Bojack Horseman opening credits, filled with the same regret and insecurity.
Directors: Dave Meyers & The Little Homies
Besides being one of the most badass music videos in recent memory, “Humble” features some serious technological advances, utilizing robotic arms, 360º cameras and multiple cameras rapidly shifting back and forth. With religious and political imagery, high fashion, horrible golf swings and a flow so good Kendrick’s head is literally on fire, “Humble” is almost guaranteed to win every music video award in 2017.
Directors: by Colin Tilley &The Little Homies
Like so many of his earlier videos, “Alright” is filmed entirely in black and white, but this time, the stark colors greatly benefit the end result. “Alright” begins with his “Luci” speech that dots the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly, later giving way to Kendrick and his friends rocking out in a car held up by police officers. Kendrick floats throughout the whole song, literally and figuratively, held up at times by his friends or by a string on top of a lamppost in Downtown L.A. Onlookers gaze in awe, their jaws to the floor, witnessing what could eventually go down as one of the most iconic video of this generation. Everything about this music video—from the cinematography to its addressing of social issues—seems to reflect the song itself, depicting the joys and horrors experienced by Black America. “We gon’ be alright” became the slogan for a new civil rights movement and the music video that accompanies it only further illuminates why Kendrick Lamar deserves to be at the front lines.