In a contemporary review of the album, The Village Voice's Robert Christgau found that "McLaren knows how to record African music for Western ears, and the ebullient tunes he's collected here more than make up for his annoyance quotient", but also criticised McLaren and Horn for failing to give credit to the South African musicians involved in the recording, such as Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. The mbaqanga group the Boyoyo Boys took legal action against McLaren over the similarity of "Double Dutch" with its own hit "Puleng". After a lengthy legal battle in the UK, the matter was settled out of court, with payment made to the South African copyright holders, songwriter Petrus Maneli and publisher Gallo Music, but Horn and McLaren retained their songwriting credits.
Duck Rock was ranked at number nine among the "Albums of the Year" for 1983 by NME. The album ultimately became a critical favourite, garnering accolades from various other publications in the years following its release. William Ruhlmann of AllMusic retrospectively reviewed it as "an amazingly eclectic collection of world music mixed with urban hip-hop". In 2013, NME ranked Duck Rock at number 298 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2018, Pitchfork ranked Duck Rock at number 200 on its list of the 200 best albums of the 1980s. The album also received BBC Two's Critical Music label.