Kendrick's Most Important Song That No One's Talking About

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Kendrick Lamar, a young Black man, raps into a microphone in silhouette in the dark.
Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 2018, in New York City.  (Theo Wargo/WireImage)

With Kendrick Lamar about to drop his fifth studio album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, it's the perfect time to argue about his most significant song.

In the half decade since Kendrick dropped Damn, fans have been left to revisit old tracks repeatedly during his hiatus. Which is fitting, because one of Kendrick Lamar's greatest gifts is going back and revisiting—or rather, revising—his earlier music.

K-dot is a master of retelling the same story again and again, but on a larger level each time. If you listen closely, the arc of his musical output shows that refining and retelling your story, over and over, is an important aspect of growth, both as an artist and a human.

The king MC from Compton has done it with his "The Heart" series, often using that title as a jumpoff to spaz and let loose on the issues he's dealing with at the time of recording. He dropped the fifth entry in this series this past Sunday just days before his full album release, as he's done in the past. (In the video, he uses deepfake technology to morph into the likeness of Kobe, Nipsey and more.)

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He's also revisited, or remixed, "She Needs Me," "P&P," and "Vanity Slaves," among others. Which in art, especially in hip-hop, isn't new, revolutionary, deep, or profound. Old art gets remixed everyday, B.

But the act of revising and revisiting, expanding and expounding on a piece of art—it's seen more often in other mediums. Poets famously revisit concepts, as do comedians. Thelonious Monk reportedly wrote the jazz standard "Round Midnight" as a teen, and played thousands of renditions of it his whole life. Issa Rae created her idea of an awkward Black girl first as a YouTube series, and from that came a bestselling memoir, the hit show Insecure and more.

Kendrick, too, has managed to work and rework one specific concept, and we've watched it grow from a couple of lines, to a song, to a concept album and signature aspect of his artwork.

So let's be clear: I'm here to tell you why the track "Average Joe," from Kendrick Lamar's 2010 Overly Dedicated EP, is his most important song.

A young Black man holds an analog camera in the photo pit of a large arena event.
Kendrick Lamar attends the 2018 BET Experience Concert at L.A. Live on June 22, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Ser Baffo/Getty Images)

No, it's not his highest charting song ("Humble"), nor his most famous ("Alright"). It's not the one that gets the party turnt ("Michael Jordan"). I'm not taking away from his collaborations with Bono or Beyoncé, and definitely not the voice of Tupac Shakur ("Mortal Man") or the song that President Obama said was the best song of 2015 ("How Much a Dollar Cost").

Kenny's catalog boasts songs with Travis and Drake that have been played so many times it'd be torture to hear them again. The Black Hippy tracks are dope, and despite his impending departure from their shared record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, I hope we get more collaborations from him and Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q. (Hell, even if we just get that song from the opening of the "Alright" video, I'd be happy.)

Kendrick's career is decorated with honors and accolades, from executive-producing the Black Panther soundtrack to performing at this year's Dr. Dre-led Super Bowl halftime performance. I mean, the guy won a freaking Pulitzer for DAMN—a Pulitzer for spitting rhymes—did we even know that was possible?

And even in failure, like losing a Grammy to some white guy from Seattle, Kendrick won our hearts—and proved why the act of reworking your craft is important.

On the novel-like album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Kendrick is a bystander exploring the dichotomy of good and evil in his community, using clever lyrics recited over drums that punch like Kimbo Slice.

He describes his transformation as an outside observer on the track "m.A.A.D City":

Seen a light-skinned nigga with his brains blown out
At the same burger stand where (redacted) hangs out
Now, this is not a tape recorder saying that he did it
But ever since that day, I was lookin’ at him different

And then, later in the song, he gets pulled into this world of sinister behavior:

My pops said I needed a job, I thought I believed him
Security guard for a month and ended up leavin’
In fact, I got fired, ’cause I was inspired by all of my friends
To stage a robbery the third Saturday I clocked in

Kendrick, a neutral narrator who gets influenced by his associates, has been this guy for some time.

In his self-titled song "Kendrick Lamar," a 2012 track where he drops the moniker K-Dot to go by his given name, he says:

I'm just a good kid from Compton that want to rap
Weighing my options, pick up a Bible or a strap?
I never killed a man, never sold any crack
All I ever did was try to keep my city on the map

It's these four bars, above, that underscore a philosophy further explored in 2012's Good Kid m.A.A.D City, and brought to visual life in the cover art for his Section 80 mixtape. But before the idea shows up in album form, it's "Average Joe" where Mr. Duckworth explains the same concept in the earliest, most vivid colors.

Kendrick opens the song by saying "The hardest thing for me to do / Is to get you to know me within 16 bars." He then does just that, illustrating his position of being gang-adjacent, a good kid who's just trying to rap but is still getting caught up in the life:

Everyone I knew was either Crip or Piru
Cousins in elementary, relatives in high school
With that being said, each one of their rivals
Was aiming something at my head, I needed survival
Got jumped, got jacked, shot at, shot back
And I don't even push a line, I'm just tryna push these rhymes
In the midst of staying neutral and discreet
My momma said you're judged by the company you keep

In a nutshell, this is Kendrick's story; the premise of his entire career.

"This is why they fuck with me," goes the chorus, twice, before Kendrick says, "I'm no gangster, no killer, I'm just your average Joe (know that) / But one thing you should consider, I'm the realest you know."

Boom. That's it. He's an authentic person who's telling his story, and growing as he does. He hones this theme through poetically energetic slick storytelling, a mix of Iceberg Slim, Gil Scott-Heron, DMX and Rass Kass, but yeah: Kendrick's formula really is that simple.

Kendrick Lamar performs at Outside Lands, Aug. 8, 2015. (Photo: Gabe Meline/KQED)
Kendrick Lamar. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

I've followed Kendrick's work since before 2011, when he performed at the New Parish in Oakland—still the only time I've seen him perform. The first song I ever heard from him was "Heaven or Hell," a track about the drastic dichotomies in life. Again, the same theme of good and evil, and him standing as an honest observer in the midst of it all.

Now on the verge of releasing Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, the Gemini MC is bracing us for more stories about the polarizing aspects of life.

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Looking at his catalog, there's a lesson on the importance of revising, reworking and retelling our stories of growth. No, I'm not saying you too can be Kendrick Lamar—there's only one big-eared Pulitzer Prize winning lyricist from Hub City. But we can all work and rework ourselves, and our stories. Word to Average Joe.