Left coast golden child Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 arrives less than a year after his full length debut Overly Dedicated was given away for free (than sold). OD was a hypnotic batch of street oriented neo-backpack rap. It’s keenly executed songs about women, Compton, and being a young Black male got Dr. Dre’s interest, coverage in the L.A. Times and MTV, and rap bloggers’ sites full of Kendrick’s videos, guest spots and leaks. So with no surprise Section.80 picks up where OD left off, but tied to a loose concept about how Reaganomics affected children born into the 1980s. Crack, gangs, promiscuity, and a yearning for a tough cool all imbue eighty’s-babies personas, but instead of succumbing to the poisons, Section.80 aims to articulate a message of perseverance, inspiration, and unity.
The album’s production is handled by TDE’s in-house unit, who do a great job channeling the spirits of RZA and DJ Muggs, with hovering pop sensibilities. THC’s catchy, but experimental Tetris-hop on “Tammy’s Song (Her Evils)” sounds like it’s straight from the L.A. beat scene, but Kendrick uses it to sketch a story of a young woman’s contradictions with love and sex. It’s moralizing rap found in other cuts like “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” and “Poe Man’s Dreams (His Vice)” that could be off-putting to some if it wasn’t for Kendrick’s phenomenal knack for varying the tempo and diction of his flows (and for Willie B’s and Tae Beats slappin’ emotive production). “Ronald Reagan Era” and “Fuck Your Ethnicity” are other gems within Section.80 that highlight Kendrick’s style over true substance approach above more ‘notic provided by Tae and THC.
The album does have some glaring flaws though; most notably “No Makeup (Her Vice)” featuring the cellulose soul of Colin Munroe. It’s a radio friendly song that is not awful, just doomed to be lifeless when it fails to crossover. Also as is the case other TDE releases, Section.80 suffers from poor sequencing and an awkward dependence on sung or harmonized hooks. These two qualities that are not aided by the pointless two minute interlude “Chapter Six”, and the sluggish overly-triumphant sound of “The Spiteful Chant” featuring Schoolboy Q. These short-comings cause the album to become a disjointed and cluttered listening, as Kendrick himself seems to be obsessed with displaying how showy he can be with the flows instead of precise.
Yet even these flaws can not debilitate the vigor of the songs mentioned above, or the rappity-rap boom-bap jewels of “Rigamortus”, “Chapter Ten”, or “Ab-Soul’s Outro”. Those songs are full of whimsical free-associative raps tied to street life, but immersed in the most face-crunchin’ double-time flow, kill sucker emcees shit. It’s this type of rap acrobatics and quality song making that allows me to support Kendrick’s hype-beast so easily. It’s as if the Hip Hop Gods put Myka 9’s technical rap proficiency, DJ Quik’s swagger, and Common’s content in one rapper. Words and ideas spill from Kendrick’s mouth like paint from Revok or Retna’s spray can. While Kendrick, his Black Hippy crew, and his TDE management are far from giving fans a masterpiece, they have succeeded in releasing a quality product that has one of the year’s most powerful songs, “HiiiPower”, appearing almost as an after thought. Without a doubt Kendrick’s popularity on a critical and national level will only grow with this album, but it is up to him to make clearer and more focused artistic statements in the future.