Kendrick Lamar seems to be inching towards the release of his highly anticipated followup to 2017’s DAMN., which will close his longest gap between albums yet, and though details are still mostly unknown, he’s slowly been getting active again. He first broke his silence by appearing on the new Baby Keem album, which he helped release and which features his first verses in nearly a year; he appears on the new Terrace Martin album; he’s playing his only live show of 2021 at Day N Vegas (update: that happened); and he’s gearing up to perform at the 2022 Super Bowl Halftime Show alongside Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Mary J. Blige.
Kendrick’s verse on Baby Keem’s “Family Ties” is one of the best of his career, and it reminds you of two things: 1) that Kendrick remains unparalleled, and 2) that many of his best verses are on other people’s songs. He’s put out over 200 guest verses throughout his 15-plus-year-long career, and he steals the show on so many of them. A Kendrick guest appearance is often so much more than 16 worthy bars; he’ll go from rapping to singing, change up his flow multiple times, and often give the song a hook too. As he was starting to reach bigger audiences in the early 2010s, Kendrick used guest appearances to prove himself, hopping on tracks by artists whose fans might not have known him yet, and using the opportunity to overshadow everybody else involved with the track. As his career went on, he’d hop on tracks by smaller artists that he wanted you to know about, introducing them to the world the way bigger rappers once did for him. His guest appearances became less frequent over the years, making each new one feel like a mini event, but even as his fame rose, his hunger never died. It’s a given by now that he’ll be the star of almost any song he’s on, and he knows it, but he still treats almost every verse like it could be his last.
Missing out on Kendrick’s guest verses means missing out on some of his best songs, and since there are so many, we’ve picked what we think are the 35 best and ranked them from least great to most great. Narrowing it down to 35 meant leaving off some heavy hitters, but we aimed to cover as much ground as we could, from his breakthrough verses to the ones when he was already a star, from collaborations with his contemporaries to his influences, from underground faves to superstars, from fellow rappers to jazz/electronic musicians, and beyond.
Read on for the list…
35. Smoke DZA – “How Far We Go” (Uptown 81)
At the turn of the 2010s, Kendrick was part of a new wave of rappers that were using free online mixtapes to create a thriving rap underground that eventually overthrew the then-stale rap mainstream. Kendrick eventually blew up, while Smoke DZA remained an underground staple, but in 2011, they were on an equal playing field, and collaborations like this one and that same year’s “Ball Game” capture the refreshing vibe of that era perfectly. Both rappers are great on this song, but Kendrick brings the track to another level, showing off an early example of his ability to take his guest verses into unexpected, mind-bending territory. “When the press get this verse, they sure to press rewind.” Well, yeah.
34. Meek Mill – “A1 Everything”
Just a few months before putting out his official debut album Dreams and Nightmares, Meek Mill put out the second mixtape in his Dreamchasers series, and Kendrick jumped on its track “A1 Everything.” It’s got loud, booming production by Syk Sense that’s perfect for Meek Mill’s shout-raps, and Kendrick knew how to rise to the occasion too, delivering some of the most vicious bars of his early period.
33. Jhené Aiko – “Stay Ready (What A Life)”
Jhené Aiko was one of the trailblazers of the early 2010s alt-R&B movement, and she was also a close collaborator of the Black Hippy crew around that same time. She appeared on Kendrick’s 2010 mixtape O(verly) D(edicated), and he returned the favor by appearing on “Stay Ready (What a Life)” on her 2013 EP Sail Out. It’s a glacial-paced, ethereal R&B song, and Kendrick’s verse reminds you that he really knows how to cater to whatever song he’s on. He doesn’t try to turn the song into something it’s not; he’s chill and melodic, and he sounds as unique and impactful doing this as he does when he’s on a proper rap song.
32. Busta Rhymes – “Look Over Your Shoulder”
Busta Rhymes had a bit of a resurgence after featuring prominently on the A Tribe Called Quest reunion album, and Busta kept the momentum going in 2020 with Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, the sequel to his 1998 album and his first album in over a decade. For its Jackson 5-sampling “Look Over Your Shoulder,” Busta recruited Kendrick (who also appeared on the Tribe Called Quest album), and Kendrick blessed the song with his only verse of 2020. In it, Kendrick reflects on writing his first bars, and he asserts himself as the leader of rap’s new generation, a claim that was inarguable by 2020, and reinforced by the power of his delivery on this track.
31. Isaiah Rashad – “Wat’s Wrong”
Since Black Hippy’s breakthrough, the TDE empire continued to expand and sign new artists, including Isaiah Rashad, who snagged Kendrick for a great verse on “Wat’s Wrong” off his 2016 album The Sun’s Tirade. He sounds relaxed, but his words come out like rapidfire. “I told Zay, I’m the best rapper since twenty-five/Been like that for a while now, I’m twenty-nine,” he says, and the way the line rolls off his tongue feels effortless.
30. YG – “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)”
YG and Kendrick are both guys who are students of the G-Funk era, so it’s no surprise that they fit together perfectly over this G-Funk-inspired beat by Ty Dolla $ign, Chordz, and Terrace Martin. YG’s delivery is as brash and catchy as it is on his biggest hits, but Kendrick changes up the vibe with multisyllabic rhymes that turn “smokin’ and drinkin'” from a party to paranoia.
29. Nitty Scott – “Flower Child”
Kendrick helped revitalize jazz-rap on a mass scale with his 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, but three years before that, he collaborated with Nitty Scott, a rapper who was keeping jazz-rap alive in the Brooklyn underground. He’s on “Flower Child” off her 2012 EP The Boombox Diaries, Vol. 1, and the two sound great together over the chilled-out, glistening instrumental by Paul Boogie. Nitty’s subdued delivery is almost in spoken word territory, and then Kendrick comes in twice: first with the kind of half-sung, half-rapped hook that he eventually won the world over with, and then again with a deadly verse that gives the song a much harder edge.
28. Ab-Soul – “Turn Me Up”
The TDE/Black Hippy crew had begun sewing the seeds for greatness at the turn of the 2010s, and one of their earliest standout tracks came from Ab-Soul and Kendrick, “Turn Me Up.” It’s got a psychedelic boom bap vibe that hearkens back to the mid ’90s, but Ab-Soul and Kendrick weren’t being overly retro; they were revitalizing that sound and bringing it into the future. Both rappers sound great, and Kendrick’s verse is full of quotable one-liners that stick in your head a decade later.
27. Jay Rock – “Hood Gone Love It”
Though Kendrick eventually became the face of TDE, the label’s first breakout rapper was Jay Rock, and one of the crucial stepping stones of Kendrick’s career was appearing on “Hood Gone Love It,” a single off Jay Rock’s 2011 debut album Follow Me Home. At this point in Jay’s career, he was still embracing a more mid 2000s rap vibe, but a fresh-faced Kendrick Lamar hopped on the track with something much different in mind. He was a little weirder, a little wordier, and he clearly had his sights set on bigger things. He called himself “the gift for the future” and he dropped a phrase that would eventually become the title of his massive breakthrough: “good kid, mad city.”
26. Fredo Santana – “Jealous”
The late Fredo Santana made crucial contributions to the early Chicago drill scene (alongside his cousin Chief Keef), but on this song, Kendrick stole the spotlight. The beat drops out, Kendrick comes in with an airy, melodic flow (“I’m drunk right now”), beat comes back in, and Kendrick just destroys the song, with enough suspense, drama, flow changes, and sound effects to fill half an album.
25. Talib Kweli – “Push Thru”
Alternative hip hop lifer Talib Kweli must have been taking note of rap’s burgeoning new generation when he was recording 2013’s Prisoner of Conscious, because he nabbed two then-rising stars for its lead single “Push Thru”,” Kendrick Lamar and Curren$y. Curren$y kicks the song off with his permastoned delivery, Talib sounds as tight as ever, but it’s Kendrick who walks away with the best verse. He presumably recorded this around the same time he was working on good kid, m.A.A.d city, and the increased confidence that he developed on that album comes pouring out of this verse too. He sounds like a million bucks, and he piles on fast-paced, inner-line rhymes without ever losing his footing.
24. Ab-Soul – “Black Lip Bastard (Black Hippy Remix)”
2012 was a massive year for Black Hippy, with the release of Schoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions in January, Ab-Soul’s Control System in May, and finally, Kendrick Lamar’s earth-shattering good kid, m.A.A.d city in October. Included as a bonus track on Control System was one of the most iconic posse cuts from the full Black Hippy crew, a remix of Ab-Soul’s non-album single “Black Lip Bastard” that opens with one of Kendrick’s most memorable verses. He’s got the determination and the confidence of a guy who knows the entire world is about to be paying attention to him, and just a few months later, that would very much be the case.
23. Thundercat – “Walk On By”
Bass wizard Thundercat was one of the many musicians who contributed to Kendrick’s 2015 jazz-rap odyssey To Pimp A Butterfly, and two years later Kendrick returned the favor by appearing on “Walk On By” off Thundercat’s Drunk. It’s a jazz-infused neo-soul song, and Kendrick comes in with a verse that’s pensive and intricate and fits in snugly with Thundercat’s instrumental. It’s as warm and lush as anything on TPAB.
22. Vince Staples – “Yeah Right”
Vince Staples proved to be a kindred spirit to Kendrick Lamar with his proper debut album Summertime ’06. Like good kid, m.A.A.d city, Summertime was rooted in ’90s West Coast rap traditions, and it’s a life-story album with a narrative arc that’s closer to books and movies than to your average album. However, the two rappers’ first collaboration was on a song that broke from rap traditions entirely. Co-produced by Flume and the late SOPHIE, it’s a futuristic EDM-rap song that’s full of beat changes, none of which even remotely resemble a typical “rap beat,” and both Vince and Kendrick navigate the track like the pros that they are. Vince gives the song one of his most festival-friendly hooks, while managing to sound entirely disinterested in actually catering to festival crowds, and Kendrick comes in with a verse that’s as loud, shapeshifting, and maximal as the SOPHIE/Flume production.
21. DJ Khaled – “Holy Key”
If nothing else, DJ Khaled is a great curator, and “Holy Key” is one of his finest curations. With triumphant production from Cool & Dre and a soulful Betty Wright hook, “Holy Key” opens with Big Sean at his most fiery, but the song really explodes when Kendrick comes in. Not only is the verse a display of pure technical prowess; Kendrick’s really saying something too.
20. Travis Scott – “goosebumps”
Kendrick’s been embraced by many of the people who favor the era of ’90s rap that existed before hip hop became synonymous with pop music, but Kendrick himself has been known to champion pop-friendly rappers, like Travis Scott, who he took on tour in 2017, a few months after Travis released his Kendrick-featuring single “goosebumps.” Travis brings all the dark, murky auto-tune you’d expect, and Kendrick contrasts it with the kind of lyrical workout that he brings to his own material. He doesn’t water himself down to fit in with a pop song, but he doesn’t act like he’s above the song either. He plays the role that needs to be played.
19. Lil Wayne – “Mona Lisa”
Lil Wayne has of course been an influence on Kendrick since the beginning, and when Wayne finally got around to releasing his anticipated Tha Carter V in 2018, he got a verse out of Kendrick Lamar, who at that point had become more sought-after and choosier than ever. Wayne sounds as focused, direct, and determined as he is on his best songs, setting the bar high, but Kendrick still manages to come in and blow the whole song up. He’s got more flows on this song than some rappers have throughout entire careers; it’s not a verse, it’s a journey.
18. A Tribe Called Quest – “Conrad Tokyo”
We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service remains one of the best rap comeback albums in recent memory, and not only did it find the original quartet and longtime collaborators like Busta Rhymes and Consequence in fine form, it also roped in younger torch carriers and even included an entire song dedicated to them. (“Dis Generation” calls Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole “gatekeepers of flow.”) Kendrick, who was fresh off releasing To Pimp A Butterfly — an album that exists within the jazz-rap lineage that ATCQ helped create — also had one of the best verses on the album with his appearance on “Conrad Tokyo.” Q-Tip’s jazzy instrumental is truly timeless, and Kendrick’s verse is short but vicious, tying Biblical references to modern-day unrest.
17. Nipsey Hussle – “Dedication”
Nipsey Hussle was one of the most underrated West Coast rappers for years before he finally released his official debut album Victory Lap in 2018 and got the overdue acclaim he long deserved. His life was tragically cut short the next year, and the love for Nipsey grew even stronger after he passed, but Kendrick was aware of Nipsey’s talents all along. The two rappers go way back, but they didn’t do a track together until Victory Lap, and the results were glorious. It makes sense that these two likeminded West Coasters would go together so well, and they both gave it their all on this track.
16. Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me”
To Pimp A Butterfly was Kendrick’s big jazz-rap moment, but he had prior moments that hinted at it, like when he took guest lead vocals on “Never Catch Me” off Flying Lotus’ 2014 album You’re Dead!. The track fused jazzy keys from FlyLo with mind-bending bass from Thundercat (both of whom also contributed to TPAB), and Kendrick matches the dizzying instrumental with wordplay and imagery that sounds truly out of this world. It’s one of the most memorable songs by Flying Lotus, who always benefits from a good vocal feature, and it’s also some of the most out-there music of Kendrick’s career.
15. Rapsody – “Power”
Rapsody is is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, especially if your favorite rapper is Kendrick Lamar. They’ve collaborated multiple times, including on “Rock the Bells” off her 2011 mixtape For Everything and again on Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly (where Rapsody delivered a show-stopping verse on “Complexion”), and then they teamed back up once more for one of the best songs on Rapsody’s 2017 album Laila’s Wisdom, “Power.” Both Rapsody and Kendrick are artists who know how to deliver powerful social/political messages while rapping their asses off, and both of them do that in highly effective ways on this song.
14. Ty Dolla $ign – “LA”
A year after Ty Dolla $ign co-produced YG’s Kendrick collab “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin),” he released his official debut album Free TC and recruited Kendrick for the opening track “LA.” Fueled by its soulful hook by Brandy and James Fauntleroy, the song’s an ode to all four artists’ shared home city, and Kendrick goes ballistic when he comes in, shouting out 2Pac, the Lakers, the L.A. County Zoo and sounding untouchable in the process.
13. The Game – “The City”
As a Dr. Dre-approved rapper from Compton, it’s no surprise that Kendrick would end up on a track with The Game, and in fact, they’ve teamed up multiple times. The first time was on 2011’s The R.E.D. Album, which came as Kendrick was on the rise and The Game was in need of a comeback, making this collaboration about as mutually beneficial as they come. (Also giving The R.E.D. Album some relevance within the new generation was appearances by Tyler, the Creator and Drake.) Game proves he could still be a force to be reckoned with, but it’s Kendrick who (literally and figuratively) gets the last word. As good as his hook on the track is, his a cappella verse that closes out the song could leave anyone speechless.
12. Kanye West – “No More Parties in LA”
The Life of Pablo was the beginning of the end for Kanye West as rap’s reigning genius. It’s a mixed bag of an album, but the highs are high and this is one of them, thanks in large part to Kendrick Lamar. The track, co-produced by Kanye and Madlib, pulls from classic soul in a way that Kanye’s early 2000s beats did, and Kendrick is the perfect guy to grace that kind of instrumental with A-list bars.
11. A$AP Rocky – “Fuckin’ Problems”
“Fuckin’ Problems” may technically be an A$AP Rocky song, but it felt like a hit for Kendrick and Drake too (and you couldn’t see Kendrick live in 2013 without him playing this song). The 2 Chainz/Drake hook is as catchy and timeless as they come, and Kendrick, Rocky, and Drake all delivered verses for the ages. I’d write out the most memorable Kendrick Lamar lines, but at that point I’d just be quoting his entire verse.
10. Dr. Dre – “Genocide”
Dr. Dre is one of the all-time great producers, a solid rapper, and he’s got one of the best ears for new talent that the hip hop world has ever seen. He helped introduce the world to Eazy-E, Ice Cube, The D.O.C., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Game — to name a few — and he was an early supporter of Kendrick Lamar. So once Kendrick became a star, it made it the perfect time for Dre to finally come back and release his long-awaited third album, which ended up being Compton (not Detox). The Kendrick verses on Compton hold up not just as some of the album’s best moments, but as some of the best verses of Kendrick’s hungry mid 2000s era. His “Genocide” first is one of his best, from its show-stealing intro to the iconic “Fuck your mama, fuck your daddy, fuck your dead homie” bar that closes it out.
9. Dr. Dre – “Deep Water”
Dre also used Compton to introduce the world to yet another new artist, the now-huge Anderson .Paak, and both Kendrick and Paak are on one of the album’s most powerful songs, “Deep Water.” Kendrick sounds as loud and vicious as he ever has, and he raises hairs when he tells the story of shooting another person by accident. Paak adds to the drama when he acts out a drowning scene over the song’s free jazz coda.
8. Pusha T – “Nosetalgia”
After Kanye took him under his wing and he launched his solo career, former Clipse member Pusha T became not just one of rap’s most consistent elder statesmen, but one of the best active rappers, period. So it’s no surprise that Push and Kendrick on the same track is gonna be a display of cold, hard rapping at its finest, and that’s exactly what “Nosetalgia” is. A modern coke-rap classic, Push opens the track talking about his days selling coke, and the younger Kendrick Lamar flips the script, telling tales of watching his father do coke as a child. It’s one of Kendrick’s many gripping childhood tales, and it’s also full of great, boastful metaphors: “Every verse is a brick.”
7. Danny Brown – “Really Doe”
Kendrick was part of not one but two of the most iconic posse cuts from rap’s 2010s wave. We’ll talk about the most iconic one soon, but first, Danny Brown’s “Really Doe.” Danny, Ab-Soul, Kendrick, and Earl Sweatshirt all rap their asses off over a hypnotic beat from Black Milk, and Kendrick handles the hook too. Kendrick’s verse is truly next level, with inventive rhymes, wordplay, metaphors, and references for days. Still, it’s a rare example when Kendrick doesn’t have the best verse on the track. This time, it’s Earl Sweatshirt.
6. Baby Keem – “Family Ties”
When “Family Ties” dropped in August of 2021, Kendrick had gone over four years without a new album and almost a year without a verse, so he knew he needed to make a grand re-introduction, and that’s exactly what he did. Kendrick (who is Keem’s cousin) clearly wants the world to listen to Baby Keem, as he released Keem’s album via his pgLang company and appeared on three of its songs, but that didn’t mean he was going to let Keem off easy. Kendrick absolutely bodied this song, with a verse that had people talking like they were when “Control” came out. “Family Ties” made one thing clear: Kendrick is back with a vengeance.
5. Drake – “Buried Alive Interlude”
Kendrick had really begun stirring up buzz by 2011, the year he released his proper debut album Section.80, and one of the people taking notice was then-rising star Drake. When Drizzy released his now-monumental Take Care a few months after Section.80, he didn’t give Kendrick a verse on it; he gave him an entire two-and-a-half minute track. It’s an interlude that comes in at the end of the instant-classic R&B ballad “Marvins Room,” and it features a Kendrick making a case for himself as one of the most theatrical, vivid, attention-grabbing, and purely skilled new rappers in the game. Kendrick knew this verse was going to introduce a lot of people to him, and he made sure to take advantage of it.
4. Beyonce – “Freedom”
Beyonce and Kendrick are both hugely popular artists who use their platforms to deliver uncompromising calls for civil rights, so it was really only a matter of time before they teamed up and made a song together that does just that. “Freedom” hearkens back to the political psychedelic soul of the early ’70s, and the power and suspense in Beyonce and Kendrick’s voices are both entirely tangible. It’s hard not to get overshadowed in the presence of Beyonce, who gives it 110% on this song, but Kendrick rises to the occasion, sounding as larger-than-life as she does.
3. A$AP Rocky – “1 Train”
It was clear in the early 2010s that there was an exciting new generation of rappers from all around the country all taking off at once, and A$AP Rocky captured that with his song “1 Train,” a posse cut featuring a who’s who of then-rising rappers, including Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. “1 Train” wasn’t even released as a single, but in many ways it’s the defining song of the era. Over a lurching beat from Hit-Boy and no hook, all of the rappers make cases for themselves as the next big thing, and all of them delivered career-best verses. (Even Yelawolf, the one rapper on this song who quickly fell off, is on fire.) It’s nearly impossible to decide who had the best verse — sometimes I think it’s Big K.R.I.T., sometimes I think it’s Danny Brown, but Kendrick is up there. Some of his most iconic turns of phrase (“DOO DOO! I hate y’all,” “that ba-na-na clip, straight from the rip,” “If I’m not the hottest than hell must have froze over”) are on this song alone.
2. Big Sean – “Control”
At this point, Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control” is bigger than “Control” itself. That’s not a comment on Big Sean or Jay Electronica’s verses, both of which are totally fine, but Kendrick’s verse put the entire hip hop community in shock. He called out some of the biggest and best rappers around (including J. Cole, Meek Mill, Drake, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, A$AP Rocky, Tyler, The Creator and Mac Miller, and even both Big Sean and Jay Electronica), and he made his stance clear: “I got love for you all but I’m tryin’ to murder you n****s / Trying to make sure your core fans never heard of you n****s / They don’t want to hear not one more noun or verb from you n****s.” The verse instantly garnered responses from tons of other rappers, including many of the ones he namedropped on the song, quickly becoming the most talked-about verse in modern history. If a lesser rapper did it, it would seem too ridiculous, or like it was done just to get attention, but Kendrick backed his claims up with a verse that’s still spine-tingling today.
1. Schoolboy Q – “Collard Greens”
The impact of “Control” and the skillset that Kendrick displays on the track is nearly unparalleled, but “Collard Greens” is the best Kendrick Lamar song that he’s only a guest on. With a beat from THC and Gwen Bunn that still sounds innovative eight years later, Kendrick and his Black Hippy pal Schoolboy Q team up for a hook that rivals anything on Kendrick’s albums, and when Kendrick comes in with “Hold up, biaaaaaaatch! This your favorite song,” it’s like the whole word stops for three seconds. Things only get better from there, as Kendrick switches to rapping in Spanish before claiming “I’m more than a man, I’m a god” and then dropping one of the most memorable punchlines of his career: “When I say ‘DOO-DOO-DOO-DOO, bitch that be K. Dotttttt.” He changes his flow up at the drop of a hat, he raps, he sings, he loads his verse with lines that now feel iconic. It’s hard to believe he didn’t keep this song for himself.
Listen to a Spotify playlist of (almost) all 35 songs: