“TDE the mafia of the west,” Kendrick groans in a confident, menacing tone on the second track off his 2016 untitled unmastered album—a To Pimp A Butterfly B-side compilation. TDE has organically assembled one of Hip Hop’s leanest, most skilled groups that refuses to adhere to trends or gimmicks, reflecting their integrity and talent. Through TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith’s foresight, coupled with auspicious signings, TDE is ascending to Hip Hop’s pinnacle. 2017’s slate of TDE releases from Kendrick, SZA, ScHoolboy Q, and Jay Rock might see them reach the summit.
They’re the musical equivalent to the 2012 OKC Thunder: a team that was built off savvy management and propitious draft picks. The grouping of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook—all ostensible MVP candidates—wasn’t some laboratory experiment formed through costly blockbuster deals—they were raw talent that management knew would develop into a superstar caliber. TDE was raw talent; they’re now superstars.
Tiffith cultivated TDE’s flagship members, known as Black Hippy (Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul), off the strength of intuition. They were simply a group of idealist backpack rappers—nobodies, unknowns. But Tiffith saw the future radiate through their cutting lyrics, relatable storytelling, and group chemistry. He saw the path. He shepherded his army of conscious rhymers toward the promised land, and they undoubtedly believed in him—even when the promised land didn’t seem so promised. But now, in 2017, TDE has not only reached the promised land, they’re on the brink of becoming its most reputable realtors.
Tomorrow, April 7th, marks an exciting occasion: the official album follow-up to Kendrick’s 2015 masterful TPAB (untitled unmastered was simply a weigh point to tide fans over), and the kickoff to TDE’s 2017 releases. It’s no surprise that fans are heavily anticipating this drop—it is Kendrick after all. But I think K. Dot followers are excited to witness the prodigal rap son return to some version of his former self; the version that built a legacy off aggressive, intricate rhyme schemes that require multiple listens for relative cognition—the guy who had that “umph.” TPAB’s challenging, insightful narrative of poetically exposing injustices plaguing the black community certainly deserved the accolades. However, this aesthetic robbed Kendrick of the palpable fire that kindled his earlier work. I listened to TPAB maybe twice, respected his words, and that was it—it was well-executed avant garde. But with most avant garde, we appreciate the medium’s artistic value, but don’t crave repeated consumptions. Kendrick’s other works, specifically good kid, m.A.A.D. city and Section .80, not only appreciate with time, their exhilarating sonics beg for continued plays. It sounds like Kendrick’s new album will recapture that fire.
“Sit down…be humble.” These lyrics off Kenny’s first album single, “HUMBLE.,” have firmly grasped pop culture’s reigns. Instagram captions, from celebrities to annoying individuals who exclusively post motivational quotes that they’ll never heed (“It’s 5 AM! Time to stack that bread!” *falls back asleep*), have flooded our news feeds, and re-directed our attention from Drake and More Life to Kendrick and all his holiness. The track and its powerful accompanying visual—along with Kenny’s “The Heart Part 4”—have set the tone for his upcoming release: Kendrick Lamar is not to be trifled with, he’s poised to expose industry charlatans (rumored victims are Drake and Big Sean), and he’s asserting his number-one rapper status. Bitch, be humble—it’s Kendrick time.
Part of TDE’s transcendence is their ability to differentiate. The flagship members are a microcosm of their overall eclecticism: each of the four rappers are flexible lyricists, but their different flavors embody Hip Hop’s overall allure. Since Black Hippy’s rise, TDE has continued this differentiation by signing non-rappers to extend their reach, including Lance Skiiiwalker, SiR, and SZA.
After signing with TDE in 2013, SZA released her debut EP, Z. The 10-track neo soul project showcased her uniquely textured voice that flirts with raspiness without compromising its velvety soul. Her primarily subdued sonics trend towards a more melodic version of spoken word rhymer Noname, but SZA demonstrates dynamism by reserving pockets to explore her vocal range, evidenced on “Warm Winds” featuring label mate, Isaiah Rashad. It’s been three-years since Z’s release, leaving fans with a musical archive, and a lot to look forward to.
SZA’s debut studio album, CTRL, has fallen victim to the industry trend of delayed releases. Initially scheduled for 2016, a clear release date hasn’t been revealed, but Top has confirmed that we will hear it this year. Patience my friends. If album delays have taught us anything, it’s that typically the artist’s meticulous analyzation of every feasible element will yield a polished product that warrants the wait. So far, our only previews of CTRL are her short video, and the album’s single, “Drew Barrymore.” Sonically, this track resembles sauntering a grassy meadow while shielding the sun’s intrusive glare; conceptually, it is an apologetic, deeply introspective track that questions SZA’s self-worth as she reflects on a former relationship. Perhaps this self-reflection previews the album’s overall theme of love and relationship, and how they pertain to her control—or lack there of.
Scheduled to follow SZA is the Hoover Street Crip, and one of my favorite rappers today, ScHoolboy Q. Turning into TDE’s most consistent artist, ScHoolboy’s upcoming album comes off the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2016 best rap album project, Blank Face LP—a chilling account of his adolescent street life. This LP’s thematic grittiness poses this “matter-of-fact” perspective on Q’s upbringing and environment: he’s not sympathetic; he’s approving of people getting by, by any means necessary; he’s using his experience to offer a commentary, not solutions. The project’s lyrical and instrumental excellence can unfortunately mask the ominous realities that he explores, obscuring the plight he cathartically speaks about. However, we’re accustomed with this version of Q—it’s almost the only version we know.
Everything we’ve heard up until this point has been about ScHoolboy’s struggles to achieve his current status. But we don’t really know who ScHoolboy Q is outside of who he was before anyone knew him. While speaking with Beats 1 in early February, Q informed them that his upcoming album will expose the other side of him—the one he’s been concealing.
“This is more so my life after I made it to the point of ScHoolboy Q,” he explained. “I gave you me [on past projects], but I never gave you the other side of me, the father, the dude that’s actually happy, the dude that doesn’t be in the hood just hanging out, the dude that’s trying to put his homies in position now.”
Q has gone through some shit. I think we sometimes forget that rappers use the pen and mic therapeutically to discuss the horrendous youths that have scarred them worse emotionally than physically. It sounds like he’s finally reached a point of clarity where he can stop harping on who he was, and start bragging about who he’s become.
TDE’s second signee, Jay Rock, was also shaped by gang culture. However, in the streets (I just sounded so white), Jay and Q are natural enemies: Q’s a Crip, Jay’s a Blood. And yet, while they used to pledge a different allegiance, once the colors are washed away, all that’s left are strikingly similar foundations: horrifying street stories, regret, fear, and uncertainty. They are two sides to one bloody coin. Jay’s 2015 project, 90059, subjectively and objectively formulates Rock’s perception of the hood, his involvement, and his frustrations. “Easy Bake” analogizes the classic childhood toy with cooking crack to explain the drug’s ease of curation and peddling. “Fly on the Wall” is a profound, introspective cut that cleverly exposes the darkness of America’s ghettos from an outside perspective.
Unfortunately, there isn’t too much information available for Jay’s 2017 album. We know that the album was delayed due to Rock being in a car accident, but we’re not quite sure what vantage point and themes he’s going to explore, or when it will be released. If consistent with his previous material, this project will have a keen focus on exploring the ghetto’s suffocation, how it affected him, and continues to plague youths today. But, knowing Jay, he’s going to refreshingly approach the subject to perpetuate his originality and apt storytelling.
TDE continues to amaze me. Through a calibrated vision, garnished with ingenuity and chemistry, they’ve positioned themselves for Hip Hop domination. With roots dating back to 2003 (when Top first found Kendrick), they exemplify patience’s virtuosity. They’re the ‘80s Showtime Lakers, the ’85 Bears, and the 2015-16 regular season Golden State Warriors (emphasis on “regular”) all wrapped up into one poised entity. But unlike the Warriors, they’re not letting anyone claim the throne. 2016 was a monumental year for Hip Hop at large. 2017 will be revolutionary for TDE.