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Original release date: 2 July, 2011
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment

Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp a ButterflyDAMNKendrick Lamar is responsible for some of the greatest hip-hop albums of not just the 21st century, but the genre’s entire history. He’s the only MC to win a Pulitzer, and his lyrics are pored over with the same regard as literature and poetry. In discussions of his work, those three aforementioned albums loom largest, but the clarity of vision, the dexterity of flow and ear for a hit were all present from his first, Section.80.

In 2011, when Section.80 was released, the big story around Kendrick was that he was Dr. Dre’s current – and potentially final – protégé. Though he didn’t sign Kendrick to Aftermath until a year after Section.80 dropped, the West Coast godfather was already in the background during its production. While it undoubtedly would have been a major statement to have a beat by Dre on his debut album, in hindsight, perhaps it’s an even bigger one that Kendrick actively chose not to. Speaking shortly after the release of the album, he told Complex that he wanted the record to be its own thing, separate from his association with the rap impresario: “I didn’t want people to want to purchase the project because I had two or three crazy ass Dre beats.” Where many rising MCs would jump at the chance to have a legend like Dre produce for them, the young Kendrick had enough self-belief to wait for the right moment. When the two did eventually connect on record – for 2012’s Compton, an exultant ode to their shared home city – it hit all the harder because of the anticipation.  

Dre wasn’t the only hip-hop icon paying attention, either. On the other side of the country, RZA had heard Kendrick’s mixtapes and gave the nod to DJ Fricktion to let the Compton MC flip some unused vocals on the track Ronald Reagan Era. Aged just 24 and with only a handful of tapes to his name, Kendrick was already rubbing shoulders with rap’s elder statesmen and sounding more than comfortable doing it

This kind of quiet self-confidence runs throughout Section.80, imbuing Kendrick’s bars with an undeniable charm. Consider the head-spinning Rigamortus. Horns ascend like an endless double helix frantically twisting around itself as Kendrick pushes himself to equally dizzying speeds. The song is one big flex on his MC-slaying flow, delivered in what sounds like one breath. Taking notes from one of his biggest influences, Eminem, it’s clear that he’s showing off, but even so, he maintains the perfect balance of cockiness and self-awareness (Kendrick leaving in the “Alright, here we go, third take,” line at the start is no accident). Upon release, it was an obvious standout from the album, a glimpse at the skills of a potentially generational MC on the come up. Looking back at it now, it sounds like a portent of both Kendrick’s show-stealing verse on Big Sean’s Control and the virtuoso jazz rap of To Pimp a Butterfly. “Everything we were doing at Top Dawg Entertainment during that time felt like something big,” says the track’s co-producer, Willie B. “It felt magical.”

It wasn’t only Kendrick’s skills on the mic that set him apart as a young MC, but his beat selection and musical ear as well; he often picked his own samples and sent them to producers to flip. Tommy Black, the producer behind tracks Chapter Six and Blow My High (Members Only), explains how the former came to be after Kendrick challenged him to flip a “crazy” sample. “I believe he was in the studio with Dre at that moment he reached out,” he says. “I remember that I started straight away as soon as he sent it and I [spent] the whole night [working on the beat] until the next morning.” The result is a somnambulant slow-jam-cum-interlude that brings the listener deep into Kendrick’s exploration of his generation’s vices, pains and evils.

Signs of what was to come are littered throughout Section.80. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City may have netted him his first major hits, but Section.80 laid out Kendrick’s philosophy: conceptual but confessional, never preachy, and always unafraid to display the breadth of his personality on record. Take the first verse of Kush and Corinthians (His Pain), for example, where Kendrick lays his internal conflicts bare for the listener: “I’m humble, I’m loud/ I’m righteous, I’m a killer.” Does he contradict himself? Very well, he is vast, he contains multitudes. Later in the track, he confronts the listener directly, anticipating any judgement. “Have you ever had known a saint that was taking a sinner’s advice? Well it’s probably you, am I right?” Elsewhere, the woozy A.D.H.D feels like a precursor to Swimming Pools (Drank), with Kendrick using the story of a party to examine his peers’ lax attitude to drug use in the same way he would later create a drinking anthem to warn of the dangers of alcoholism

“Everything we were doing at Top Dawg Entertainment during that time felt like something big” – Willie B

After his first flush of fame, Kendrick has constructed necessary boundaries and developed a quasi-hermetic approach to public life. The acclaim of TPAB and DAMN. placed him on a pedestal, one that he spent the entirety of last album Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers climbing down from – with mixed results. In a way, though, Mr. Morale, his final record for longtime label Top Dawg, completes the journey Section.80 started, with Kendrick returning to similar explorations of generational trauma and internal contradictions. He even has a protégé of his own in the form of his cousin Baby Keem. Twelve years later, Kendrick may have matured as an artist, but the key tenets of his craft have been there right from the start.