Revisiting 'Section.80,' An Under-Appreciated Gem That Represents an Icon's Arrival
In the 1993 classic A Bronx Tale, Calogero famously narrates, “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Yet, talent is enigmatic, and whether it's squandered, abandoned, or never given the chance to properly develop, few people are able to exceed or even fully reach their potential. I wake up every morning and thank the heavens that Kendrick Lamar was able to reach his.
It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time where Kendrick wasn’t the most respected name in rap. In fact, the first time I came across the good kid from Compton, I nearly ignored him.
It was the fall of 2010. I was a junior in high school, and an idiot. I was in the middle of my after school perusal of 2DopeBoyz, in search of new tracks that I could send to my friends before they heard of them (this was a big deal in high school, and to a certain extent remains to be one today).
I came upon a preview of Kendrick’s upcoming Overly Dedicated mixtape, and as it had no MP3 file attached to it, I almost continued to scroll. But then I caught the first line of the post, which said something like “Kendrick Lamar could be the next big thing in rap.” I took a mental note, and went on digging for new music.
A few weeks later, I downloaded the tape right when it dropped, eager to hear what this highly praised up-and-comer had to offer. I was initially disappointed (I was an idiot). His voice was too high pitched for me, but his storytelling skills on tracks like “Average Joe” and “The Heart, Pt. 2” were compelling enough to take up precious megabyte storage in my iPod nano next to the exquisite works of Chiddy Bang and XV (ahem, idiot).
I’d eventually start listening to the mixtape in its entirety more, and pretty soon I added the whole thing to my library. It took much longer than it needed to, but I was officially aboard the Kendrick Lamar bandwagon next to 2DBZ’s Shake and Meka.
The excitement I felt upon discovering Kendrick and the rest of his Top Dawg Entertainment cohorts is something I haven’t felt since. There hasn’t been an independent label in recent memory with a better run than TDE had in the early ‘10s, which thankfully coincided with my crucial formative years.
Overly Dedicated, Longterm Mentality, Setbacks, Section. 80, Follow Me Home, Habits and Contradictions, and Control System, all released within a two-year span. What a time.
When Section.80 came around, I was a much more mature, tasteful, senior-to-be, and I was able to appreciate its greatness immediately.
But not everyone was as sophisticated as I. I remember excitedly IM-ing a close friend “Rigamortus,” but I got a crushing “meh” response instead of the all-caps one I had anticipated. Later, I played “Ronald Reagan Era” whilst on AUX duty, only to have my privileges revoked immediately. Just a few companions shared my enthusiasm, and it’s not an accident that I remain close with most of them today.
Thankfully, industry professionals at the time had better taste than my classmates, and word of Kendrick’s prodigious talent reached the ears of Dr. Dre, already by the time Section.80 dropped.
Kendrick’s next album and coming out party Good Kid, M.A.A.D City released under both the TDE and Interscope labels, and all of a sudden everyone was rocking with Kdot since he actually was going by that stage name.
But while many consider that to be Kendrick’s debut, they often overlook the greatness that is Section.80.
I won’t sit here and say the album is perfect, but its flaws — most notably “The Spiteful Chant’s” chorus and all of “No Makeup” — bring us back to a time where Kendrick could afford to be flawed.
The album opens with a distorted voice, which instantly commands our attention. Kendrick would use this element on GKMC and DAMN. as well, and both have the same captivating effect. He calls Keisha and Tammy to come up front, and takes us into his world for the next hour.
Hip-hop’s emphasis on youth makes artists in their 20s seem middle-aged. Section.80 released just after Kendrick’s 24th birthday, and his bars are incredibly mature, even outside the vacuum of rap. After all, he did live his 20s at 2 years old.
The frustration felt by society’s need to get high on “A.D.H.D,” the perils of sex workers on “Keisha’s Song,” and the vivid and harrowing pictures he paints on “Ronald Reagan Era” are just a few of the highlights scattered throughout the album. It’s moments like these that make Section.80 so special. Like Kobe Bryant’s game 4 performance in the 2000 NBA Finals or Cam Newton’s ridiculous touchdown run against LSU, the debut album is Kendrick actualizing his superstar potential.
Let’s take “Ronald Reagan Era” for example. This is my favorite track off of the album, and like any elite rap song, the opening lines make me feel like I can punch through a school bus.
“Welcome to vigilante/’80s so don’t you ask me/I’m hungry my body’s antsy/I’ll rip through your fuckin’ pantry”
Pair that with a Marcus Camby and Mr. Marcus reference and 16-year-old Ramsey was hooked. It’s a bit ironic that the same guy who I almost passed over would become so adept at instantly hooking me.
A few more of my favorite moments of the album:
The third lung he sprouts to close out “Rigamortis”
The way GLC says “cathedral” in Poe Man’s Dreams
The Pimp C and Aaliyah tributes on “Blow My High”
All of “HiiPower”
Now four official albums into his discography, you could make the argument that Section.80 is the “worst” Kendrick has had to offer so far. But it’s important to consider where he is at this point in his career. He’s transcended rap — winning Pulitzers and starting whatever pgLang is — and while a fifth album seems like it’s on the way, he doesn’t need to release it. He’s accomplished just about everything musically possible, and he owes us nothing.
We can look at the three-year lull since the release of DAMN. like Jordan’s first retirement. And Section.80 is his 63-point performance in his second-ever playoff game. No one really remembers Jordan being swept in that series (except for LeBron stans), they just remember seeing the arrival of a legend.