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Is This The End of TDE? Why Kendrick Lamar Left TDE

The End of TDE…?

We’re well into 2022 and If you haven’t heard yet, the so called saviour of hip hop, Kendrick Lamar, has made his long awaited return with his 5th studio album titled Mr. Moral & The Big Steppers.

While an artist of this magnitude is sure to put the whole world on notice when they step out, it’s clear that this release has had some different energy surrounding it compared to prior releases from the artist.

In fact, Mr. Moral & The Big Steppers has been met with mixed reviews, fraught with controversy and a clear reminder of Kendricks impending departure from TDE – The label he called home since the ripe age of 15.

With a looming sense of uncertainty as to what the future will hold for all parties involved – we break down how Mr. Moral & The Big Steppers marks the end of an era for Kendrick Lamar and the TDE camp.

Is This The End of TDE? Why Kendrick Lamar Left TDE

Background on TDE 

Now when you hear the name Top Dawg Entertainment or TDE for short, your next thought is probably the big names associated with the label – like Kendrick Lamar and SZA. However, for those more in the know, names like Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab Soul and Isaiah Rashad might also ring a bell.

The indie label has grown in leaps and bounds since their very humble beginnings back in 2004 and as of September 14th, 2017 – the indie label had captured nearly 5 percent of the overall market share in R&B/Hip-Hop according to Billboard.

It’s safe to say that TDE made a name for themselves becoming synonymous with other storied hip hop labels like Bad Boy, Death Row, Strange Music, Roc Nation and No limit records just to name a few. All of these labels have one thing in common though – as they have all faced their fair share of adversity in the beginning which ultimately lead to their success – and TDE is no different.

Founder and CEO of TDE, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith who hails from California and was raised in the Nickerson Garden projects – is somewhat a man of mystery. Some would say that he is a clone of Suge Knight minus all the drama. While willing to speak candidly, although not in full detail, about his previous life as a “hustler,” – Top has been known to share wild adventures from his past that give us a glimpse into the early days of TDE. 

For example there’s the wild story of how he began the process of setting up his home studio back in 1997 – after a realization that his days of running in the streets may have been numbered – As Top put it in an interview with Billboard

“When I built my studio, I was looking for equipment — I’m not going to name where I got it from. When we picked it up, this dude told me he could help put it together. [Later], I go and pick the dude up, and I say, “Yo, I got to blindfold you.” He’s like, “What?” I’m like, “Lay down back here. I’m not going to do nothing to you. You don’t need to know where you’re going. I don’t want you coming back, stealing my shit.” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, I understand.” I get home, pull into the garage, and my girl’s there. So when I was like, “Come on,” he pops in with the blindfold, and she thought I had kidnapped the n—a. Like, “What the fuck is going on?” The next day, when he got in the car, he was looking for his blindfold. [Laughs] All that was just the beginning, man.”

That would be the start of a long but successful journey to making TDE what it is today. However Top wouldn’t be forced to go it alone as not too far away in a place known as Carson Los Angeles, California – His younger cousin, Terrence Louis Henderson Jr. – better known as Punch, had similar aspirations of exploring the music industry. 

Punch had a background as a rapper and would soon start working with artists in his area in hopes of forming his own label and studio. While he did accomplish this as he tells Complex he eventually hit a ceiling that saw him join forces with his cousin Top.

While the duo knew what they wanted to accomplish they were still very new to it all and trying to figure out how everything worked in the music industry. From finding and marketing artists to making the music – they would both end up wearing many hats. Jumping in with both feet and taking a trial by error approach.

While many may think the story of TDE begins with Kendrick Lamar – The truth is that one artist who came before Kendrick truly paved the way for what TDE is today and would walk a rough path like a big brother or a first child so that Kendrick and others could Run.

The First Artist of TDE

Johnny Reed McKinzie Jr.  – or Jay Rock was born on March 31, 1985 and also originates from Los Angeles. While he is most notably known for his intense and rugged raps – to some he is considered the unsung hero of TDE. As top tells billboard – 

“Jay Rock is from my hood, Nickerson Gardens. I was chasing him around, and he hides, thinking I’m trying to discipline him about some bullshit. I finally catch him while he was getting a haircut: “Yo, you rap. I’m trying to do this shit. Let’s go.”

Little did Top know the importance of his persistence at the time in pursuing Jay Rock to come work alongside him. As punch tells Complex Jay Rock was the first artist signed to the TDE roster and it all happened by accident.

From 2006 to 2007 – Jay Rock would go on to release a slew of 4 mixtapes, before landing TDE and himself a record deal in 2007. It was this record deal that the label admits helped to create the blueprint for TDE and the rest of their artists. However this deal turned sour and would lead the label down a much different path than expected – more on that in a moment.

Not long after discovering Jay Rock around 2004 – Top would also discover another Compton native in Kendrick Lamar who was born on June of 1987. This discovery was all thanks to Kendrick’s long time friend Dave Free, who Top had randomly commissioned to help fix his computer.  

Dave Free was a known computer dude, and knowing who Top was, he saw this as an opportunity to play Top – Kendrick Lamar’s music – which was his first mixtape called – Y.H.N.I.C (Hub City Threat Minor of The Year). It was clear pretty quickly that Top was much more impressed with Kendrick’s music than Dave Free’s computer repair skills. Lamar would eventually sign with TDE and release another mixtape in 2005 called Training Day.

It’s worth noting that Dave Free went on to become a very pivotal member of TDE, eventually landing the role of Co-President while also being a producer at the label. Free is also Kendrick Lamar’s Manager and business partner to this day which we will touch on later. 

While The artists of TDE are obviously important – their success has a lot to do with the great in house team of producers that the label has signed over the years.

Aside from Dave Free, there are names like Sounwave, TaeBeast, Willie B and MixedByAli who all continue to contribute in some way or another to the label’s and artist’s success. Furthermore, TDE’s ability to discover artists has been due in large part to their producers.

Dave Free and Kendrick is one example but shortly after the signing of Kendrick Lamar – TDE would go on to discover AB-Soul through Sounwave and then Schoolboy Q through Mixedbyali.

Ab-Soul’s best friend that he’d been rapping with early on was Sounwave’s cousin—and they always stayed in contact. Through the connection Sounwave introduced Ab-Soul to the then members of TDE around 2006 and he would sign with the label later that year. 

MixedbyAli was a long time friend of Schoolboy Q – growing up in school together playing football and making music. Ali was able to network with those at TDE and begged Punch to give him a shot which Ali took full advantage of. Given Ali and Q’s friendship he would be the one to invite Q to the studio and the rest as they say it is history.

What ensued was the growth of one of the more notable labels in hip hop but more importantly a brotherhood. Top and Punch instilled a militant mindset at TDE which armed them for the road ahead. You’ll hear many of them refer to a rap boot camp like atmosphere – with all of them practically living at Top’s house, sleeping in the studio, living and breathing music. As Top puts it:

“Growing up in the era of the gangsta shit, a lot of my friends were getting killed, a lot of friends were in the pen, I got shot. When I got with the [TDE artists], it was up to me to show them something different — to lock them in my studio and make them build a bond as brothers, and struggle a little bit. I had the money to do whatever I wanted, but they weren’t going to appreciate shit if I just handed it off to them. So they were rushing to McDonald’s to look at what’s on the dollar menu, or going to get a River Boat special from Louisiana Fried Chicken. But I was showing them family life because my family lives in this house, too.” 

Jay Rocks Sacrifices

As previously mentioned, Jay Rock can be described in many ways and while his talents behind the mic are underrated in my opinion, the publics understanding of the sacrifices he made for the label are sadly even more over looked. After he and Kendrick signed to TDE around 2004, followed by the signings of Ab Soul and Schoolboy Q – things were relatively quiet for all parties involved. 

Jay Rocks mixtape grind from 2006 to 2010 is pretty remarkable though, releasing 10 tapes in that span which just goes to show how crazy his work ethic was. His efforts produced:

  • Watts Finest Vol. I (2006)
  • Watts Finest Vol. II: The Nickerson Files (2006)
  • Watts Finest Vol. III: The Watts Riots (2007)
  • No Sleep ‘Til NYC (with K.Dot) (2007)
  • Do It Nigga Squad Vol. 1 (with Top Dawg Ent.) (2008)
  • Coming Soon to a Hood Near You (2008)
  • Coming Soon 2 a Hood Near You (2009)
  • Gudda Muzik (2009)
  • From Hood Tales to the Cover of XXL (2010)
  • Black Friday (2010)

Through their persistence and hard work TDE and Jay Rock were able to land a joint venture deal with Warner Bros in 2007. At first TDE and Jay Rock felt that they had struck gold with the deal and it was nothing but up from there. However this couldn’t have been further from the truth. In reality it would serve as one of labels toughest but most valuable lessons moving forward.

Initially the deal was going good and Jay Rock had a hit single out with Lil Wayne & Will I Am – Called “All My Life” – which was doing very well. The hope was that this and other factors would help to further push Jay Rocks career and notoriety allowing for others at TDE to follow suite. However restructuring took place at Warner soon after the deal was signed – putting an abrupt end to what the label had envisioned. 

Jay Rock had spent a few years at Warner, with no album release to show for it. He and the rest of TDE have been on record stating that they could tell that their days at Warner were numbered. Even getting the likes of Lil Wayne on a track wasn’t enough. But it would seem as though the final straw came when Jay Rock was included in XXL’s 2010 Freshman Class and, the label wouldn’t even pay for the rapper to get to New York City for the cover shoot. 

TDE’s focus at the time was securing label support and leveraging this to help grow their artists and the label – but they soon realized that this wasn’t the right approach for what they aspired to do. As Top explained to Vulture discussing the experience at Warner:

“He believed that both Jay and his label were ignored during a period of corporate restructuring. So Tiffith negotiated an exit, with Jay Rock’s masters in tow, and vowed to stop chasing the majors, preferring to develop artists slowly and let the offers trickle in. He also realized that the internet was both fertile ground for new listeners and an arena in which TDE could move more nimbly than with the legacy companies.”

It would seem as though this was a period of a lot of frustration for the label but they would eventually find a silver lining throughout the whole ordeal. You’ll often hear them refer to developing their artists slowly and it could be said that if all the stars aligned at that time who knows what would have came of the artists and the label.

I say this because this setback would have been a humbling experience for everyone involved but it forced them to all go back to the drawing board and refine their skills. This gave them more years of that militant boot camp style atmosphere working as a team and pushing everyone to be better. 

Collective TDE Releases Up To 2010

Up to 2010 – The number of collective mixtape and EP releases grew amongst the 4 rappers. Aside from Jay Rocks 10 mixtapes we also saw Schoolboy Q hit the scene in 2008 with ScHoolboy Turned Hustla and then Gangsta & Soul in 2009.

Fun fact – Schoolboy Q was the last to join TDE among the 4 but it was his idea that brought about the Black Hippy super Group and collaborations. Ab Soul would also make his debut with the tape Longterm in 2009 and followed this up with – Longterm 2: Lifestyles of the Broke and Almost Famous in 2010.

More notable during this period is the quiet ascension of Kendrick Lamar who would release C4 and the Kendrick Lamar EP in 2009. The self titled EP is said to be the reintroduction of Kendrick Lamar as himself as opposed to K.dot.

The Strange Music Connection

While the artists of TDE were honing their skills – the label itself was improving their business acumen along the way and determining how best to navigate the music industry with their crop of talent. After their departure from Warner a lesser know fact is that Jay Rock and TDE would associate with the likes of Tech Nine and his imprint over at Strange music. 

A label and artist that I don’t believe gets enough credit for their impact on the music industry and hip hop. If you don’t know about Tech Nine – let’s just say his connections run deep and he’s built himself quit the independent empire over the years. It is said that the way TDE operates now has a lot to do with this relationship with strange music among other things which we will touch on shortly.

In the fall of 2010, Jay Rock joined the Independent Grind Tour along with Tech Nine, Krizz Kaliko, E-40, Glasses Malone, Kutt Calhoun, and Big Scoob. As Shawn Setaro of Complex reports:

“Throughout the tour Kendrick would serve as Jay Rocks hype man while sneaking in a song or two of his own. Everything involved with the tour—seeing the efficient Strange Music touring operation, watching experienced performers every night, winning over crowds who didn’t know K-Dot from dipping dots, experiencing meet-and-greets, seeing the label’s business up-close, constantly recording during down time—was being studied by Kendrick and the whole TDE crew. Kaliko says Lamar’s song structures even changed because of what he experienced on Independent Grind.”

The pairing was unlikely, but it helped TDE (Kendrick especially) move to the next phase of their careers. At the time – Jay Rock in many ways was perceived as the front runner due to his prior success, label deal and sheer volume of releases but it wouldn’t be long before other artists at the label would begin to shine as well – Kendrick being the most notable of course. 

That same year Kendrick graced us with another pivotal release called Overly Dedicated and it wasn’t long before the good kid from a madd city caught the attention of Dr. Dre – when the legendary producer stumbled upon his Ignorance is bliss music video via YouTube. I’m also willing to bet that Tech Nine among others may have played a role in Dr. Dre finding out about Kendrick’s talents. 

Recently Nardwar, the iconic Canadian media personality also shared a little known fact of how J. Cole was singing Kendrick’s praises to Dr. Dre early on.

Kendrick and the TDE camp would eventually link with Dr Dre and start a very long and valuable relationship. This also led to Lamar working with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and J Cole on Dre’s Detox album and Kendrick considering signing to Dre’s label. Being guided and nurtured by greats – Kendrick was later passed the torch of the west coast by some of his hip hop idols – which brought the young phenom to tears.

TDE’s Hard Work Starts Paying Off

To set the scene around this time, you gotta keep in mind that competition within hip hop was pretty fierce. The 2010s was a very strong decade of music. I mean you had J. Cole on the come up. Nicki, Drake and Wayne making major moves and then in another breathe you had Kanye and GOOD music going off. Not to mention heavy weights like Jay Z and Eminem still dominating the charts. 

Once 2011 rolled around, the TDE camp would hit the ground running as they still had a lot to prove. Although everyone was coming off a life changing experience on tour with Tech Nine and Strange Music, as well as some very high praise from some of west coasts finest – TDE didn’t take their foot off the gas and get comfortable. Instead they were on a mission to prove that they were here to stay and not just some fly by night imprint. 

That year, all four TDE artist would step up to the plate to give us releases. That year we saw:

  • Jay Rock’s – Follow Me Home album which debuted at number 83 on the US Billboard 200, selling 5,300 copies in its first week.
  • School boy’s – Setbacks Album which had 4,395 units sold in its first week and was praised by fans and critics alike.
  • Ab Soul’s – Longterm Mentality album
  • Kendrick would grace the cover of the 2011 XXL Freshman list with the likes of Meek Mill and the late Mac Miller who’s passing, as you’ll see later, has greatly impacted TDE and its artists. 
  • Kendrick would also release his debut studio album – Section 80 which included the Track HiiiPoWeR sporting production credits from J. Cole. The album sold approximately 5,000 digital units its first week and cracked the Billboard 200 chart at No. 113 with minimal mainstream media promotion and coverage. 

During 2011, Lamar also appeared on several high-profile albums including the Game’s The R.E.D. Album, & Drake’s Take Care – and In February of 2012, Lamar would also join Drake on his Club Paradise Tour, as an opener along with ASAP Rocky and 2 Chainz. This gave us the unforgettable F**king Problems collaboration that would appear on ASAP Rocky’s debut studio album Long. Live. ASAP 

In March of 2012, MTV announced that Lamar had signed a deal with Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment, marking the end of his career as an independent artist. Under the new deal, Lamar’s projects, including his highly anticipated album – Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, would be jointly released via Top Dawg, Aftermath, and Interscope.

Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012)

Good Kid, M.A.A.D City would go on to receive widespread acclaim from critics, who praised its thematic scope and Lamar’s lyrics. The albums production credits are a huge step up from Section 80 with names such as Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, Pharrell Williams, Hit-Boy, and T-Minus, among others from TDE’s production team, contributing to the album. 

When GKMC was released the album debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200, selling 242,000 copies in its first week – earning the highest first-week hip hop album sales of 2012 from a male artist and in its second week, it sold 63,000 copies in the US.

The album was supported by five singles – “The Recipe”, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, “Backseat Freestyle”, “Poetic Justice”, and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”. All five singles achieved chart success of varying degrees and Lamar would also set out on a world tour, featuring the other members of TDE.

It should also be noted that Ab Soul also released – Control System in 2012 with opening week numbers of 5,300 copies – A fun fact is that there were a lot of people at the time and still to this day who hail Ab Soul as the best rapper from TDE.

Schoolboy Q would also release – Habits & Contradictions in that year as well with first-week sales of 3,000 digital copies in the United States. While Q may not be the best rapper in the TDE camp he certainly comes off as a lot more palatable to audiences than Ab Soul or Jay Rock for example which has certainly contributed to his success over the years.

GKMC would thrust Kendrick and TDE into the mainstream and it would seem as though all their hard work was finally paying off. From sleeping in Top’s studio years prior to the trials and tribulations at Warner with Jay Rock and not to mention all the mixtapes along the way – the TDE camp had truly sculpted out an identity for themselves and a formula that was paying off Ten Fold.

Breaking Down How TDE Operates

TDE is a staple in hip hop and how they operate is pretty interesting when you break it down. They’ve received high praise from the likes of Snoop Dogg who once said, TDE is “a better version of Death Row Records.” 

Which is quite the comparison but oddly enough TDE is very under the radar and low key compared to the likes of Death Row and their prior owner Suge Knight. Before social media became what it is today – You rarely heard from them or got interviews unless an artist was dropping.

They are all pretty private people especially Top who isn’t big on speaking to media and usually leaves this up to Punch. There always seems to be a cloud of mystery and myths that follow the label and their artists and many questions people have tend to go relatively unanswered which seems to add to the large intrigue that surrounds them.

While they have built an amazing team over the years – at the foundation of TDE, there is a sense of family and brotherhood, knowing that they were all in the trenches together since day one. There’s a strong sense of appreciation for each other and all those times that they weren’t taken seriously in the past as Mixedbyali tells no jumper in a recent interview.

TDE took the time to focus on developing their artists and not trying to blow too soon – everything from learning how to make a record, and developing your look, right down to how you speak and talk to media. The Warner experience also taught them, as punch puts it,  that they had to focus on bringing the music directly to the people first, building a fanbase and leverage for dealing with labels in the future.

Which is exactly what the label has done seeing artists like Kendrick, Q and Jay Rock accept deals with Aftermath and Interscope while more recent signees have joined forces with the likes of Capitol, RCA, and Caroline.

As Paul Thompson of Vulture puts it – “In each of these cases, the non-TDE partner seems secondary, at least on a musical level. To listen to these records is to see TDE’s creative direction survive the sometimes stifling A&R processes at other companies in a way that retains the imprint’s musical and ideological identity.” 

The label runs on its own timetable and their history of a slow-but-steady release schedule has encouraged fans, especially younger ones, to focus on each project as art, worthy of serious attention and analysis. It almost gets annoying at times hearing some of the conspiracy theories and deep dives surrounding the music TDE puts out.

However with any form of growth and success – it will often breed some level of issues and controversy which TDE has not been immune to no matter how hard they may try to hide it. Whether that’s in the form of fans criticizing the delays in releases, feuds with other artists, or internal disagreements. The reality is growth is always the goal but like the saying goes all good things seem to come to an end at some point. 

The Mainstream Rise of TDE

Riding the high of Kendrick Lamar’s GKMC – the label would go on to add 2 more artists to their roster with the signings of Isaiah Rashad from Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2013 – who was found by Dave Free. Then SZA – TDEs first female and R&B artist from Maplewood, New Jersey who was accidentally discovered by Punch around 2014.

The artists would release projects shortly after their signings giving us Isaiah’s – Cilvia Demo which debuted at number 40 on the US Billboard 200, selling 8,500 copies its first week and SZA’s EP titled “Z” – which debuted on the US Billboard 200 at number thirty-nine, selling 6,980 copies in its opening week. 

We would also see releases from Ab-Soul with These Days which was recorded mostly at Mac Millers house and sold just under 22,000 copies opening week and Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron which debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200, with first-week sales of 139,000 copies in the United States.

Also interesting to note is that it was around this time that Kendrick joined Kanye west on his famous Yeezus tour. Kendrick also dropped his infamous Control verse which served as a turning point in 2010s hip hop and reignited conversations over who was a “real” rapper and the competitive nature that exists in the core of hip hop and rap culture.

Many rappers subsequently released responses for being mentioned or for being omitted. It was an excellent time to be a rap fan and kicked off some long running feuds between Kendrick and artists like Drake and Big Sean

If the release and response to GKMC wasn’t enough to let you know that Kendrick had arrived and was here to stay – his verse on Control was a definite reminder and not to mention a bit surprising considering the humble and low key demeanour that Kendrick and the TDE camp has typically portrayed.

More drama would ensue in early 2014 after the 56th annual grammy awards which saw Kendrick land 7 Grammy Nominations however many felt he was snubbed after not winning any awards most notably being a loss to Macklemore for best rap album – who’s album was ironically titled “The Heist”.

Macklemore seemed to unintentionally make matters worse by apologizing afterwards via text message – a conversation he would later share on his instagram and was met with mixed feelings towards the gesture.

Nevertheless, Kendrick and TDE would put this behind them and forge ahead focusing on the music and in 2015 – Kendrick threw us a curve ball with the release of his 3rd studio album – To Pimp a Butterfly.

Back with an even higher profile of producers and guest features helping to sculpt the project – the album would go on to sell 324,000 copies in the United States in its first week of release, earning a chart debut at number one on the US Billboard 200, while also becoming Lamar’s first number-one album in the UK.

Primarily a hip hop album, To Pimp a Butterfly incorporates numerous other musical styles, most prominently jazz, funk, and soul. Lyrically, it features political commentary and personal themes concerning African-American culture, racial inequality, depression, and institutional discrimination. 

Kendrick lead with the single “I” – but later other notable standouts would come from the album like “Alright”, These Walls, and King Kunta to name a few. The album received widespread acclaim from critics, who again praised its musical scope and the social relevance of Lamar’s lyrics. It earned Lamar 11 nominations at the 2016 Grammy Awards, including a win for Best Rap Album and an Album of the Year nomination. 

Outside of Kendrick – the other TDE acts would be relatively quiet other than Jay Rock who released – 90059 in 2015 as well. The album debuted at number 16 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 19,000 copies in its first week.

What’s interesting about this nearly 4 year hiatus from Jay Rock is the fact that he was releasing multiple projects consistently until 2011. While Q and Soul would remain relatively consistent up to this point as well – they seemed to hit a plateau where fan fair and numbers are concerned.

While it was clear that Kendrick was the front runner – Jay, Q and Soul seemed to take a bit of a back seat, not only to Kendrick but to the other signees of TDE like Isaiah and SZA. With the competitive nature of these artists – it would be easy to assume that there was room for jealousy and frustration to possibly set in. After all, these artist all came up together and fought like hell to bring the label to this point. It’s easy to say that the success of one will benefit everyone which is certainly true but when ego’s are involved – one can only wonder. 

As mentioned before the TDE camp isn’t big on interviews or drama and when they do step out to talk, these awkward questions are often down played and laughed at. Regardless of what may or may not have been going on internally – to which I’m sure we will never truly know – it would seem as though 2016 would mark the year, at least publicly, that issues within TDE would begin to snowball. 

First Public Hints of Internal Drama Within TDE

After working tirelessly on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, Kendrick ended up with a number of tracks that didn’t quite make the cut due to his documented perfectionist mentality among other things. However in an interesting move in early 2016 Kendrick would surprise fans with the performance of some unreleased music during the Grammy’s of that year. 

Not long after this performance Kendrick would randomly drop a compilation album called – Untitled Unmastered. The album appears to be in direct response to fans who were clamouring for more music after Lamar’s Grammy’s performance.

Surprisingly enough – with very little push or marketing, the project was still able to debut at number one on the US Billboard 200, earning 178,000 album-equivalent units for the week ending March 10, 2016. 142,000 came from traditional album sales. The compilation album gave Lamar his second chart-topping set in less than a year. Outside of this Kendrick would remain relatively quiet, popping out every now and then for a feature.

With Kendrick somewhat out of the way it would give room for others to come off the bench and take their turn in the limelight – or so many had hopped. 2016 would prove to be a tumultuous time for the label early in the year as we saw Jay Rock, nearly lose his life as a result of a gruesome motorcycle crash. The California native was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a shattered pelvis and broken leg, sidelining him for quite some time and consequently leaving more room for TDE to focus on it’s other acts.

The next TDE artist to deliver us some music in 2016 was Q who dropped the Blank Face LP. The album would see a bit of a drop off in numbers compared to Q’s prior release with just 74,000 album-equivalent units with 52,000 copies coming from pure album sales in its first week as opposed to Oxymoron which did 139K. Q would then go on record to voice some displeasure towards the album in an interview with Vulture as he stated:

“Some shit just be too introspective. Some shit be too turnt up. I want balance in my music. I’m not a guy that’s just about to give you one sound. That’s so boring and lame to me. That’s my biggest regret with Blank Face. Besides a couple songs, I just made the whole album pretty dark. I regret that so much. Why did I do that?”

Given the success of Kendrick, it would seem that all the other TDE artists would be compared against this standard which is not entirely fair and quite a lot of pressure. Not to mention the budgets and push surrounding Kendrick would likely be a lot different than that of the other TDE artists.

TDE would then add another artist to the mix with the signing of Lance Skiiiwalker who released his debut studio album – Introverted Intuition in October of 2016. Given Lance’s talents this would be yet another artists that the indie label would have to give attention to. 

Then at the end of the year Ab Soul would release his “Do What Thou Wilt” album, which got some very positive reviews but was met with less than flattering sales, moving just under 10,000 copies. If the lack of sales wasn’t enough there was a bunch documented controversy surrounding the release, between Soul and TDE.

Months prior to the albums release, Soul expressed frustration at TDE and said he was tired of being put on the back burner, compared to other artists on the roster.

Ab Soul Bench getting warm tweet

This would cause an uproar among fans who would head to social media and express their displeasure for the delays and usually blame the TDE label heads for not getting new music from soul. While Top is rarely ever seen addressing rumours or drama publicly – he too got frustrated and decided to clear the air in a series of tweets stating:

dangeroo kipawaa TDE @dangerookipawaa Nov 10
dangeroo kipawaa TDE @dangerookipawaa Nov 10 1

In an interview with Hot 97 after the release Soul attempted to clear the air stating:

“I just want the people to know that I work,” he said. “I be in the studio 24/8, coming up with ideas, bro and even two years removed don’t think that I was sleep. I think the team has given me all the support they can, but I just want the people to know I’m at work … And that’s the reason for the gap.” 

It’s unsure if this was a huge beef between artist and label or if they used this as a ploy to drive interest in the project. Regardless it didn’t seem to work from a numbers perspective. Interestingly enough Soul had made an interesting comment via twitter in the past that may have hinted at frustrations earlier when he said:

Ab Soul Black Hippie Rant

While this frustration was directed more towards others outside of TDE it’s clear that Soul and possibly others didn’t appreciate being reduced to a sideshow when conversations surrounding the label were being had.

What is also interesting is that in that same year, hints of more turmoil would come out surrounding some of TDE’s newer signees. Isaiah Rashad would release – The Sun’s Tirade in 2016 as well which debuted at number 17 on the US Billboard 200, selling 19,000 copies its first week. This is pretty impressive considering who else is on the TDE roster but as Paul Thompson of Vulture observed it may not be all rainbows and sunshine as he states:

“Isaiah’s second album opens with a voice-mail from an exasperated Dave Free, who is so fed up with the young rapper’s foot-dragging about the release that he’s ready to cut him off entirely. This perhaps overdetermined approach to the release calendar has yielded some excellent music but can also seem, from the outside, to replicate the labyrinth of red tape mummifying countless artists on major-label shelves.”

But the presumed issues didn’t end there – as more internal beefs seemingly found fuel on twitter as another new TDE standout would reach a boiling point with the label also due to the delayed release of their project.

Was TDE Losing ‘Ctrl?

While Ctrl would be the title of SZA’s debut studio album – she had felt more and more out of control of the direction of the project especially when it was finally released.

After releasing her EP “Z” under the label in 2014, SZA rose in popularity quite quickly and there was a growing anticipation for her debut album which was initially scheduled for release in 2015.

However, it wasn’t long before that anticipation would turn to frustration from fans because of the projects constant delays. For TDE, this was right on brand and par for the course when it came to their artists and not rushing the process.

However, similar to other cases in the past, the narrative of blame would swing between both the artist and the label. In October of 2016 SZA took to Twitter and expressed her frustration as she wrote in a tweet: 

SZA I actually Quit Tweet

Needless to say, the post had social media shook even though she deleted it shortly after posting it. Did SZA step away from her label? Did she quit music entirely? Or was this just a playful response to the incessant inquiries about her next album? Again it makes you wonder if this is mere coincidence and true emotion or just all part of the TDE formula.

Nevertheless, Punch would respond with an even more cryptic Tweet with a photo of the Joker and a comment simply stating “lol” which certainly didn’t answer any questions or give insight to what was really going on behind the scenes. Again the narrative was that of a talented artist, dying to please fans and put out their music, but being held up by their label.

Ctrl would eventually be released on June of 2017 to rave reviews and debuted at number three on the US Billboard 200, moving 60,000 equivalent-album units in its first week. It wasn’t until after the release of Ctrl that SZA revealed some clues as to what the issue was. In an interview with Fader she stated: 

“They just took my hard drive from me,” she said. ” I just kept fucking everything up. I just kept moving shit around. I was choosing from 150, 200 songs, so I’m just like, who knows what’s good any more?”  – SZA explained that she doesn’t know who took the hard drive and that the album we hear today is not necessarily the way she would have finished it. “Give me another month and it would have been something completely different,” – “I didn’t even fuck with my own album, so I was so confused and almost, like, angry that everyone fucked with it so much”.

There’s no question that SZA is a great example of TDE’s ability to find and nurture new talent but it’s clear that stepping out of the realms of the labels typical male rapper MO posed it’s own set of challenges and learning experiences for the label, which may have also contributed to some of the issues that occurred behind the scenes. Punch spoke to this fact in an interview with the FAQ Podcast.

In comparison to many other labels these issues in the grand scheme of things seem quite small – especially when you consider how long the artists have stuck around and how their haven’t been many stories of artists truly get screwed over and shelved by the label to our knowledge.

Some may say Ab Soul has been shelved but I don’t think this is entirely true given things that have been revealed about his personal life and battles that aren’t entirely TDE related. And while the issues surrounding TDE always seemed to spill over to social media – tweets would always seem to get deleted and frustrations would get publicly squashed in an attempt to give the public an image of zero trouble in paradise. 

Alright, so SZA steps out in 2017 giving us Ctrl but we can’t forget that Kendrick was also active in 2017 with the release of his now Pulitzer Prize winning album DAMN. The album topped the US Billboard 200 with 603,000 album-equivalent units earned in its first week. The album had notable standouts like Humble, Love, Loyalty with Rhianna and Duckworth which depicts the true story of how Anthony the CEO of TDE spared the life of Kendrick’s father during a KFC robbery years before Anthony met and signed the artist.

This was easily Kendricks most successful project from a numbers perspective and it would seem as though every effort was made to push this project to its full extent considering the megastar features, how singles were pushed ahead of time and the use of a number of other tactics which makes it safe to say they threw the kitchen sink at this release and its promotion. Sadly this would also lead to Kendrick going on a hiatus for multiple years sparking multiple rumours – some of which would turn out to be true.

In the meantime and with the success of DAMN and Ctrl under their belt, TDE would continue to attract talent with the signing of another R&B singer by the name of SIR who would release his Her Too EP under the label in 2017 as well as a rapper who was no stranger to the TDE camp for years by the name of Reason. He would also drop his mixtape that year called There You Have It.

However, there is one artist and blood relative of Kendrick Lamar – who TDE couldn’t quite lock down and may have been the root cause of TDE’s future problems and their slow but graceful decline.

Drama and Family Ties

Hykeem Jamaal Carter Jr. or Baby Keem is an artist and producer who seemingly came out of nowhere and has been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Beyonce, Travis Scott, Kanye West, and yes of course his cousin Kendrick Lamar. This young man who was born on October 22, 2000 and hails from Carson California already has a Grammy under his belt among some other pretty impressive accolades. 

None of this is really all that unusual on the surface – Mega star Kendrick Lamar mentors and grooms his younger cousin into becoming a star himself – Case closed right. Well not so fast – what is interesting about Keem and his rise is how we were introduced to him. They laid it on thick with the “hard work” and “oh I just got lucky” narrative while hiding the fact that Kendrick was his cousin for quite some time. He was even hiding his identity for a period as well and creating even more mystery. 

In an interview with Complex back in 2018 Keem was asked how he got involved with TDE, to which Keem responded by saying: “I sent a pack of beats to the TDE email, and it just so happened that I ended up on the soundtrack. God’s blessing.”

Now keep in mind that knowledge of the relationship was still pretty much a secret at this time and the soundtrack that he was referring to was the TDE backed Black Panther soundtrack.

For a deep dive on the extent to which Keem and others went to hide his relationship to Kendrick you should check out this video by helloyassine  as he covers how people started to connect the dots through tweets from Kendricks little sister referring to Keem as her Cousin and others in the music industry also referring to Keem in the same way – and even going as far to say that Kendrick was writing a bunch of music for Keem – which we will get to later.

Now there are a ton of great arguments that could be made for why Keem may have wanted to keep his relationship to Kendrick a secret but one thing is for sure – Keem’s rise may have pulled some prominent figures in the TDE camp in a different direction and ultimately away from TDE.

When we look at Keem’s releases and production credits, you’ll notice that he started creating music around 2015/2016. He would go on to publicly release the “Oct” EP in 2017 but the next few years would serve as huge stepping stones for the artist. 

In 2018 he would release a string of 4 projects titled:

  • Midnight, 
  • No Name, 
  • Hearts & Darts & 
  • The Sound of Bad Habit. 

The first two were EPs and seem to have been primarily solo efforts from a production and writing stand point. However on Hearts & Darts we begin to see a pretty big producer littered throughout the credits by the name of Cardo who’s behind some pretty memorable tracks and was no stranger to Kendrick Lamar and the TDE camp. Not to mention Keem’s manager would later be revealed as Brock Korsan, SVP of A&R at Warner Records – who also had strong ties to Kendrick & TDE.

Cardo would also be a big contributor to Keem’s last project of 2018, with even more credits on Keem’s The Sound of Bad Habit mixtape. This project is also sited as having support from Kendrick Lamar in a more hands on manner – however the music would be released without crediting Kendrick which would lead to ghost writing rumours in the years to come.

Furthermore, Keem would also lend a hand in producing tracks for some TDE related projects in 2018 as well. Keem is credited on the TDE backed soundtrack for the movie Black Panther – where Keem worked on the Redemption Interlude. Jay Rock after his long road to recovery from his bike accident, would also get help from Keem on his Redemption album that dropped in 2018 with Keem getting production credits on the tracks Knock It Off and Rotation 112th.

As 2019 rolls around, Keem releases another mixtape, Die for My Bitch, with more help from the TDE camp. This saw the likes of Dave Free directing his Orange Soda music video, TDE producers working on the project, along with support from Kendrick Lamar who once again isn’t exactly credited.

Outside of this, Keem was also pulling support from other notable names like Shia LaBeouf who directed his Gang Activities music video, among other directors with ties to some crazy music videos in hip hop, and more talented music producers with impressive track records. 

Keem would go on to land more production credits in 2019 on a Beyonce and Kendrick track called NILE from the Lion King soundtrack. As well as Schoolboy Q’s album Crash Talk, specifically Numb Numb Juice and Lies.

Suffice to say Keem’s music and production got better, the videos got better, his connections within the industry grew immensely, the industry plant rumours started to grow, but there was still a lot of mystery surrounding the artist and he was still relatively unknown. 

I myself wasn’t fond of the Baby Keem band wagon and ignored the hype. Finding out he was Kendricks cousin further reinforced these feelings but ironically this happens in every other field and we rarely blink an eye. The parent with the high level corporate job who gets their kid a job. The pro athlete who grooms their kid into the league. Heck no one cares about the fact that Miley Cyrus is Billy Ray Cyrus’ daughter. 

Only in hip hop do we seem to come up with these rules – yet at the core of a lot of the music we love – is the idea of bettering our situation so we can turn around and better the situation of others closest to us. 

If you were Kendrick or any successful artist for that matter – wouldn’t you do the same to some degree?

This was the turning point for myself in being more understanding of Keem’s come up. Access in the music industry is everything – whether that’s to money, equipment, people, producers, etc.

While to me it’s a no brainer that Kendrick would guide and nurture his younger cousin – I’m sure they also had to have been conscious of how Keem would be perceived if everyone knew they were related – which is why they may have kept the relationship a secret. It’s hard enough for others at TDE to break away from Kendrick’s shadow and this would inevitably be the same story for Keem. 

However, while Keem was starting to come into his own and gaining a lot of positive buzz – The TDE camp was unknowingly about to get blindsided by some serious setbacks.

Now Q’s Crash talk was slated to release in 2018 but was delayed following the death of frequent collaborator and friend, Mac Miller. This is important because it’s been heavily documented that Mac Miller had a very close relationship with everyone at TDE and his death deeply impacted many of the members. If you recall earlier we mentioned Ab Soul recorded his album These Days almost entirely at Mac’s house.

To make matters worse, 6 months after Mac Miller’s passing and just a month before Crash Talk would actually be released, Nipsey Hussle would pass away in late March of 2019.

Both of these relationships ran deep as earlier we touched on Jay Rock and Kendricks participation in the 2010 and 2011 XXL Freshman Class’ respectively – well Nipsey was also there in 2010 alongside Jay Rock and Mac Miller in 2011 alongside Kendrick. Q would open up about this situation for the first time publicly in an interview with Charlemagne in May of 2019.

TDE would then remain relatively quiet in 2019. Outside of Crash talk and a few singles that featured TDE artists, we would get the release of SIR’s album Chasing Summer and another signing of the artist Zacari who also released an EP Run Wild Run Free. 

While Baby Keem was tied to the label in many ways he wasn’t signed and was essentially doing his own thing with some pretty amazing support. One of the names we speculate he got really close with is Dave Free who along with Kendrick certainly believes in the artist and share a collective vision and interest in his growth.

While Keem’s presence may not have been seen as a threat at the time to the foundation and make up of TDE – things got interesting in late 2019 when it was announced that Co president of TDE and Kendrick Lamar’s manager, Dave Free would be leaving TDE to focus on Baby Keem and his film career.

2020 – The Year of Unknowns

Like most of the world – TDE would walk into 2020 none the wiser as to how life as we know it was about to come to a halt. Already reeling from the losses of both Nipsey & Mac and then the added blow of Dave Free’s departure from the label – TDE would also have to come to terms with the realities of covid 19 and how a global pandemic had put an abrupt stop to almost any and all plans.

Selfishly for fans – even with the state of the world – they still had questions as to when new music was coming.

Most notably – Kendrick had been quiet for quite some time even after Lamar himself stated “I got more music coming, ya dig what I’m saying?” immediately following the release of his album DAMN. in 2017. 

Yet Top Dawg himself Instagrammed stating, “KDOT don’t have a new album coming no time soon,” quashing any ideas that Lamar would be able to release new music as promised. As you can imagine this only added fuel to the fire pit of rumours already swirling with Free’s departure.

What’s interesting is that in 2019 – Isaiah Rashad, was quoted saying that TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith played him “damn near” a full album of Kendrick Lamar songs. Conversely, there were even rumblings of a possible retirement from Kendrick.

Not only was Kendrick out of the picture but the same would remain for the majority of the TDE camp as well.

While we heard of issues in the past, 2020 seemed to be the year that true concern and uncertainty of the labels future seemed to hit its peak. Dave Free’s departure may seem minuscule to some but the reality is he has been with TDE pretty much from the start. Being Kendricks manager as well – Kendrick and Free are practically attached at the hip.

As Punch states and evidently foreshadowed in his Blueprint interview – “The more success the further everyone separates and expands.” This statement is a perfect representation of the label at the time as it seems like everyone was being pulled in multiple different directions. 

Dave Free was out of the picture, Kendrick and other artists at the label seemed to be MIA, Baby Keem was bubbling – seemingly due in part to the attention and support he was receiving from Kendrick and Free, Punch was rumoured to be working on a personal music project to which people like VladTV questioned if his priorities should be on pushing the talent at TDE especially with the growing roster, couple that with the pandemic, everyones personal life, the loss of family and close friends and its safe to say there was a lot going on and the year had just begun.

In March of 2020 – adding more fuel to the fire at the rumour mill – would be Kendrick’s announcement of his new venture with Dave Free called pgLang. A rumor circulated online that month from Antixbound, who claimed during an Instagram livestream that Top Dawg Entertainment’s flagship artist (Kendrick Lamar) had left the label for the recently-launched pgLang

They went on to state that the pgLang roster would reportedly include Baby Keem, Jorja Smith, Murder District, and more. The leaker previously claimed that Kendrick is “100% dropping before the year” and that COVID had impacted his album rollout. They also allege that TDE didn’t know about pgLang until everyone else did, which has caused “tension.”  

To make matters worse – No formal statements would come from this in answer of questions about Kendrick’s status with TDE and if he actually left,  what pgLang even was, or if Kendrick actually retired and planned to focus on grooming Keem, does this mean no new music from Kendrick, will other TDE artist follow suite?

If that wasn’t enough SZA was also back online later in 2020 voicing more displeasure toward the label heads of TDE. The SZA hive was also being deprived of new music and this wasn’t sitting well with them.

Replying to fan comments on twitter asking if she needed to be freed from the label, SZA stated:

SZA Angry Tweets with Fans and Punch

In May of 2020, SZA suggested she was interested in doing a “music dump” of unreleased material. She said she had around 20 songs made over the “course of the last 6 years,” but since then she hasn’t spoke much about the idea and at the time of this video we still are without a new SZA album. 

This back and forth seems eerily similar to the rift surrounding Ctrl back In 2016 where SZA threatened to quit music completely.

While SZA may not have released a new album yet, she was releasing a few singles here and there like Hit Different and Good Days to keep fans somewhat happy.

The year would remain fairly stagnant for the TDE camp on the music front with the exception of Reason who released his album New Beginnings. While reason was on his promo run for the album he shed some more light on the overall situation at TDE in an interview with Complex where he stated that “TDE is just going through a weird time.”

To add even more layers to the already complicated situation, October of 2020 would see Kendrick Lamar sign a deal with Universal Music Publishing and playfully address rumours about him leaving TDE.

While it would seem that he was still with the label his comments didn’t exactly deny that he was leaving either. It was even more interesting for fans when Isaiah seemingly sneak dissed Kendrick in a tweet which read:

Isaiah Rashad sneak disses Kendrick Lamar Tweet

However, the artist would later explain that the tweet had nothing to do with Kendrick. At this point the label that we all appreciated for the music they were giving us was inadvertently producing more drama and headlines than actual music.

Isaiah Rashad replies to fans thinking he sneak dissed Kendrick Lamar Tweet

Were All the Kendrick Rumours True?

As 2021 came around – there were still a lot of unknowns. Of course the obvious one being – was pgLang the root cause of all this apparent tension and drama?

I for one don’t believe it’s that simple but the series of events that stemmed from 2019 to where we are presently do give us some clues but not many.

In April of 2021 Doja Cat would team up with SZA to give us the smash hit single, Kiss Me More, which dominated the charts but there was still no signs of SZAs album coming anytime soon. 

In July of 2021 Isaiah Rashad stepped out with his third studio album The House is Burning, which sold roughly 41,000 units in its first week, a solid outing for the artist who seemed to be getting a lot of label support. 

It wouldn’t be until August of 2021 that Kendrick again popped up out of nowhere to give us some more insight of what the hell was going on.

Lamar penned his thoughts about the future under the name “Oklama.” On the website oklama.com, in a folder titled “nu thoughts,” Lamar reflected on his artistry and how he spent more time in nature during the pandemic. 

Kendrick Lamar Nu Thoughts Oklama

But the most surprising update of all is that after his highly-anticipated next album, Lamar would be leaving his record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). So inevitably the rumours were in fact true and after 17 years with the label, Kendrick and TDE would be parting ways.

It was still unknown if Lamar would be releasing new music under a different label or pursuing something else.  

Not long after this we would then get the Baby Keem and Kendrick single Family Ties on Aug 27. These announcements and the new music served multiple purposes as this helped to further bring Baby Keem into the mainstream, while promoting his upcoming album The Melodic Blue. It also served as promotion for Kendrick Lamar that he was back after a long hiatus and created anticipation for even more new music from the artist.

When Keem dropped The Melodic Blue – the rapper received his first top five project on the charts as his debut studio album logged 53,000 equivalent album units in its first week. The albums also came with more features from Kendrick and Keem on the singles Range Brothers and Vent.

Outside of Melodic Blue – Keem was also collaborating with the likes of Kanye West on his Donda album, Travis Scott and more.

With Keem’s album out of the way – it still wasn’t quite clear as to when we would be getting a new Kendrick Lamar album but many were confident that with the pandemic starting to subside – 2022 would be the return of hip hops so called saviour.

The Return Of Hip Hops Saviour

Now it could be said that the roll out for Kendrick Lamar was in full swing but this roll out was nothing like the roll out we saw with DAMN. 

The DAMN project and the other projects before it – gave us lead singles that were embedded in our heads before we got the album. There were music videos that followed, some high profile interviews, pop up shops, bundling, highly anticipated features on the album, and more.

In leading up to Kendrick’s release this time around – the marketing was primarily done through his newly erected Oklama website where he randomly released word docs that read like journal entries. Leaving subtle clues of what was to come.

It makes you wonder that if Kendrick was in fact stepping out on his own – would TDE and the others Kendrick associated with in the past – be as invested in the promotion of his new release?

There are arguments that can be made on both sides of the coin but I’m sure the truth will never truly be revealed anytime soon. However, the fact that the littlest of actions from an artist like Lamar can still provoke such a stir is quite the site to see and these little album hints would continue to drop on the Oklama website right until the release of the album. However this wasn’t the only thing leveraged to help promote the album.

In fact some indirect and rather unwanted attention surrounded TDE and Kendrick On February 9th, of 2022, when two sex tapes of Isaiah Rashad and other men were leaked, sparking discussion online about his sexuality.

This sent the internet into a frenzy with the majority of people condemning the fact that someone would do this to Rashad. Furthermore, it then begged the question of how Rashads label and fellow label mates would respond.

In a lot of ways a negative turned into a positive for Rashad as it opened the door for an interesting conversation in hip hop. Rashad would address the situation publicly during his Coachella performance in April of 2022 and during a candid interview with media personality Joe Budden on May 26th.

The support Rashad received was primarily positive and it was clear the label and his label mates were behind him. It also kept TDE front of mind helping to further promote Rashad’s new album and brought about further questions about Kendrick.

Kendrick would later perform alongside Dre Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J Blige, Eminem, and 50 Cent at the 2022 Super Bowl Halftime Show. Another indicator that kendrick was back and strengthening the reality of a new album.

In April of 2022 Kendricks album release date was announced via the Oklama site once again and not long after that another hint was dropped on May 3rd through the site that fans might be in for a double album. It was here that we would be made aware of the albums title – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.

Kendrick Lamar Double Disk Mr Morale and the big steppers

However more drama would continue to ensue when leaks of reference tracks were released seemingly out of no where a week prior to Kendricks album dropping.

The leaks claimed that Kendrick Lamar had been ghost writing for TDE artists and more specifically on a large amount of Baby Keem’s tracks. The tracks are listed as follows:

Kendrick Lamar Leaked Reference Tracks

The leaker claimed that he had purchased these songs from someone in the TDE camp who had been selling them off to multiple people. There is more speculation that the person at TDE who was responsible was disgruntled for one reason or another. 

A situation that yet again caused a stir and brought about more rumors and even more questions that would go unanswered. What is interesting about the leak is the timing of it and the claims about why the tracks were released. 

This coming out right before Kendrick’s new release served to draw more attention to the release as well, but also added to his greatness in many people’s eyes. 

Unfortunately for Baby Keem, this didn’t sit well with many, especially when you look back at the lyrics on his song Family Ties with Kendrick Lamar, where he says “how can you act like I don’t be writing my raps.” 

As we mentioned earlier when reviewing Keem’s song credits, they rarely made mention of Kendrick until more recently, it’s a bit hypocritical all around when you consider the leaks – and even on the Kendrick Lamar front – considering his past stance on people not writing their own raps – ie Drake.

Part of me wants to say who cares because the reality is this happens a lot more than we think – But it’s really only in hip hop that people lose their minds about ghost writing in a negative way. 

However, I must admit that that’s a bit of pandering considering all the smoke Drake got during the whole Meek Mill, Quinton Miller ghost writing debacle. 

Nevertheless, life went on so much so that on May 8th 2022, Lamar released the single The Heart Pt 5, along with a music video where deep fake video showed Lamar’s face change to important figures in American culture. 

Appearing in order where OJ Simpson, Kanye West Jesse Smollett, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle. While, fans of Kendrick admired the single and video for its artistry. 

Others questioned if it was a palatable song with any replay value. Interestingly enough, this release would foreshadow the response Kendrick was about to get as he neared the release date for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. 

Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers Is Released

Five days after the release of The Heart Pt 5, Kendrick would drop his fifth studio album titled Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers. The reaction to the album has been very interesting as it’s been met with mixed reviews, fraught with controversy, and a clear reminder of Kendricks impeding departure from TDE. 

This could very easily be Kendricks most controversial album, due to decisions to feature Kodak Black, lyrics pertaining to toxic relationships and abuse. Lyrics about R Kelly, the LGBTQ community, COVID-19, social justice, having writer’s block, revealing his own infidelity, and much more. 

Some praise this project for the controversial elements and themes of the album, while others disapprove of it for the exact same reasons. That said, Kendrick stans seem to find any and every way to defend the album, while others question the replay value of the project – and they also make gripes about the intense depth of the album’s content, making it hard to digest. 

However, it is important to note that many blogs did praise the album and spoke very highly of it much like his previous projects. In making this video I tried to be as unbiased as possible, as I am a fan of the TDE camp as a whole and also a longtime Kendrick fan. 

I personally will say that I do like the album for a number of reasons, but can see the various stances as to why others may be opposed to it. 

To make matters worse, you have those who look only at the numbers and are quick to call something a flop. That said, Kendricks numbers this time around surely gave these people a lot of ammo to work with, as the album would go on to sell 295,500 equivalent album units across its first week – and only 85,000 units in its second week. 

Which pales in comparison to DAMN, which did 603,000 in its first week, and 238,000 in its second. In reality, this is on par with the industry and the drastic changes in how we consume music today. 

I touched on this in our video about Adele’s release of 30, which saw an 80% drop in sales from her previous release. There are similarities between the two artists and the fact that they both took long breaks between releases, and the industry changed a lot during their departure. 

However, if we look further into Kendricks release, there are a lot of other things that I will say are interesting. For starters, there’s the obvious question lingering about how much TDE truly supported and pushed this project. 

While the initial first week sales were low, the second week sales are a huge drop off – and this was also highlighted by Joe Budden during his podcast.

Not to mention the TDE camp wasn’t exactly out in full force helping with the promotion of this album. Schoolboy Q and Punch both made Twitter posts on the day of the release – But the majority of the label was fairly quiet at least publicly, all the while promoting other artists releases from the label. 

Some fans read into this and wondered if it proved that there was serious tension still brewing behind the scenes. When we spoke about DAMN, we also talked about the fact that it seemed like every effort possible was being made to make the album a success. 

In speaking to the differences with this release, it is clear that there was no lead single, no high profile features or even features from Kendricks TDE label-mates. 

There was also minimal marketing, and not to mention the hurdles of the pandemic and industry changes related to bundling that all would have impacted this release. 

To me, it isn’t surprising that this release isn’t as successful on paper compared to Kendrick’s previous outings – and while the events leading up to and after the release of Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers leave us with so many unanswered questions. 

One thing is for sure, this release undoubtedly marks the end of an era for Kendrick Lamar and the TDE camp. 

But this begs the question of where do both parties go from here? 

What Can We Expect From TDE and Kendrick Lamar Moving Forward?

Well, on the TDE front, the message is pretty clear in the fact that they are far from over. However, public perception seems to say that the loss of their megastar may mean otherwise. 

In a statement Top Dawg said that “TDE will continue to grow, develop and give artists the platform to expand in whatever way they choose.”

It’s a tough predicament to be in for TDE as they are certainly more than just the label that found Kendrick Lamar. However, when you think of TDE you typically associate the brand with Kendrick – much like when you think of Dreamville you think of J Cole. 

If anything happens that separates the artist from that brand, it does drastically change things. That’s the reality for TDE as you cannot deny that a future without Kendrick is quite different and almost weird in a sense. 

TDE still has strong artists like SZA, Jay Rock, Isaiah Rashad, Schoolboy Q, Ab Soul, and much more. However, they simply do not have another megastar like Kendrick sitting in the tuck. 

SZA most likely becomes the label’s new front runner, and it begs the question if her next album will be coming sooner than anticipated. Isaiah Rashad is coming off an impressive release, but it will be interesting to see the response to his future releases – and if this is something he can not only maintain, but exceed expectations. 

Of course, there’s also Schoolboy Q and Ab Soul, who have recently put out new music to the delight of fans, with singles named Soccer Dad and Hollandaise respectively. 

But I’m sure fans are wondering if any new albums will be coming from these two, especially Ab Soul. I personally am looking forward to a new Jay Rock album, as he has yet to disappoint me with a release. 

Through all of this though TDE has also signed two more artists that we know of currently in Ray Vaughn and Doechii whose futures do look promising. 

Punch also hinted at some other artists that they have in the tuck, but has not revealed their names as of yet. Also worth noting is Punch’s heavy focus on his own personal projects and collaborations that he has been promoting quite heavily in the midst of everything going on. 

Where Kendrick is concerned though, the move away from TDE is interesting given the long and storied history, but I assume there is a bigger vision that we are simply not privy to as of yet. 

It’s been documented that Kendrick even owns some percentage of TDE but there is no confirmation of how his departure will impact this. When we compare Kendrick to his peers. It also seems as though he was primarily focused on the music and wasn’t jumping on every brand or sponsorship deal that came his way – Like a Drake for example. 

The pocket watchers of the world will be quick to tell you that Kendrick isn’t grossing as much as his peers – But Kendrick has also been on record saying that not all money is considered good money. 

One can only wonder if this pgLang venture is an attempt to be in more control of his future in music, with less hands in his pockets – and with the support of Dave Free, the creative direction of pgLang is certainly in good hands. 

Furthermore, signing and growing artists has been the norm for the likes of Kanye, Jay Z, Drake and Cole for quite some time now. But it only seems like more recently with the likes of Baby Keem and pgLang that Kendrick has jumped into this role as well. 

Kendrick not having his own crop of artists till this point isn’t a good or bad thing, but merely speaks to the new doors and hurdles that Kendrick will have to walk through in trying to break other artists while focusing on his own music career at the same time. 

This isn’t an easy thing to do, and has even been hard for artists like Eminem, who receives criticism to this day for his handling of artists and groups he’s signed over the years. 

One thing is for sure though, if Kendrick is able to grow PGLang successfully, this will just further add to and solidify his greatness. 

Final Thoughts on The End of TDE and Kendrick Lamar

In my mind, you’re gonna have to take the good with the bad in all of this. From humble beginnings in Compton and the long road that all the TDE artists had endured to this point – It seems there is truth to the old saying that all good things must come to an end. 

While the road for TDE and Kendrick may have come to a close for now at least. There’s a heightened sense of anticipation for new beginnings that are upon us from all parties involved. 

So what do you think? Where did things take a turn in this fairy tale story? Are you excited to see what Kendrick or TDE will have in store for us moving forward? 

And do you believe that TDE can survive the loss of their superstar Kendrick Lamar? 

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