In the fall of 2011, a few months after Kendrick Lamar released his album Section.80, I went to see Kendrick play a college cafeteria in the town where I’d just moved. This was not a glitzy occasion. I don’t think there were any stage lights. Kendrick had a DJ but no hypeman. The room was maybe half full; there couldn’t have been more than 300 people there. The sound was bad. This didn’t seem like the kind of situation that could lead to anything transcendent, and I spent maybe the first half of Kendrick’s set behind the stage, chatting with opening act Stalley. At a certain point, though, I had to break off the conversation. Something special was happening, and I had to give it my full attention.
If you’ve been to enough rap shows, you know that a fundamental, instinctive connection between fan and performer doesn’t happen that often. People show up to rap shows because they like a song or two, or just because that’s what’s happening in town that night. Rappers run through canned crowd-participation routines and sometimes get mad that the crowds aren’t participating in those routines enthusiastically enough. That night, though, something different was going down. The crowd that night wasn’t big, but it was locked in with everything that Kendrick was doing. People were rapping every line of Kendrick Lamar’s tracks back at him, an impressive feat given how twisty and complicated those lines were. Kendrick himself brought a demonic intensity that the setting didn’t really encourage. That night, in that college cafeteria, I saw a spark. A decade later, that spark has long since become a raging inferno.
Before that night, I knew Kendrick Lamar had promise. Anyone who paid attention to rap music knew that. Kendrick had come up on a few different circuits — first locally around LA, then on a small-scale touring level, and finally on a network of blogs and websites that had essentially moved to the center of the rap conversation. In 2009, when XXL first made a regular feature out of its freshman-class issue, the magazine more or less admitted that the blogs were dictating things. The artists on that first cover — B.o.B., Wale, Currene$y, Kid Cudi — mostly hadn’t come up through regional scenes. They’d come up on the internet, and they’d found fans there. This was still a relatively new development, and Kendrick Lamar was part of it.
By 2011, Kendrick was a regular character in the rap blogosphere. He’d released 2010’s Overly Dedicated, a mixtape that worked as an album. He’d come together with three Californian peers to form Black Hippy, a sort of supergroup of prospective young stars. He’d won the confidence of Dr. Dre, which carried a whole lot of weight, though it wasn’t yet clear what the Kendrick/Dre connection would become. Section.80, an album that turns 10 today, was the culmination of all of that. It wasn’t the first album-length collection from Kendrick Lamar, but it was the first major statement.
I reviewed Section.80 for Pitchfork, and the album mostly struck me as a document of a young artist with unlimited potential. Kendrick’s level of pure, raw talent was off the charts. He rapped with percussive timing. He was fast and jittery and technically impeccable, and his syllables hammered down like raindrops on a car’s rooftop. Even at his sleepiest, Kendrick charged every line with emotion and ferocity, and on those rare occasions when he indulged in better-than-you stunting, he was almost frighteningly potent. But Kendrick wasn’t really interested in talking shit. He had bigger things in mind.
On Section.80, Kendrick Lamar had a point to make: “You know why we crack babies?/ Because we born in the ’80s/ That ADHD crazy.” On the song “ADHD,” those words don’t belong to Kendrick. Instead, he tells a story, and he puts those lines in the mouth of a young woman who he meets at a house party. Maybe some version of that actually happened to Kendrick, and maybe the concept wasn’t his. But that idea manifests itself again and again on Section.80. The album takes a long, hard look at a whole demographic of people born into specific circumstances. It speaks to them, and on some level, it speaks for them.
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born in Compton in the summer of 1987, almost exactly a year before N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton established an image of Kendrick’s hometown as a lawless and amoral dystopia. Born into the crack era, Kendrick and his peers had spent their entire lives in the traumatic shadow of the addiction epidemic that was raging during his birth. Whether or not Kendrick and his comrades were born to women with addictions, they represented a generation that had everything stacked against it. They still do.
Kendrick Lamar wasn’t especially interested in talking about his own rap supremacy. He understood that this was obvious to anyone who heard him. Occasionally, Kendrick would go into showoff mode, as on “Rigamortis,” and his pure excellence would be bracing. But Kendrick was more interested in exploring the difficulties of millennial existence, the numbing effects of drugs and materialism and sometimes sex. (Kendrick could sometimes come off like a self-righteous scold when talking about sex. Sometimes, as when imagining himself fucking a stewardess mid-flight, he could come off like a horny little kid.) Kendrick didn’t deny the appeal of those numbing influences, and he didn’t depict himself as being above them. But he did imagine something bigger and better. He imagined himself, for instance, transcending the effects of institutional racism and forging a connection with African history: “I be off the slave ship/ Building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs.”
Kendrick Lamar was part of a lineage. Musically, Section.80 worked in a grand tradition of searching, expressive West Coast alterna-rap. Despite the Dre connection that he was still building, Kendrick didn’t explicitly nod back to the Californian nihilism that Dre had helped to popularize with N.W.A and Death Row. Instead, Kendrick recalled Souls Of Mischief and the Pharcyde and Project Blowed, both in his language-drunk verbosity and his preference for laid-back jazz loops, a combination that made him sound both hyperactive and serene. Kendrick was never explicitly nostalgic, but in a blog-rap era that made a big show of its disdain for the hard and direct chants of Southern rap, Kendrick’s ’90s-boho tendencies helped make him tremendously appealing. His timing was perfect.
Kendrick himself was a XXL Freshman early in 2011. On that particular cover, only a couple of rappers really existed outside of the rap-blog zeitgeist. (I’m thinking in particular of Meek Mill, Fred Da Godson, and YG, though all of them definitely got coverage, too. I guess Diggy Simmons was famous from reality TV and nepotism, even though he carried himself like a blog-rap guy.) Everyone else was a pure creature of the internet: Lil B and Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T. and CyHi Da Prince and Mac Miller and Lil Twist. They all existed in a world of Nah Right comments and Mediafire links. Within that context, Kendrick Lamar stood out. He was working with the same basic set of ingredients as these other rappers, but he was looking at things from a whole different perspective. On that cover, while everyone else around him mugs frantically, Kendrick sits still in the center, projecting calm and maybe vision.
When he released Section.80, Kendrick Lamar was 24 years old. He’d been Jay Rock’s hypeman and Tech N9ne’s opening act. He’d been on a song with Lil Wayne, and then he’d dedicated an entire mixtape to Wayne homages. He’d found a label home at TDE. He’d also started to make connections to rappers outside his immediate circle — like J. Cole, who’d been a XXL Freshman the previous year and who produced the Section.80 single “HiiiPoWeR.” The Kendrick of Section.80 still showed a certain anxiety of influence; like so many of that era’s rappers, he probably spent too much time quoting or paraphrasing old rap lyrics — or, for that matter, new rap lyrics. (Kendrick quotes the Swizz Beatz hook from “So Appalled,” a track that was less than a year old.) But Section.80 is still recognizably the work of someone who has big things in mind.
In the year after Section.80, Kendrick would head out on tour with Drake and A$AP Rocky, a powerful new-guard contingent. He would also get an entire track on Drake’s blockbuster Take Care album to himself. Snoop Dogg would publicly claim that Kendrick was the new king of the West Coast. Kendrick would officially announce that he had signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, the first true masterpiece of Kendrick’s career, came out just over a year after Section.80. The pieces were in place. A year after I saw Kendrick in that college cafeteria, he had become a legend. Section.80 is a great album in its own right, but it’s also a warning shot. Soon enough, history would be made.