After a string of highly promising but ultimately confusing mixtapes, Kendrick Lamar delivers on his immense Dr. Dre- and blog-fueled hype with one of 2011's best hip-hop albums.
Section.80 is a triumph for the internet-centric youth rap movement. While plenty of artists have set their sights on finally charging for their work in 2011, including west coast contemporaries like Lil' B and Dom Kennedy, many of them seem unable to make their album work feel much different from their mixtapes. Surely some of that stems from their use of the same producers and the lack of DJ involvement that makes their free projects feel like albums anyway, but a lot of it is rooted in their inability to expand.
The best mixtape artists can put out a bevy of tapes with hot lines and cool beats, but very few of them can figure out how to focus that energy into cohesive, sound-expanding albums without losing what made them unique in the first place or, more commonly, simply making more of the same and coming off repetitive. In the latter's case, it becomes hard to understand what separates one effort from another, and thus plenty of artists can shift from vessels of potential to mere flavors of the month/year. In the former's, one wonders why the artist ever bothered trying to stop making tapes in the first place if his music was going to suffer as a result.
Kendrick Lamar always felt promising, but he also felt weird. Not just his voice, but the way he decided to explain ideas often felt like a guy who's mind was racing so furiously that he was incapable of tying big ideas to understandable verbalizations. Section.80, aside from random Lamarisms, fully avoids this issue. In the process, it allows Lamar to do what so many of his peers have seemed unable to do -- make an album that not only delivers on but exceeds hype.
Section.80 is a loose concept record, narrated at times by a guy that reminds listeners of Lawrence Fishburne in Boyz n da Hood and epilogue'd by fellow Black Hippy Ab-Soul in a way that attempts to tie the concepts of songs like "Tammy", "Keisha", "A.D.H.D.", "Ronald Reagan Era" and "Poe Man's Dream" together beyond mere adherence to social consciousness. They force us to understand these songs as different narratives of one neighborhood in Compton, to place imagined faces on all of the subjects of Lamar's tracks.
It's a nice trick that doesn't feel overbearing on the album as a whole, a gimmick that adds to the album without taking anything away from it. Not that Section.80 relies on it, either, as literally every song here has something to say regardless of the overarching narrative and can be enjoyed easily on their own merits separate from the whole. Kendrick is especially refreshing in an era during which many of his peers are content to simply rap about the number of anonymous, imaginary women they've bedded or the amount of boutique clothing lines have been donated to their closet. His worldview is one of things that actually occur in life, particularly the streets of contemporary Compton, and it especially feels more rooted in his personal opinions than the rhymes of his peers. He pleads with women to love themselves for themselves rather than the image they're able to concoct in front of a mirror, and while he seems inescapably linked to consistent over-imbibing of various substances, he's often equally capable of drawing the connection between his situations and his drug use. The drug use on Section.80 isn't a symptom of mere cool like, say, Curren$y or Wiz Khalifa. It's a symptom of listlessness, of an apparent lack of options or ways out.
Throughout Section.80, Lamar appears focused on making an enjoyable album, but the underlying current of it all is a very dark, nihilistic understanding of the world. Rarely do the characters in his songs have pure intentions, many of their actions of motivated by jealousy, sorrow, or anger. In other words, weakness. In many ways the strange ways in which he and his Top Dawg Ent. producers are able to make these topics palatable and entertaining to listen to reminds me of CunninLynguists, that is if they were stripped of their signature humor and left with a more anhedonic, myopic view of reality. Except Lamar does care, and that care comes through in his vocal inflections and overall understanding of what it takes to craft a complete, insular album rather than a mere collection of songs about things.
This is an album as much about America's youth as Lamar's fictional, probably semi-autobiographical depiction of Compton. He doesn't assume he's smart enough to provide any real answers for us, but he is only 23, after all. Like a young Ice Cube, he's only telling us what he sees, and while he might not offer solutions as often as O'Shea did, he's certainly able to paint us vivid a picture. Assuming he can reign in some of his stranger, more obtuse qualities and continue to grow as a man, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Lamar become one of the decade's most important hip-hop artists.