by William Reagan Imsand
Kendrick Lamar released his first studio album on July 2, 2012 through his new record label Top Dawg Entertainment. The name of this inaugural album: Section.80. The album can be divided into three main section; the first of which follows the story line of two characters named Keisha and Tammy as they face a multitude of cultural issues similar to what Lamar believes modern day African Americans have to face. The opening song of this section and the album is “Fuck Your Ethnicity” where Lamar begins with a speech calling for his listeners to reject their “creed and color” as well as the “us versus them” mentality — effectively setting the tone for the next hour of music (Genius).
The second section diverges from these two characters and begins to discuss what young men had to face as they grew up in Compton in the late 80’s. This section begins with an interlude entitled “Chapter Six” with narration that includes, “Young men that learned to do everything spiteful” which summarizes the details of Lamar’s Compton upbringing (Genius).
The third section is more general. Lamar talks about the vulnerability of his generation as well as solidifying the true message of the album: that we must all make an effort to overcome the limitations of the past. His message makes its full culmination on the final song “Hiiipower” (Genius).
Section.80 delivers Lamar’s messages of overcoming oppressive circumstances faced by the black community through each of these separate stories of the effect of growing up in the midst of gang culture, racism, and the crack epidemic.
Section.80 is a rap album, so it was written to appeal to a modern generation, but that is not to say that Lamar fails to incorporate historically significant references into his lyricism. The entire album is telling the story of life growing up in the 80s and the Ronald Reagan Era. In the song, “Ronald Reagan Era”, Lamar talks about when the crack cocaine and gang violence epidemics began taking their grip on the Compton community. It is evident that Lamar believes that the Reagan administration did nothing to prevent these epidemics from closing in on communities like Compton, and now there are generations of kids who grew up only seeing these epidemics and thinking that they are normal parts of life. The Section.80 storyline travels through this era by a series of interludes similar to the opening speech on “Fuck Your Ethnicity” (Ramirez). Each of these interludes contributes to the history of how things got to where they are today and what we can do to reverse the effects of history.
In a number of songs, Kendrick Lamar mentions the names of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X among other important figures of the Civil Rights Era. Although he does not delve deeply into the actions of these men, by mentioning their names, his meaning begins to take on the same qualities of active resistance. In the song “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, there is a brief interjection where Lamar announces, “Reporting live from Planet Terminator X, I am Martin Luther King with an AK-47.” In this excerpt, Lamar compares himself to both Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr in that he will aggressively pursuit equality even if it means that he must use force. By drawing influence from his predecessors, Lamar has crafted his art to help create the meaningful change he wishes to see.
Additionally, Lamar draws influence from his predecessors within the hip hop industry as he makes his albums. Lamar’s top four hip-hop influences include Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, and Mobb Deep. Lamar grew up listening to these legends and has tried to incorporate specific parts of their styles to create his own.
Lamar has been quoted saying that Tupac “could’ve been everything for the urban community” if he hadn’t had met an untimely death; Lamar tries to make music similar to Tupac in that he wants to create positive change in the same urban communities. On the song “Fuck your Ethnicity” Lamar says that “This the music that saved my life, yall be calling it hip-hop, I be calling it hypnotize…” He believes that his involvement in making music has saved his life and that if he can inspire others to find a passion too, maybe they can be saved as well.
From Snoop Dogg, Lamar has aimed to maintain an old school lyricist mentality. To continue on “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, Lamar created a verse that reads, “Yeah man, I’m the mailman, can’t you tell man? Going postal, never freeze up, when I approach you …” Not only do these words have a melodic rhythm that stands out in the midst of the song, but Lamar is making many clever claims at the same time. He is saying that he is the mailman who brings news to the people and that he is “going postal”—a basketball idiom– and cannot be stopped on this mission.
Finally, when Lamar first started rapping he aimed to emulate the same hardcore and aggressive style to show the passion he has for his music similar to Mobb Deep (Marsh). In the song “The Spiteful Chant” Lamar tells all the backstabbers “I don’t owe you shit, bitch, leave me alone…” The entire song has a similar standoffish quality between Lamar and those trying to discount him.
Themes and Style
Section.80 has a few major themes that the music and lyrics delve deeply into. The first being the unfortunate situations faced by inner city children. This is a major theme through Lamar’s albums—especially in Good Kid M.A.D. City—and its inception began on this album. On the song “Poe Man’s Dream” Lamar explains the beginning of his life as one of these kids. Within the first verse he says, “Since my uncles was institutionalized// My intuition said I was suited for family ties” which shows how the culture made him think that incarceration was just a normal part of life. This mindset had nothing to do with his character, but instead it was a product of the influences he saw all around him. Lamar believes that all kids—including himself—are born naturally good, but some happen to be trapped in a bad culture: gang culture. This leads to another major theme which is the distrust of government. Many people that grew up in Compton and similar communities believe that bureaucracy has done nothing for his generation which has led to many continuing to remain trapped in their situation or contributing to the issue. In Ronald Reagan Era, Lamar has a message for the kids, “when you fight don’t fight fair cause you’ll never win.” He sees that following the rules set forth by our government will not help those who want and need to escape their unbecoming circumstances unless they are able to fight with all of their hearts.
Over his career, Lamar has gained a reputation for his style. Some of the most notable aspects include his use of double entendre and quick, witty rhymes. In the same verse from “Poe Man’s Dream” from earlier, Lamar makes quick use of homophones and short punchy statements, “Since my uncles was institutionalized// My intuition said I was suited for family ties// My momma stressin’// My daddy tired// I need me a weapon// These niggas ride…” Lamar talks about how during his upbringing he was convinced he would wind up like the majority of his community—and like his uncles—trapped in the cycle of gang culture. The use of the words institutionalized and intuition shortly after one another make a smooth transition between ideas that mimic what he thought was a smooth train of thought during his youth. Eventually Lamar realized that the most respectable people around him were the ones who rejected the culture. Even though this made his mother stressed and his father tired, he began to emulate their traits and reject the culture too. Lamar consistently comments on the past and how people were blinded by the institution that had been built around them. In today’s world he hopes that he and others in power can convince people to reject these institutions and escape the fate that may seem inevitable. He hopes that in the future we can abolish those institutions and move forward to grow as a culture.
Although the entire album of Section.80 has created controversy, one song stands out among the rest: HiiiPower. Hiiipower is not only a song, but an idea and a movement created by Kendrick Lamar himself. The three i’s stand for Heart, Honor, and Respect (Genius). These three pillars of the movement stand for the ways in which individuals can overcome their circumstances regardless of how insurmountable they seem. In the song, Lamar references the 2012 apocalypse conspiracy and that if the world was to end tomorrow, why should we not act today. He wants everyone to be the change they want to see, an ambitious goal, but one that is ultimately attainable. He also references many prominent social rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Fred Hampton in an effort to show that there have been many individuals throughout history who were able to make progress, and that we too can contribute to this progress if we actively seek it. Lamar also makes direct references to Egyptian and American slavery by calling for people to “get up off that slave ship, Build your own pyramids, write your own hieroglyphs” which also furthers the notion of taking action for yourself.
As noted in the many different topics of the album, there are many more cycles than disadvantaged communities. One of the most notable cycles on Section.80 is the cyclic drug epidemics that often times plague disadvantaged communities. Lamar is quick to mention that War on Drugs has done nothing to help affected people. As more people have given up on the government’s ability to help those trapped in the drug cycle, the popularity of the War on Drugs has also fallen (Bowman). Experts and study groups are doing all they can to identify what problems cause the most damage to our society and what we can do to combat them. These studies, provoked by activists such as Lamar, are aimed to identify ways to bring people out of these cycles. Therefore, it is important to avoid complacency and address unpleasant issues because if wanting change is the first step in making change (Brooks).
As a result of the album and Lamar’s Hiiipower movement, people have realized that there is a way out. Although the media may overrepresent African Americans as impoverished, there are many trapped in their own cycles of dependence separate from poverty. For every person that feels as though they are trapped by their situation, there are many more who are fighting to overcome these barriers (Gilens). By learning the lessons of Section.80, we can all take action to assist others overcome society’s barriers and ultimately put an end to the repressive cycles once and for all.
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Kendrick Lamar, Section.80, Hiiipower, Hip-Hop, Compton, Ronald Reagan Era