The case for Kendrick Lamar as hip-hop’s definitive author is strong. It’s difficult to imagine a landscape in which he wasn’t considered among the modern day greats, setting the bar in a variety of different categories. From cadence to flow to song structure, Kendrick Lamar continuously pushes his own creativity in a state of perpetual artistic evolution. And to think, it all began eight years ago with Section 80. Though there’s some debate as to whether Good Kid, M.A.A.D City constitutes as Kenny’s proper studio debut, Section 80 served as a welcome first impression, a polished and deeply ambitious journey through a young rapper’s mind.
Hints of the adventurous, post-modern writing he’d come to explore throughout his later projects were a staple on Section 80. From toying with focalization to exploring wide-ranging themes of addiction and inevitability, Kendrick quickly emerged as one of the game’s most challenging lyricists. And most importantly, he did so while still retaining a sense of mainstream appeal. Songs like “Rigormortis” solidified his position as a force to be reckoned with, yet his nuanced viewpoints and storytelling appealed to the intellectual sort. Breakout single “ADHD” displayed many facets of his musical persona, blending an infectious hook, a well-structured tale, and a slowly-unfurling dose of cultural criticism.
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Though Jay Rock was, at the time, TDE‘s dominant presence, the label provided Kendrick Lamar with the means to take his vision into a studio setting. Upon its release, Section 80 debuted at No. 113 on the Billboard charts, a far cry from the quest to hold number one, a battle transpiring between the likes of Pitbull and LMFAO. Yet many quickly took notice of Kendrick’s effort, with the majority of critics standing behind the work, for once united in their assessment. It didn’t take long for Kendrick Lamar’s mystique to bubble, from a low-key rapper to watch to one of the game’s most thought-provoking emcees. Before long, Kendrick was stealing the show with a guest-spot on Drake‘s Take Care, accessing his widest audience to date – and winning them over in the process.
With production from THC, Sounwave, J. Cole, Tae Beast, and more, Section 80 managed to retain a consistent sonic aesthetic rarely found on commercial mixtapes (or is it an album?) of this nature. Often spacey and atmospheric, save for the occasional cinematic anthem (“The Spiteful Chant” still goes) the project’s instrumentation provided Kendrick with enough room to float, allowing his strengths to shine without hijacking the narrative. While he still had much ground to cover before the likes of “Control,” the Kendrick found on Section 80 remains an impressive technician, blending old-soul ideology with a young trailblazer’s desire.
Does Section 80 stand among hip-hop’s essential debuts? That is certainly a matter of debate. But what it sparked – the coming of age of a viable GOAT contender – should never go forgotten. Happy birthday!