Lamar idles in the wings of the Jones Beach Theater while ScHoolboy Q, also signed to TDE and a member of the Black Hippy crew that includes Lamar, Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, finishes an A$AP Rocky-less rendition “Hands on the Wheel.” Some of the audience near the front recognize the ode to recklessness, but 30 yards beyond the lip of the stage the energy dissipates—people continue to settle in, chatting with friends from homeroom. Their cartoon memories are more SpongeBob SquarePants than Darkwing Duck.
Q finishes his set, sweating, and Top Dawg, the head of TDE, approaches Lamar. The older man is large and moves at his leisure. As the opening notes of “Fuck Your Ethnicity” play, he whispers something in Lamar's ear. Lamar listens, then takes the chewing gum from his mouth and presses it onto a girder to his left before bounding on stage barking the song's staccato introductory hook.
He runs through a well-received selection of his discography, but it's not until "A.D.H.D." that he fully wins the audience. The beat drops on the first syllable of “Comes with an 808/A melody and some hoes” and the crowd becomes Section.80. They’re awake now, swept up in the song’s moody haze.
For a kid in the 12th grade listening to Kendrick Lamar who knows the story, gets my album, and realizes the whole arc behind it, behind each song, that’s something he’ll never forget.
“A.D.H.D,” the song that put him on the radar of rap fans worldwide last year, takes place in a drug-laden house party. Lamar speaks to and about his audience, Section.80—loners who can’t relate, kids who feel alone at parties and numb themselves with drugs, compounding their feelings of disconnection. The angst he describes isn’t vastly different from generic teenage ennui, but by invoking ADHD—first added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987, the year of Lamar's birth—his focus sharpens, and we have Section.80 in all its twisted glory.
Mind you, Lamar doesn’t get high. He doesn’t get drunk. He prefers to stay clear-eyed and observe the habits and contradictions of his generation (including himself). The better to turn them into compelling narratives for listeners to lose (and find) themselves in. This is difficult to do in a three-minute rap song heard on the radio, or streamed while idly browsing the Internet—especially if you suffer from attention deficit disorder. Following the action in his narratives requires focus, but it’s worth the effort. Maybe that’s why Lamar cut short a listening session for his new album in Chicago because he thought the assembled scribes were too busy chatting to give his work the attention he felt it deserved.
“So many popular songs come out on the radio, and five years down the line, you forgot your favorite song that was out in 2005 or 2004,” he says. “You forgot that Nelly made the song that you were always singing when it came on the radio. But for a kid in the 12th grade listening to Kendrick Lamar who knows the story, gets my album, and realizes the whole arc behind it, that’s something he’ll never forget. He might not remember the exact song he was in love with until he hears it again, but he’ll always remember how I stamped myself, and what it was about.”