Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

In the Beginning…

 

On his 2011 debut Section.80, Kendrick Lamar made a name for himself as a motor-mouthed hip hop savant. His sharp eye for detail, technical prowess and vocal immediacy elevated him as a rapper of great standing, even if some tracks occasionally betrayed his youth or saw him fumbling in his approach.

Rating: 8.5/11

 

“Three great scenes and no bad ones.”

That was Howard Hawks’ credo for what makes a good movie. It’s snappy and quotable, but it does leave room open for a lot of speculation. If that’s what makes a good movie, what makes a great movie? Better yet, how does it apply to other mediums? Television and books, for example, or even an album?

If we hold Kendrick Lamar’s debut LP Section.80 to this standard, we see the limits of Hawks’ axiom. There’s arguably half a dozen tracks here that qualify as great, and close to as many that are very good. There’s also one truly awful song on here and a couple that are totally unnecessary, and I’m willing to bet that most fans of the album know instinctively which ones I’m talking about. So, with that being said, how does Section.80 rank if it contains both abundant greatness and occasional mediocrity?

In truth, it seems only appropriate that a man like Kendrick – a man of such sprawling ambition and intellect – would announce himself with an album of such contradictions. Section.80 is a remarkably tidy record of excess, the sound of one of the greatest rappers of all time eagerly emerging from the wings and trying to play it cool, with a belly full of fire and a mind heaving with exertion just from trying to keep up with his mouth. He comes across excitable but self-consciously poised, attempting to seem rounded and sharp while deeply averse to editing himself at all. He has so much to say and, while much of it is vital and invigorating, he still appears to be enthralled with the youthful assurance that all of it is worth hearing.

Thankfully, for the most part, he’s correct. Everything that makes Kendrick the hip hop juggernaut and incendiary musician he is today is already present here, from his lyrical dexterity and ethical musings to his extraterrestrial vocal inflections and framing devices. Listening to the album alongside good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN.Section.80 doesn’t grow staler; instead, it bleeds and trembles with new meaning. Kendrick’s lines aren’t as dense or loaded here as they would become, but they serve as something of a cryptograph for his later records. A passage like “I know some rappers using big words, to make their similes curve; my simplest shit be more pivotal” was astounding 7 years ago; now, it serves as an entry point to the world of Lamarian lyricism.

Formalistically, Section.80 established the concept album approach Kendrick would apply to every one of his subsequent releases. The voicemails of gk,mc and slowly unfolding poem of TPaB are birthed from Section.80, where the music is fused together by a pitched-down version of Kendrick, speaking to a group of disillusioned youths around a crackling fire. He could be a community leader or an unorthodox preacher, but his intent is clearly to offer a means of channeling the fiery passion that burns inside them. It’s an example of Kendrick abandoning subtlety when his surroundings demand directness: the Reaganomics, crack epidemic and racist turmoil of the ’80s were as much a part of his conception and upbringing as his parents were, and Kendrick spends most of the album tackling that reality.

Throw a dart at the tracklist and you’re likely to hit something astounding. “Rigamortis” is the result of a three piece horn section setting up shop atop Kendrick’s adrenal gland, and remains to this day the rapper’s best, most joyous exercise in pure form. “Blow My High (Members Only)” takes at least three separate hooks and refracts them through the prism of Aaliyah’s gold-dappled voice, sounding like a wake crossed with a housewarming party. Even minor cuts like “Hol’ Up” and “The Spiteful Chant” leave an impression, whether it be a feeling of confident glee or paranoid vitriol, respectively.

Then there are the legacy tracks to consider. “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils)” is a beast of aleatoric circumstance. It encompasses the L.A.-dawn croon of Ash Riser, Ab-Soul’s breathless interludes, a beat-to-shit organ that’s one day from retirement, whip crack and bullet whoosh percussion, calls of “BLUH BLUH BLUH” and “WOOP DE WOOP” and, of course, RZA’s gloriously superfluous “California Dungeons!” adlib. It’s an obstreperous track that embraces the volatility of Compton with a rakish grin, the sound of riding around the city at dusk with the top down, all of it peppered with lashings from Kendrick’s merciless tongue.

And, honestly, it’s hard to imagine where Kendrick would be without the enduring potency of “A.D.H.D.“, the rapper’s earliest successful pairing of moralizing and impeccable song craft. Over a Sounwave beat as lavish and intoxicating as a dirty sprite with ice chips, Kendrick crafts a hook that bemoans the state of his peers’ substance abuse without presuming to lecture or demean them for their vices. What fuels “A.D.H.D.” – and, later, songs like “Swimming Pools (Drank)“, “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “How Much a Dollar Cost” – is its specificity, as well as Kendrick’s eloquent weariness. He’s not didactic, simply distraught (“Who gives a fuck? We never do listen”) and unsure of how to break free of the nihilistic orbit of his generation.

Still, it’s best to avoid the odious “No Makeup (Her Vice)” whenever possible. It’s one of the few truly unforgivable songs in Kendrick’s major label discography, featuring a disastrously misjudged hook from the sullen Colin Munroe, who sounds as if he’s performing a song he wrote at music camp about his girlfriend who totally exists, she just lives in Canada, ok?! Kendrick himself doesn’t fare much better in his verses, where he leans hard into his social and personal ideals, negating to leaven them even slightly with a touch of wit or literary dynamic.

Listening to “No Makeup” – and, on its heels, the forgettable, chiptune-indebted mantra of “Tammy’s Song (Her Evils)” – you get the impression of Kendrick battling the twin impulses in his mind to make great music and to offer worthy social commentary. It’s striking how close he comes to amalgamating those two purposes on his very first release, but the times when he fails represent the gulf that still exists between them. It’s clear that, back when Section.80 dropped in mid-2011, he still hadn’t quite found a way to consistently tackle heaviness without tipping his hand and sounding a little preachy or, perhaps worse, clumsy.

But, as a whole, Section.80 exists as an artifact of a great artist just barely removed from hitting his stride. It’s less a mixed bag than one overflowing with potential, boasting precursors of his later work (the eruptive, fiercely jazzy bump of “Ab-Soul’s Outro” laid the groundwork for TPaB) alongside a troubling infatuation with machismo bullshit (“Some of you niggas acting like hoes”; “Got me thinking you don’t like bitches”) that would largely be abandoned or totally reconfigured on later albums.

What’s more, Section.80 presents a rare glimpse of a singular talent in flux, transitioning from the shit-talking, light-stepping K-Dot into the all-knowing majesty of his current self. It was the first standard Kendrick set that he almost immediately topped, the first hybrid between morality and groove that he summarily found tighter ways to fuse together. It was the beginning of a refined sensibility, level of sophistication and zeal for musical splendour that, almost 7 years later, has yet to let up. It’s how we met Kendrick Lamar.

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