Kendrick Lamar boasts an element that most of his fellow freshmen ignore: urgency. He sounds like he’d be rhyming even if no one were listening—a commendable trait amidst the swarm of “I’m not a rapper, I just happen to rap” caricatures that currently dominate blogspots and Billboard. Kendrick’s urgency is the fuel behind Section.80, the latest release from the Dr. Dre-cosigned Compton native on his TDE imprint, and he produces an engaging, dense, and gloomy comment on a generation’s identity crisis and the complex social and historical factors that have contributed to it. With its lofty concepts, baroque production, and striking allusions, Section.80 quickly establishes itself as a transcription of an era, and a young man’s frantic race to get it all on paper.
The title “Section 80” combines two of the album’s key motifs: the decade in which Kendrick and his cohorts were born, and the Section 8 Program, a 1975 piece of legislation that provides housing for eligible low-income families and created many of the suburb-shaped ghettos of Los Angeles. Kendrick is preoccupied with the offspring of this environment: young adults born into the War on Drugs, school-lunch programs, and diagnosable personality disorders—altogether an apparent institutional acknowledgment of their burden on the world. He looks back to the Eighties not with the selective nostalgia of current trend (high tops, 808s), but the honesty of having been born in one of the most complex and troubling decades in African American history. The result is a child robbed of childhood: “I used to want to see the penitentiary way after elementary, thought it was cool to look the judge in the face when he sentenced me. Since my uncles was institutionalized, my intuition had said I was suited for family ties,” he confesses matter-of-factly on “Poe Man’s Dreams (His Vice).”
Even more chilling than his own recollections are Kendrick’s musings on the women in his life. Standouts “No Make-Up,” “Tammy’s Song,” and “Keisha’s Song” all take scathing looks at the insecurities and internal conflicts of young females raised on gangsta rap: Tammy channels vintage Cash Money to profess both her love and hatred for her boyfriend, while Keisha bumps “Brenda’s Got A Baby” as she sells herself on the Long Beach strip. The song choices aren’t random, as Kendrick has a keen ear for allusion: Kanye West, Aaliyah, and Pimp C all enjoy meta-interpolations in his verses, and producers Digi+Phonics liberally sample familiar drumbreaks and vocal snippets. The immediacy of the project is evident in this soundscape: these references will be familiar to all, but nostalgic only to those Kendrick’s age and younger—a sliding scale that’s getting steeper.
Section.80 celebrates its own weightiness, and doesn’t allow much room to fray from its ideology. Moreover, the small production circle and dense lyricism puts musicality on the backburner. Besides his famous Wiz Khalifa impersonation extended in “Hol’ Up,” and the bouncy horns and hook on “Rigamortus,” little is intended to be catchy or melodic on this project. Choruses reveal themselves through repetition as opposed to commercial song format, and some questionable guest vocals bring well-written refrains down a peg. Of course, the J. Cole-served lead single “HiiiPower” hints most strongly at how a fully formed, professionally produced Kendrick will sound: an ambitious show-stealing conclusion that is quietly one of the best songs of the year.
“The first 2 projects was about me,” Kendrick Lamar tweeted shortly after Section.80’s release. “This one is about the people around me. YOU.” But this album is more accurately about “WE,” a morally aborted generation that learned about the world from a media who always told them they were wrong. Kendrick personifies the dawn of self-awareness a twenty-year-old Nas rapped about on “Life’s A Bitch”: that humbling moment of clarity that twenty-somethings wake up to every day. It’s illustrated best on “Kush & Corinthians,” where Kendrick rhymes from the backseat of a friend’s car, on the way to a revenge drive-by. “Why must we retaliate, is it human nature?” he wonders, and then, as we tend to do, procrastinates: “I don’t know, I’ll look for the answers later—make a right, there they go!” Many of us, Kendrick included, are still looking.
Purchase “Section.80″ here.