Verse: 1
Standout line: “This is not a rap on how I’m slingin’ crack or move cocaine/This is cul-de-sac and plenty Cognac and major pain/Not the drill sergeant, but the stress that weighin’ on your brain”

“Brace yourself, I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane.” As soon as Kendrick uttered those words, we should have known he was about to deliver a verse we’d keep coming back to for years. One of Kendrick’s greatest strengths is his innate ability to write intricate depictions of his own life in a way that reflects society at large, and that’s exactly what he pulls off here. He doesn’t need to get preachy to make a point. He’d rather take you on a walk through his neighborhood and show you what’s really happening in the streets of America. “m.A.A.d city” is an absolute masterpiece as a whole—it’s no accident it tops many Best Kendrick Lamar Songs lists—but the first verse is a particularly striking piece of songwriting. Kendrick has a way of turning phrases that immediately conjure vivid images, followed by aftershocks of double meanings and deeper cultural references that come in waves. “Bodies on top of bodies, IVs on top of IVs/Obviously the coroner between the sheets like the Isleys.” This is Kendrick Lamar’s life, poured out in stunning detail for 127 seconds. By the time he stamps the verse with an emphatic yelp of the song’s title, Kendrick has let us into an intimate corner of his world with astonishing clarity, pulling off one of the all-time great rap verses in the process. Brace yourself. —Eric Skelton