(Today CJ provides a review on acclaimed newcomer Kendrick Lamar's latest album, Section.80. Leave your thoughts for CJ below.)
Who is Kendrick Lamar?
Up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea. Although Lamar was generating buzz as being the "next big thing" from one of the former meccas of hip-hop, Compton, CA, I was oblivious. The only recent MC from Compton that I was aware of, and I think I'm in the same boat with about ninety percent of Americans here, was The Game (sadly).
The harsh reality is that my previous sentence is a summation of what Compton has become since the golden era of West Coast gangsta rap. An argument can be made that it was Compton, and not the Big Apple, that was the central driving force of rap music in the 1990's. After all, this is the place that has produced legends such as Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, and Eazy-E (who gained that title because of the group he was affiliated with, and not because he was a tremendous rapper). While 2Pac claimed Los Angeles as his home, it was the music coming out of Compton that probably had the greatest influence on his career. West Coast hip hop, which for a brief period was stronger than anything the East Coast came up with, lived and died in Compton.
And yet the city that was so influential on our chosen genre fell into an abyss for the past decade. The Game brought some promise with his release of his debut, The Documentary, in 2004, but has since stumbled and still can't convince his label to commit to a release date for his next project. The second most prominent rapper out of Compton? Tyga. Yes, things have got so bad in the West that an artist like Tyga is recognized as the city's main attraction.
And then came K.Dot. That's the name Kendrick Lamar went by when he first entered the rap game at the young age of 16. Under this alias, he released a mixtape titled Youngest Head N---a in Charge in 2003. I have yet to listen to this tape, or even find it, but Top Dawg Entertainment must have sensed something, signing Lamar shortly after the tape was released. K.Dot would go on to release two more mixtapes, Training Day and C4, before deciding to perform under his actual name instead (and thank God, considering K.Dot was a pretty wack name to begin with). But by 2009, six years after his first release, Lamar was still largely unheard of, unless you happened to be from Compton to begin with. Lamar needed to do something to gain more attention, something that made him stand out from any other artist hailing from his city.
So Lamar dropped his first actual "album" (it's free, so I still consider it as somewhat of a mixtape), the simply titled Kendrick Lamar EP, in December of 2009. With songs like "P&P" (which stood for “Pussy & Patron”) and "She Needs Me", as well as some other decent cuts, Lamar propelled himself into the national hip hop scene. If you ever actually listened to the EP though (and you really should, to be honest), Lamar still sounded like a rapper that had tremendous potential, but there were areas he needed to improve in.
After touring on the Independent Grind Tour with artists like Jay Rock and Tech N9ne, Lamar released his second "album", O(verly) D(edicated), in September of last year. The "album" was met with critical acclaim in hip hop circles, and, had it been released as an actual mixtape, it could have been the best for all of 2010. Lamar made sure that he still rapped about topics that actually mattered to him (standout tracks included "Ignorance is Bliss" and "H.O.C."), and was aided by better beats this time around. Yet, there were still red flags regarding his potential. For instance, his track "Michael Jordan" sounded like something that guy who pretends to be "the best rapper alive" would release. Lamar needed to make a choice: should he stay true to his independent roots and try and break through by word of mouth,or should he sell out and try and go the mainstream route, giving up his more conscious rhymes in the process?
So 10 months after O(verly) D(edicated), Lamar came back with his latest work, Section.80, an album that made its debut at number three on the iTunes charts (which blew my mind), even managing to outsell Lady Gaga's heavily hyped Born This Way in its opening week. Is all of the hype well deserved? Here's my take.
1. FUCK YOUR ETHNICITY
Lamar starts off his album with a skit (which recurs at later points throughout Section.80) which leads straight into the track at about the thirty-two second mark. Lamar opens up with, "This is the music that saved my life" (pretty sure we've all heard that line before) but I believe he actually sounds genuine on here. Lamar's verses on this are rock-solid, and its clear from the get-go that this kid is very intelligent. Still, Lamar needs to send a big thank-you gift basket to his producer, THC: the beat is really well-constructed, and the sample (if it is an actual sample on here, I'm still not altogether sure) used for the hook is brilliant. This song gives you a great reason to continue listening to the album.
2. HOL' UP
Trumpets?! Shit, I can't remember the last time I heard a beat this fresh. Lamar calls on Sounwave to provide the production on here, and man, he hits an absolute home run. The beat sounds like something I would expect someone like K-Os use, but Lamar makes the track his own by contributing two extremely smooth verses. This is one of those tracks that is just pure hip hop with no extra preservatives. It's also Lamar's way of letting his fans know that this album is going to be a major departure in style from O(verly) D(edicated). Two tracks in, and Lamar has already provided two contenders for the best hip hop song of the year. Damn, that's really telling on how bad a year it's been (as far as albums go, anyway: mixtape-wise, 2011 has been tremendous).
I can't decide if Lamar's voice annoys me or if it's just so different that I haven't yet adjusted to it. I also can't figure out which rapper he relates to the most (he sounds like a fusion of K'Naan, the aforementioned K-Os, Lupe Fiasco, and Quasimoto). Anyway, "A.D.H.D." marks a major transition from the previous track on both the production and lyrical ends. Gone are the trumpets and the genially light tone, having been replaced by a more ambient beat with a much darker subtext. Usually, it's tough to shift gears that quickly, but Sounwave's beat is absolutely mesmerizing, making this a song you can't not listen to. Lamar touches on a lot of different issues here (ranging from TV propaganda to drug abuse), and his delivery on the mic is pretty fast, so it's hard to keep up with everything he wants us to hear. Listen to it again as soon as you finish it the first time, though, and you'll find that it's hard not to be moved by what our host is trying to say through his storytelling. I was blown away by "Hol' Up" the first time I listened to Section.80, and I made the mistake of not giving this enough attention (with a title like "A.D.H.D.", that makes sense, I guess), but you shouldn't make the same mistake I originally made. Pure brilliance.
4. NO MAKE-UP (HER VICE) (FEAT. COLIN MUNROE)
Lamar brings in his first guest appearance of the album, as Colin Munroe drops by to perform the hook. This song serves as more proof that our host knows exactly what mixes well with his music: the guest star sounds great on here (and is probably the only singer who would). “No Make-Up (Her Vice)" marks another transition in both tone and theme, as Lamar spends the duration of this track discussing insecurity in women. The overall message on here isn't nearly as complex as they were on "A.D.H.D." or "Fuck Your Ethnicity", but he still makes his point clearly, and I thought the section of dialogue between him and his lover (who isn't credited on Section.80 for some weird reason) was well done. Sounwave nearly ruins the track during the final hook, though.
5. TAMMY'S SONG (HER EVILS)
I hate using the roller coaster analogy, but Section.80 truly feels like one, due to how different each song sounds from the last. THC returns for production duties, lending an abstract beat with a more spacey feel. While it's not nearly on the level of his earlier work on the album, it isn't terrible, and it at least doesn't take anything away from the rhymes of our host. Speaking of our host, Lamar goes with a different approach on here, using a repetition method that makes each verse sound identical to the previous one (except each verse does have a different event/story to it, and the ending is a surprise). My only real complaint with “Tammy's Song (Her Evils)” is with the hook, which is pretty awful. Otherwise, this is a decent track, just not as impressive as the first four on Section.80.
6. CHAPTER SIX
An interlude disguised as a song (which is really, really fucking annoying), but the beat, courtesy of Tommy Black, is worth noting. It's just a shame that Lamar didn't take full advantage of it.
7. RONALD REAGAN ERA
Don't let the introduction (which is great) or the instrumental fool you: “Ronald Reagan Era” is a serious track. Lamar talks about some of his experiences living in Compton, which are all pretty interesting. Not only does Lamar do a good job adding depth through his lyrics, but he ensures that Tae Beast's beat doesn't go to waste. While Beast certainly didn't put in his entire body and soul into producing this, he still gives our host a perfect complement to his verses. He also pays tribute to RZA with a vocal sample of Prince Rakeem saying, "California dungeons", during the chorus, which earns him some bonus points in my book. (Is it really a “vocal sample” when whatever song The RZA originally said that phrase on was never really released? I've read interviews where Kendrick informed his fans that the “sample” was a part of an older, unreleased track that his producer had saved on his computer. Also, the original single cover of “Ronald Reagan Era” prominently featured The RZA as though he were acting in a supporting role. Discuss.)
8. POE MAN'S DREAM (HIS VICE) (FEAT. GLC)
Willie B helps bring the album back to that jazzy feel that you heard with "Hol' Up" and "Chapter Six", which is a really, really good thing. In fact, this is by far one of the best beats on the album (which is saying a lot, as nearly every track is well done). Again, Lamar owns the mic on this, and I loved the overall theme of this song (which pays tribute to his father and uncles). GLC's hook is also great, as he sounds like a West Coast version of Big Boi (which is weird, since he hails from Chicago), and while his rant at the end might be a few seconds too long, it doesn't take away from the song as a whole. Without a doubt, this is another gem.
9. THE SPITEFUL CHANT
What. The. Fuck. I'm going to ignore this song, as it is fucking terrible. I almost feel that someone placed this on the final version of Section.80 without Kendrick's authorization. That's what I hope, anyway. Otherwise, his decision to include it was just stupid. You're better than this, Kendrick.
10. CHAPTER TEN
11. KEISHA'S SONG (HER PAIN) (FEAT. ASHTRO BOT)
Usually, this is where the average albums begin to fall apart. After the misfire that was “The Spiteful Chant" and then the inclusion of a second interlude, I was led to believe that Lamar would not be able to to gain back the incredible momentum that the first half of Section.80 had. I even accepted my fate, believing that this was going to be just another "solid, but not great" effort (a critique I've levied against pretty much every hip hop album released this year). However, I was relieved after hearing the first verse. Lamar weaves a great (well, not so great for Keisha) tale of prostitution and how it affects one particular woman. The song's lyrics are outstanding, and Lamar does as good a job as you can do on delivering them. The hook, provided by guest star Ashtro Bot, fits in well with this track: it's probably one of the better choruses you'll hear on this project. Tae Beast also does a great job on the production end, providing a dark beat that is accompanied by a set of piano keys in the background. Another powerful track.
While the beat is decent (we've apparently transitioned back into the type of horns that made the earlier “Hol' Up” such a success), “Rigamortus” was created simply for Lamar to show off his skills. And that he does: our host gives three fast-paced verses that he is somehow able to make flow together, which is another testament to how talented this guy is. This was a nice change of pace from the hard-hitting "Keisha's Song (Her Pain)", and it gives you time to catch your breath from the overall serious tone of Section.80.
13. KUSH & CORINTHIANS (FEAT. BJ THE CHICAGO KID)
This one took a few listens to grow on me. The instrumental isn't nearly as impressive as on the previous tracks, but it works well with Lamar's delivery, and he uses it to drop some of the best rhymes of the entire project. The hook sounds forced (guest star BJ the Chicago Kid isn't anything great, either), but as the case has been throughout much of Section.80, the rest of the song is so good that this mistake can be forgiven pretty easily.
14. BLOW MY HIGH (MEMBERS ONLY)
Lamar pays tribute to the late Pimp C, using some of his bars from Jay-Z's hit “Big Pimpin'”. As you could probably guess, the overall mood shifts back to a lighter feel, with Lamar avoiding any serious topics, as they might actually blow his high. To be honest, the instrumental sounds more suitable for a guy like Big K.R.I.T., but Lamar still does a pretty good job with it. This is a great track to put on the stereo when you're cruising through town (well, depending on what town you're cruising through: you still have to use your common sense). I like this song; my only problem is that it just doesn't mesh well with the rest of Section.80, as it interrupts the momentum Lamar has built since "Rigamortus", and the final two songs on here don't sound anything like this, either, so it's not setting any new trends.
15. AB-SOUL'S OUTRO (FEAT. AB-SOUL)
One of Kendrick's favorite collaborators drops a solid verse on Section.80. Lamar's verse is also good, but the beat absolutely hurts this song. I love hearing jazzy rap beats, and the saxophone in the back brings back good memories of Digable Planets, but this instrumental, provided by Terrace Martin, is all over the place. If this were the final track of the Section.80, I would give Martin a pass, since a lot of hip hop albums end with a beat that's certainly not up to par with the rest of the work (like The Roots' "Web 20/20" off of How I Got Over). But this isn't the final song on the album. If there's any reason to sit through the beat (other than hearing Ab-Soul and Lamar's lines), it's the final twenty seconds, which set the stage for...
Our host saves the best track of Section.80 (and that's saying something) for last. Lamar brings in North Carolina's J.Cole (the two are set to collaborate on a mixtape sometime soon) to handle production duties, and Cole does his job really fucking well. I remembered that Cole produced nearly all of his acclaimed Friday Night Lights mixtape back in 2010, but I forgot just how talented he could be behind the boards. If you are a fan of Cole, you'll notice that this instrumental would fit him like a glove: I wouldn't be surprised to hear him jump on a remix in the very near future. Kendrick Lamar is no slouch, though, as he delivers three powerful verses full of choice bars, such as, “Who said a black man in the Illuminati? / Last time I checked, that was the biggest racist party”. Finally, someone sane enough to put this Illuminati bullshit to rest. I'm still debating whether or not this is the best track I've heard Lamar record to date, but regardless, it's one worth putting on repeat. What a way to close an album.
THE LAST WORD: And there you have it. Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 is, without a doubt, a huge improvement over his previous two "albums" and should be considered Lamar's best work to date. Most newer hip hop albums contain about two or three great tracks, maybe three to five solid or good cuts, and the rest is mostly garbage and/or interludes: that isn't the case with Section.80. Lamar gives listeners not just two or three great tracks, but nine of them (and you could argue that “Rigamortus” also belongs in that category, too). It's hard to find an album that rich anymore (the most recent one I can recall is Big K.R.I.T.'s Returnof4Eva). There are songs that don't stand out as much, most notably "Tammy's Song (Her Evils)" and "Blow My High (Members Only)", but that doesn't necessarily mean they're garbage; they just don't fit with the rest of the material on Section.80. Only one track, "The Spiteful Chant", is an absolute skip every time, and it remains the only major black mark on an otherwise powerful and well-put-together album. In 2010, I had to wait until July for the first truly great album of that year, Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty: the same goes for 2011, except this time Kendrick Lamar takes the prize. I would recommend that you buy this as soon as you receive your next paycheck. Hip hop only sees about two or three great albums a year, and this is definitely one of them. I also suggest that you get Lamar's previous two "albums", if you don't already have them in your collection, as his hype is well-deserved. Now we will patiently wait to see whether Kendrick Lamar cements himself as another one of the Compton legends.
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)