10 Years Later: Kendrick Lamar and The People of Section.80

Section.80’s is a complex album that rarely strays away from these dark and conscious themes. But it isn’t completely wound tightly, sometimes using a few different characters in his generation, taking influence from its effect on their adolescence. These characters have been silhouettes wandering through shadows since the peak of Reaganomics and influencing the broken youth. They contain negatives derived from social-political biases within structured systems, which have shifted the lives of people in poorer communities. At 10 years, Section.80 isn’t talked about as much as his subsequent work, and who knows why that is; however one thing is known, without the critical and audience success of it, maybe Kendrick wouldn’t be where he is now, but he made it as the bridge to give his story a deeper understanding on his follow-up album. 

Before the anticipated release of Section.80 in hip-hop circles, there was a belief this could make or break Kendrick Lamar’s career. We’ve known through his mixtapes that his technical skill was on point and his lyricism had enough equilibrium to keep his name high. What left that doubt was the lack of proof that Kendrick could conceivably create a proper song, or rather a variation that isn’t using rudimentary hip-hop instrumentals. He has never laid out a universally appealing track that can hit various ears and eyes swiftly, no matter the formatted radio. Despite a lack of radio presence he made waves with Section.80‘s only single “HiiiPoWer.”

“HiiiPoWer,” produced by J. Cole, brought the appeal fitting into a trend of the movement era in Hip-Hop, where you were either directing the generation to niche cultural dynamics, whether it was a form of dance or a performance empowering a group that believes in the truth. Though it stands for something more, Kendrick brings this sense of unison within the track, explaining how censorship and oppressive social views can impact aspects of the culture. He mentions how Lauryn Hill and Kurt Cobain were influenced by the industry and music’s overall part of defining aspects of capitalism. As well as breaching into conspiracy-laced thoughts regarding the deaths/murders of black leaders and more. It laid out an idea of where the direction of his album could be – in-depth social criticism.

Topics of social criticism from institutionalism, systematic racism, and more. Kendrick makes note of these structured and stereotypical systems that have been taking back a turn from what could have been progression in what is known today as Reaganomics. He starts this with three tracks that lay a paved path of visuals filled with stuff that has happened to him, based on bias or other means. “F*ck Your Ethnicity,” and “Hol’ Up,” are two of these tracks. The former is fueled with anger and the latter is satirically braggadocios taking jabs at himself through a tinted lens where he is only seen through the color of his skin.

“A.D.H.D.” is the last of these tracks, and the most notable one outside of his anthem “HiiiPoWer.” It could be the unique and slightly infectious chorus line where his pronunciations of words and soft-spoken harmonizations, which is the antithesis of what people thought he needed to do to breakthrough. It would become a silent precursor to the kind of approach his first pop single, “Swimming Pools (Drank) had, never deterring from authenticity. Section.80 was about the bigger picture. The way Reagan and (mostly) republicans attacked the drug trade, mental health, and trickle-down economics laid the way for harsher upbringings for many; specifically those least likely to afford the help. It led to people trickling down into their own vices and losing themselves because of the stresses around. It would be reflected in those times through various mediums.

Reaganomics and actions made by the Reagan administration, for the uninformed, allowed for a free activity market, which made way for a divide based on income imposed by a town or cities distribution of the budget spending. It also lowered taxes on high earners and caused the ripple effect we see today where we see some of the wealthiest people getting tax breaks and more for things meant for the less affluent. The drug trade was also a heavy pivot point as well, where minimalist and innocent possession could have led down an unruly path of mental anguish. It was worse with the way it grew within these impoverished communities and created a new stigma within the way they were policed and more. This is just putting it simply. However, when Kendrick Lamar makes note, on the track “A.D.H.D.” that this woman he is talking to him calls him a crack baby, it brings to light what she meant for people like them who were born in the 80s, which was when the peak of the crack epidemic began to unfurl.

He continues to criticize this on the track “Ronald Reagan Era,” which is a tale of a dystopian Compton, California overrun by gangs in the drug game, during the crack epidemic. But Kendrick weaves his raps/tracks as both a warning to the youth, using fictional characters as a cautionary tale, while also applying a lot to himself and how it reflected on various moments in his life. On other tracks, he uses characters as examples for these cautionary tales.

One of the characters, Keisha, is one of these aforementioned characters who receive a three-part narrative, describing the hardship and tribulations that come from prostituting and waning your confidence for bigger aspirations. His shifts in perspectives and tone, on these tracks, allow for his messages, within the themes, to land with impact. It’s from understanding and hearing the pain with the way their stories play out and the emotions they feel throughout. 

These people have been victims of biased governing and more. For example, in the news, we have heard and seen how poorly structured the education system can be based on demographics. One area could have consistently better establishments and workers in place to keep it functioning with preciseness and swiftness in higher-earning areas, opposed to others. Because of this, it becomes harder for some people to make it to graduation, and afterward, it could be seen, mentally, like it would be easier to push drugs or by other means, like prostitution (in Keisha’s case), or robbery, as opposed to working two to three jobs to make ends meet. Everyone has their path and sometimes they take risky and poor-choice ventures, but the world around them isn’t there to help. This is something Kendrick would later reflect upon himself, on “Poe Mans Dreams,” as he remembers his uncle’s trial and the implied notion that one seems to usually follow a similar path. 

This is taken into account with the lines:

“I used to want to see the penitentiary way after elementary

 Thought it was cool to look the judge in the face when he sentenced me

 Since my uncles was institutionalized

 My intuition had said I was suited for family ties”

– Poe Mans Dreams by Kendrick Lamar

These topics become a prominent part of social criticism from Kendrick Lamar, going as far as putting himself front and center as the personal example of how it can affect one’s psyche for the good or the bad. Some people see a way out, they fail and never have a plan B, but Kendrick has that hunger and he made it possible by standing out on others tracks that breathe confident arrogance, which, based upon what he hears, makes it sound authentic to what he preached and why he can come across like does. And it becomes apparent how long has come since Overly Dedicated with the constructs his songs. He boasts confidence, implying that he’s come to take the throne from the King of Hip-Hop on “Rigamortis.” It takes that arrogance, deriving from motivation, and expressing confidence to be something bigger than he is at that moment. The has the production of this track helps in showing his chameleon-like flows as he raps over a hard jazz orchestration that is not influenced by any hip-hop whatsoever.

This continuation of brilliance comes in other aspects, like the sequencing/transitioning of “Kush & Corinthians” to “Blow My High,” which beautifully contrast each other smoothly. The former focuses on distinguishing the split between morals and the way one easily succumbs to action at the behest of earthly vices. “Blow My High” takes a contrasting approach as Kendrick boasts about trying to live to the highest without anything ruining his flow. While “Kush & Corinthians” focuses on morals and religion, “Blow My High” negates these morals and eventually succumbs to his vices.

The array of lessons imparted through painted themes/stories on the tracks are topics that deserve a discussion. Many of these stories bridge the examples toward the tones and notions Kendrick takes on his subsequent album. It doesn’t matter how one feels about the quality of the song, like “No Make-Up,” whose themes I’ve mentioned loosely previously. We get a sense of who Kendrick Lamar is and what made him who he is, as he delivers an autobiographical tale about his life on Good kid, m.a.a.d. city. 

And at this point, revisiting Section.80 offered a lot more than it did the last time, which was five or so years ago. The music begins to encroach deeper areas, you get a sense of what is being said and how these problems have affected lesser social classes, and how Kendrick had to witness and bear a lot of mental pain trying to figure out his purpose; specifically in the kind of music he made. Before Section.80, Kendrick was just a rapper with crazy technical skills and to a lesser degree songwriting skills, but that grew and we witnessed an artist emerging into his own, July 2nd, 2011. So as you go back and listen to the album after rereading this, you will find a newfound appreciation for seeing him go through trials and tribulations as a songwriter and succeeding.

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