Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
I shy away from most hip hop music nowadays, which pains me. My suburban white adolescence was riddled with scenes of head-bobbing to 2Pac, Biggie, Snoop, Dre, Nas, Blackstar, and Common. Unfortunately, the hard-hitting and lyrically-provocative mainstream jams of the 1990s and early 2000s have been replaced by catchy, house-inspired drivel in the vein of Lil Jon, Soulja Boy, and Young Jeezy. It should be noted here that over the past decade, the entire music landscape has been in flux, which has among other things complicated our understanding of what is “mainstream.” Indeed, good hip hop has never disappeared and is more easily discovered than ever before. Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 represents exactly that – good, underground hip hop from an independent label – and proves that, despite what mainstream rap productions suggest, many artists are still committed to music with a social message.
Section.80 quickly grabs our attention, with an opening song entitled “Fuck Your Ethnicity.” No interpretation needed there. “Don’t mistake me for no fuckin’ rapper,” Lamar chides midway through the song. By discussing subjects like ethnicity and the rap industry itself, it’s clear that Lamar did not set out to craft your everyday rap album. The track “No Make-Up” continues Lamar’s mission to deliver original, alternative messages. Focusing presumably on his girlfriend, Lamar questions whether make-up truly improves beauty. “Damn girl, why so much?” he asks her as she gets ready to go out. “Don’t you know your imperfections is a wonderful blessing?” Lamar is not content to blindly accept cultural norms, in this case arguing that true beauty lies beneath the makeup we so frequently apply.
One of my favorite songs on the album, for its historical criticism, has to be “Ronald Reagan Era.” Reagan, according to Lamar, harvested an environment of every-man-for himself depravity, breeding drug use, fear, and horrific violence. “Welcome to vigilante 80s,” Lamar begins the track. “The children of Reagan,” Lamar flows emphatically, “raked the leaves off your front porch with a machine blow torch.” Hailing from Compton, Lamar speaks firsthand on the hardships that hit inner-city Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas as a result of Reaganomics’ impalement of governmental services. I agree wholeheartedly with Lamar’s lambasting of Reagan. Say what you want about William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, or even George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan was our worst president of all time. We still have not recovered economically or socially from the damage he wrought.
The eighties under Reagan did give us great musical art, including socially-conscious, sometimes politically abrasive hip hop from performers like Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Public Enemy and N.W.A. Lamar molds himself from their paradigm, assessing ours as an overdrugged generation in the track, “A.D.H.D.” Young people these days “pop Vicodin,” and sip cough syrup “like it’s water,” but which begets which, we wonder, the drug addiction or the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Lamar does not explicitly say, instead linking once again a cultural affliction to the Reagan era: “we crack babies because we born in the eighties.”
Not all of the album tackles social problems, however. Lamar dives into more introspective and meditative lyrics on two other fantastic tracks, “Kush & Corinthians” and “Ab-Souls Outro.” The former ruminates on the meaning of life and our purpose as human beings. “Be different, do different things,” Lamar urges. “Don’t do it like he did cause he ain’t what you is.” Under his verses rests an enigmatic, rumbling soundscape of piano, vibes, chimes, and guitar in C Minor, comprising my favorite beat on the album.
“Ab-Souls Outro,” Lamar’s diatribe on life in 21st century America, stands out as the most powerful song on the album. Here Lamar bears all, his thoughts on politics, economics, race, and the future. It’s a mishmash of profound words. I’ll excerpt some of my favorite lines. “I’m on the brink of my career while my peers struggle for employment…the president is black but you can’t vote for skin, you vote for the better man…we might not change the world but we gon’ manipulate it…Odd Future’s aight, but our future’s not, that martial law shit drop we gon’ all get got…(and finally)I’m not the next socially-aware rapper, I am a human motherfucking being over dope-ass instrumentation.” Check out the entire song lyrics here. Section.80 is a must-listen hip hop album of 2011. Well done, KL.