Kendrick Lamar Went No. 1 on His Own. What Does That Mean for TDE?

Kendrick Lamar went to war with Drake and shot to the top of the Billboard charts … without Top Dawg Entertainment. As TDE turns 20, here’s what life looks like for the label after Kendrick.

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It’s late evening on March 21 as I sit wide-eyed, waiting in anticipation to listen to Heavy, the fourth album from Top Dawg Entertainment’s R&B reserve SiR. Now, two decades after being founded, TDE remains one of the few modern rap labels that can still generate excitement surrounding artist releases, regardless of who it is. Think of the pure chaos and aggression that comes with the bass on ScHoolBoy Q’s “Ride Out” (from 2016’s Blank Face LP) as he paints the picture of cutthroat confrontation that comes with life as a Hoover Gangster Crip. Think of the foggy and damn near divine Crooklin and D. Sanders–produced instrumental on Isaiah Rashad’s SZA-featured “Stuck in the Mud,” off the vibe that is The Sun’s Tirade, where Rashad details his struggles with substance abuse. Or think of the dreamy soundscape where SZA softly sings of her failed relationships and insecurities on her 2017 album, Ctrl.

That is to say, when it was time to press play on Heavy, I was ready to hear SiR sashay through his latest romantic entanglements with dulcet vocals over airy instrumentals. But then I found out that verse dropped.

TDE’s former franchise player, co-founder of media company pgLang, and arguably best rapper alive Kendrick Lamar seized any and all attention in music and Twitter town hall conversation when he shook the earth’s tectonic plates with a guest spot on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That,” where he took aim at the other two members of hip-hop’s “Big Three,” fellow rap megastars Drake and J. Cole. On an album laced with subliminals directed toward the Champagne Papi, Kendrick’s verse opened the floodgates for what may be hip-hop’s last great beef. In one night, SiR’s underwhelming fourth project with TDE felt like it came and went.

Very few rappers today carry the gravitas to shift the paradigm with a single verse. Time and time again, Kendrick has proved capable of this, dating back to his now-iconic verse on Big Sean’s 2013 record “Control,” where he attempted to raise the bar of competition in the rap game. With “Like That” as the kickstarter, Kendrick both incited and won the Great War between him and Drake. For those questioning who’s the top emcee between the two rap heavyweights, Kendrick answered the question over the course of four diss tracks viciously dissecting Drake, from the eerie character study “Meet the Grahams” to the indisputable L.A. bop that is “Not Like Us.” The once “good kid” solidified his legacy as the best rapper of his generation with a decisive victory before Drake could even drop “The Heart Part 6.”

On “Push Ups,” Drake dragged Kendrick’s current relationship with TDE founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith into their personal beef, taking shots at Top Dawg when attempting to belittle Kendrick’s pockets with, “Extortion baby, whole career you been shook up / ’Cause Top told you drop and give me 50 like some push-ups.” But where Drake may have been attempting to open a wound, the end result may have actually exposed how tight K.Dot and his former employers still are. Kendrick was quick to establish that there’s still love and respect for Top while refuting those claims on his first official full diss record, “Euphoria,” when he remarked, “Aye, Top Dawg, who the fuck they think they playin’ with? / Extortion my middle name as soon as you jump off of that plane, bitch.” This moment and the overwhelming support by TDE artists on social media was a reminder that Top Dawg Entertainment is a family, at least by outside appearances. Yet, when “Euphoria” was put on streaming, the copyright reading “Kendrick Lamar, under exclusive license to Interscope Records,” also a reminder that the relationship with TDE is strictly familial.

Even if extortion seems like an exaggeration, rumors were circulating of Kendrick leaving TDE well before he announced that 2022’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers would be his final project for the label. While breaking rap streaming records with “Euphoria”—and later, again, with “Not Like Us”—Kendrick made it clear that he no longer needs the same level of support of the label that signed him at 16 years old. The only label he answers to now is Interscope under a new direct licensing agreement, shedding his ties with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, too. (Kendrick originally signed a joint deal with Interscope and Aftermath ahead of the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city.) Publicly, Punch (President of TDE and manager of SZA) and Top treated Kendrick like their baby bird leaving the nest by giving Kendrick their blessing to leave TDE and focus on pgLang, but Kendrick’s 2022 departure from TDE marked the end of their 18-year transformation from mom-and-pop record label to a rap empire. How does one continue to grow their empire after losing the fulcrum that held everything together for all those years?

With Kendrick on the front lines winning a Pulitzer Prize and 17 Grammys while dropping undeniable rap classics bearing TDE’s name for all those years—alongside strong outings from his label siblings ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, SZA, and Isaiah Rashad—the TDE stamp on an artist’s release carries the same weight as a film with the A24 logo flashing at the start of its trailer. Whether that’s seeing Top Dawg sharing 2019 TDE signee Zacari’s single “Don’t Trip” like a Bat signal marking the young singer’s official arrival after he spent years leaving his vocal trail on a plethora of TDE songs. Or seeing newcomer Ray Vaughn on L.A. Leakers sporting a TDE chain under his yellow puffy as he raps his ass off about the night he met Top and Snoop Dogg. Or when “Top Dawg Entertainment” flashes in the opening credits of Doechii’s “Alter Ego” music video, which featured the Tampa-born artist taking viewers through the swamp waters of Florida in a visual that feels so foreign to the L.A.-centric label. When that TDE logo pops up, listeners expect a certain level of hip-hop excellence to follow, even if today’s TDE vastly differs from its earlier incarnation.

In a 2022 interview with Mic, Punch discusses how things have changed since the early days of TDE. The label used to have more synergy amongst its artists, whether that was ScHoolboy Q’s handwriting being included on Kendrick’s good kid album cover or Kendrick showing out on ScHoolboy’s quadruple-platinum single “Collard Greens” less than a year later. You would often see TDE move as a unit, like during their 2013 BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher. Today, the extent of TDE synergy comes in the form of the occasional labelmate guest spot that feels less like artists intertwining styles and more like filling in an open 16 bars or hook on a song. Even Punch admits he is far less hands-on with the newer TDE artists. “With those first guys, I’m in there with them every single day, engineering. We started together and came up together. But a lot of the new artists now are coming into a situation that was already built. They have their own teams, and I just come in when they need,” he said.

Outside of Kendrick’s departure, there have been other signs of mild turbulence within the label. In the past, TDE’s current franchise cornerstone and undeniable megastar SZA has cried for help via Twitter—using words like “hostile” when describing her delayed album and occasionally contentious working relationship with Punch—although these statements would often get deleted at some point. Carson, California, rapper Reason seems like he’s been doing everything in his power to get kicked off the label ever since joining in 2018, whether that’s getting into an argument on a podcast with co-president of TDE and son of Top himself, Moosa, or rapping over Drake beats days after the Toronto rapper accused one of TDE’s presidents of extortion.

When comparing TDE to some of the most iconic rap labels of the past, it’s easy to imagine that losing their first superstar is officially where the decline starts. Death Row’s best days were behind them after Tupac Shakur died in 1996, and Bad Boy was never the same after the Notorious B.I.G.’s death the following year. But the untimely loss of those two greats doesn’t fully explain why those labels fell. At Death Row, Dr. Dre had already walked out the doors before Tupac’s murder, but ultimately, Suge Knight going to prison is what led to Interscope dropping the label. At Bad Boy, Mase appeared to be the one to fill the void Biggie left, going quadruple-platinum in 1997 with his debut album Harlem World, before stepping away from music in pursuit of a higher calling from religion. While this wasn’t the end of Bad Boy, it likely played a factor in Bad Boy being unable to pay back and fulfill the $50 million advance from Arista Records based on good faith earned by a lucrative 1997. Simply losing their breadwinner didn’t do those iconic labels in; a flawed infrastructure and unforeseen circumstances sank their respective ships.

In the midst of the current rap game, TDE is in rare air. Drake’s OVO Sound is at times more focused on propping up Drake and who Drake loves right now than building the genuine camaraderie (and roster of heatmakers) of a TDE, and while J. Cole’s Dreamville stable has a lot of promise, they haven’t touched the commercial success of TDE’s best. In this era, you may not even think of TDE’s journey or what going from independent to world-renowned means anymore; you’ve come to know TDE as an institution for dope Black music.

Now 20 years old, Top Dawg Entertainment doesn’t show signs of a sharp fall-off just yet. First and foremost, they have SZA, whose latest album, SOS, achieved meteoric commercial, critical, and Grammy success with songs like the Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping, five-times-platinum single “Kill Bill.” TDE not only has a compilation album on the way celebrating their anniversary, but Black Hippy member and original TDE rapper Jay Rock also has his fourth album, Eastside Johnny*, on the horizon. ScHoolboy Q’s latest (and most critically acclaimed) album, Blue Lips, is a testament to TDE’s ability to churn out premium bodies of work. And even with Kendrick’s “Like That” verse overshadowing SiR’s Heavy, songs like “Only Human” reflect the singer’s growth as an artist leaning more into his vulnerability. However, the real test for TDE’s prolonged success comes in developing the roster’s future. How much time is needed to turn the Ray Vaughns, Doechiis, and (checks notes to see if he’s still signed) Reasons of the label into stars? And as Isaiah Rashad continues to grow creatively with each new release, one has to imagine he has greater potential working with Warner Records and a sober mind.

Those concerns, for now, feel like minor cracks in a well-oiled machine, with SZA’s superstardom being the engine that keeps it all running—although we hope that talk of her next album, the long-awaited Lana, getting a release sometime in the near future doesn’t have you losing sleep at night. For TDE to keep the empire standing, they must appease their queen. In a 2017 OTHERtone interview, Jimmy Iovine praised the way TDE built a buzz around SZA, leading to TDE’s joint deal for SZA with RCA being a 70-30 split in TDE’s favor. Yet still, SZA has spoken about issues with her situation. How much time is there until SZA’s deal with RCA is up, allowing her to fly out of the nest like Kendrick? And will TDE be prepared if that day comes sooner than expected?

At TDE’s peak—somewhere within that 2016-18 era—every single one of their artists dropped a project, and their franchise player Kendrick Lamar made pit stops on almost every single release, bolstering them up through Damn., culminating with Black Panther: The Album and The Championship Tour. What’s stopping TDE from restoring the feeling with a SZA-centered label renaissance, fueled by guest spots propelling her labelmates’ albums into another stratosphere with divine vocals alone? Top and Punch have proven time and time again that they know when it’s time to strike. And for SiR’s sake, let’s hope Kendrick gives TDE a heads-up next time he plans on starting a rap beef around the time of a TDE release.

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