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.”
Stories stick with you—it’s not for nothing that so many lessons directed at children are presented as fables. But Lamar's stories won’t be parables. The conscious rapper out to save us all—that’s not him. That's not to say he’s without a conscience. When asked if he thinks his fellow ’80s babies aren’t living right, he responds: “It’s not that we aren’t living right, we’re just not aware of how we’re living. My whole thing is to make people focus. I’ve done some fucked-up shit, and I make myself think about it: ‘Damn, why did I do that?’ I think that’s what my music does.”
The crowd at Jones Beach rocks to “A.D.H.D.,” vibing to the sound of a party where you’re drunk and high and a little upset without quite knowing why, and you sense that everyone around you feels the same—a kinship born of shared solitude. But it’s a tenuous connection, and so you keep smoking and drinking in hopes that the feeling will last. Of course, it can’t and it won’t.
A Wiz crowd is high. Theyʼre not ﬁnna participate in nothing. They just want to listen and feel good.
The moment passes and the spark goes out. After finishing a few more songs, Lamar leaves, clearing the way for Mac Miller to do what he does. Back in the bus, he changes from his stage clothes into a button-up with Looney Tunes characters—Bugs, Taz, and Daffy—peeking out from the breast pocket. It’s the sort of thing someone could’ve purchased from the Warner Bros. Studio Store at their local mall in the ’90s, when malls still had Warner Bros. Studio stores. (Section.80 will remember.) “A Wiz crowd is high,” Lamar says of the lackluster response. “Theyʼre not ﬁnna participate in nothing, they just want to listen and feel good.”
Ultimately, Lamar's music doesn’t offer many moments to just feel good. Something else is always happening below the surface, and you can’t shake the nagging feeling that you need to pay closer attention. The details of his narratives resonate most with a particular audience—those ’80s babies, glutted on TV and Adderall. They’ve shared similar experiences, have the same points of reference, and though many of their vices encourage superficial engagement, one of their own is making music that requires a slower pace and a deeper commitment.
He tells one last story before the night is over, a story about “Keisha’s Song” from Section.80. The lyrics paint a vivid picture of a teenage girl who becomes a prostitute. Across three verses, he narrates her struggle—and even connects her back-seat exploits to Rosa Parks—moving the listener from Long Beach Boulevard to the car interiors where she turns tricks, before describing her murder at the hands of a john. It’s an amazing, heartbreaking song. And then, before the last repetition of the hook, he emerges from the story to reveal the artifice behind it, like a magician coming out from behind the curtain: “My little sister eleven, I looked her right in the face/The day that I wrote this song, set her down and pressed play.”
So did it work? Did she understand?
“I can’t say that she understood what I was talking about,” he says, sounding untroubled, even a little amused. “She likes a good song, but she’s young. It might be a little too introspective for her. She understood where I was coming from, as far as a big brother and having respect for me.”
Those who need good kid, m.A.A.d city the most exist in a sweet spot that even a member of Lamar's own family has yet to reach. Those anxious for the LP, an audience ranging from Dre to Lady Gaga, will receive it like a tonic. For those looking for something more fun, or immediate, look to Lamar's sister. She hasn’t grown into the music yet, but someday she’ll catch up.
And when she does, her brother’s music will be waiting.
This feature is a part of Complex's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" Week.
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