The enormously promising Compton youngster and Dre pseudo-protégé Kendrick Lamar will, I imagine, be compared to 2Pac many times before he’s through. Never mind that as rhyming styles go he works much more like Andre 3000 does, following his quick-witted fascination with the sound of words and doing a mostly-pretty-good job of wringing rhetorical coherence from it; what’s going to come across to anyone paying the usual amount of attention is his street prophet vibe, his self-appointed mission to voice the ailments of, as he puts it, “the dysfunctional bastards of the Ronald Reagan era.” (For that matter, his very last order of business on Section.80 is to yell “thug life!” twice.)
And this is actually a little bit of a problem. Not because it makes him preachy — it absolutely does, of which no illustration is needed beyond “No Makeup (Her Vice),” whose bridge refrain is literally “you ain’t gotta get drunk to have fun” — but because it yokes him with the perceived responsibility of making every utterance a message, every rapperism traceable to some social conscience. He knows how to write a captivating verse, to make us care about his characters whether they’re in first, second, or third person: see, respectively, the vintage-Kanye restlessness of “HiiiPower,” the blanket indictment of “Fuck Your Ethnicity,” and the cautionary tale of “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain).” (N.B. the latter namechecks “Brenda’s Got A Baby.”) But he spends so much time insisting on his west coast pedigree, his crack baby cred, that he effaces what’s singular about his personality. To put it another way: Section.80 is sorely in need of some frivolity.
That’s a problem especially because Lamar’s tightly digressive maximalist flow, with its change-up cadences and dogmatic repetitions, would be a beautiful vehicle for frivolity. “Hol’ Up,” whose beat simply screams for Curren$y to wax blunted over it, is sort of a miss from a lyrical standpoint — but at least it’s inscrutable in the right way, the way that sometimes makes the difference between a talented rapper and an exceptional one: “As a kid I killed two adults / I’m too advanced / I lived my twenties at two years old.” This is about as audacious as it gets, though, and throughout the album Lamar takes these hard-to-put-a-finger-on moments and tells you exactly where he thinks your finger should be. (I don’t mean that to be anywhere near as dirty as it sounds.) “Don’t see a dime of dirty dollars / She give it all to her daddy but she don’t know her father,” he says of a teenage prostitute in “Keisha’s Song.” “That’s ironic.”
The director’s commentary thread culminates in a lengthy outro monologue, where Lamar outright instructs us how to think about him, in the process revisiting and more or less ruining the killing-two-adults line by chalking it up to “an analogy for the way the world make me reack.” It’s hard to fault him for wanting to make his message heard just as he means it, and his overbearing fourth wall-breakings don’t altogether spoil an album that’s otherwise largely rewarding. But here he’s so in thrall to the legacy he wants to inherit, or thinks he should, that he forgets to be a freewheeling 24 year old. He doesn’t quite sell the thesis that that’s the point.