Kendrick Lamar is a weird kid, and rap music could always use more weird kids. The 24-year-old is a Compton native with a budding and mysterious Dr. Dre connection, but there’s little-to-no link to his hometown’s gangsta-funk legacy in his music. Instead, Lamar is very much a product of the late blog-rap era— an introverted loner type who’s willing to talk tough but is more interested in taking a Mag-Lite to his own personal failings and what he sees as the flaws of his generation. His rap style is fluid and melodic but approachable, and his frantic tumble of syllables evokes the feeling when you’re high enough that your thoughts arrive fast and interrupt each other. If one of the Bone Thugs guys had a dorky, overly sincere younger cousin who was really into Afrobeat and Terrence Malick movies, it’d be Kendrick.
Lamar does exist within a strong West Coast continuum, but it has nothing to do with Dre. Instead, he’s very much within the tradition of 90s groups like Souls of Mischief or the Pharcyde— self-deprecating and insanely talented kids who routinely ripped dizzy, slip-sliding flows over mellow jazz breaks. Section.80, Lamar’s new album, arrives on a wave of blog-based buzz, but beyond a couple of ill-advised choruses, it doesn’t make much attempt to present Lamar to major-label A&Rs or to a wider audience. Instead, it gives him a chance to chase his muse wherever it runs. The production, mostly from relative unknowns like THC and Sounwave, is almost uniformly excellent— a spaced-out blur of astral horns and blissed-out Fender Rhodes, with drums that only knock when they need to. A couple of guys from Lamar’s Black Hippy crew— those guys really sound like Souls of Mischief when they get together— show up, but the album isn’t a guest-heavy affair. It’s a young thinker attempting to describe the world as he sees it.
“You know why we crack babies cuz we born in the 80s,” Lamar raps on the excellently emo relationship-song “A.D.H.D.”, and that’s a theme that comes up over and over. Everywhere he looks, Lamar sees generational symptoms of the kids who came from the era of crack and Ronald Reagan. When he looks around, Lamar sees self-hate, nihilism, institutionalized oppression. When he talks to girls, he sometimes recalls the supportively sincere Goodie Mob of “Beautiful Skin”, actually counseling against cosmetics on “No Make-Up (Her Vice)”: “Don’t you know your imperfections is a wonderful blessing?/ From heaven is where you got it from.” (Somehow, the redundant double-“from” makes the sentiment all the more adorable.) And he also recognizes self-destructive tendencies in himself: “I used to wanna see the penitentiary way after elementary/ Thought it was cool to look the judge in the face when he sentenced me.” But it’s not like he’s some preacher/prophet figure; he says “suck my dick” often enough that it gets boring.
Given that Lamar is a talented and earnest young man with a lot to say and no big label nudging his music toward accessibility, it’s only natural that he’d lose his way every once in a while. Section.80 is an hour long, and it could drop probably a quarter of its running time without anyone missing anything. And certain moments just make me wince so hard, like this one, from “Hol’ Up”: “I wrote this record while 30,000 feet in the air/ Stewardess complimenting me on my nappy hair/ If I could fuck her in front of all these passengers/ They’d probably think I’m a terrorist.” Those few lines add up to a repellent cauldron of horniness, persecution-complex fantasies, exhibitionism, and plain old youthful Bad Idea Jeans indulgence. Dre hasn’t yet taught Lamar how to hone all his best ideas into a few absolutely killer pieces of music; maybe he still will. But self-serious flaws and all, Section.80 still stands as a powerful document of a tremendously promising young guy figuring out his voice. Its best moments (“Rigamortis”, “HiiiPower”, “Kush & Corinthians”, “A.D.H.D.”) are simply dope as fuck, no qualifiers necessary.