2016 has been a year of shear domination for Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). Founded by former beat maker Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith in 2004, TDE's mission was to simply provide a platform for West Coast artists to express themselves and give their music to the world. But since the meteoric rise of Kendrick Lamar, as well as the stardom of ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Isaiah Rashad, and SZA, TDE is not just creating a legacy as one of the best labels in the industry, it may be one of the best we've ever seen.
It's easy to recognize the vast achievements of TDE today. This year alone the West Coast label has produced three critically acclaimed albums in Kendrick Lamar's untitled.unmastered, ScHoolboy Q's Blank Face, and Isaiah Rashad's debut studio album, The Sun's Tirade. That's on top of a 2015 campaign that produced Jay Rock's grossly underrated 90059 and Kendrick's Grammy-winning classic, To Pimp A Butterfly. Add in the commercial success of Ab-Soul's These Days and ScHoolboy Q's Oxymoron, and one can say it's been a rewarding couple of years for the Top Dawg brand. Oh — let's not forget the label's breakout year of 2012 in which Kendrick set the world ablaze with his major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, followed by Q’s Habits & Contradictions and Ab-Soul’s Control System.
However, back in 2004, the vision of widespread success wasn't so clear. The label's first signed artist was a 15-year-old kid from Compton known in the streets as K-Dot (Kendrick Lamar) who had only one locally successful mixtape to his credit. The label would later sign former street gangsters Johnny Reed McKinzie Jr. (Jay Rock) and Quincy Matthew Hanley (ScHoolboy Q), followed by a community college dropout, Herbert Anthony Stevens IV (Ab-Soul). Together, the young South LA natives would become the rap supergroup Black Hippy. On its face, the operation shouldn't have been successful. After all, Top Dawg was essentially trying to mesh a high school kid with a former Crip, a former Blood, and an enigmatic young adult who began rapping by engaging in freestyle battles on BlackPlanet. And aside from The Game, and OGs Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, the era of West Coast rap had all but become a distant memory.
But Top, with the assistance of Dave "Miyatola" Free and Terrence "Punch" Henderson, adopted a simple approach: Create great music by marrying thought-provoking lyrics with dope beats to build a loyal following. Rather than fixating on hit singles and flashy hooks, each artist is focused on perfecting their craft, using one another as motivation and guidance, without losing their identity. And to grow their fan base, every artist wholeheartedly supports one another's projects without restraint. The mantra of "If one wins, we all win," is embraced by everyone and as a result has cultivated a family-like atmosphere within the label.
While Kendrick garners the majority of the spotlight with his growing popularity and mainstream success, the introspective rapper who used to drive around in his mother's minivan is still the product of a methodical, disciplined organization. He deserves credit for his many accolades, but one can argue that without the tutelage of Top Dawg, the sacrifices of Jay, and the influence of Q and Soul, Lamar might not be the worldwide phenomenon that he has become. It's like Tom Brady and the New England Patriots; he is a superstar quarterback who is committed to obtaining greatness, but without Robert Kraft's organization and the discipline of coach Bill Belichick, Brady may have never materialized as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
Take for instance ScHoolboy Q's career: His latest project, Blank Face — Q's most successful album to date — is merely a maturation of his previous work. He has used the momentum he established from Oxymoron, Habits & Contradictions, and Setbacks to create a commercially palatable sound infused with authenticity and grittiness. Though he credits his label mates for his development as a rapper, he has managed to remain a hard-hitting emcee with a sandpaper flow, evoking his signature gangsta drawl and punchy cadence.
"They taught me how to rap. I came over there and I got inspired by them and they made me pick my pen up,” Q said of his early days working with Black Hippy. “...They made me progress to the point where [I am] now."
Aside from rappers and an R&B songstress, TDE also boasts an impressive assemblage of in-house producers known as Digi-Phonics. Consisting of Tae Beast, Willie B, Sounwave, and Dave Free, the collective has carved out a reputation for creating soulful, melodic, funky beats with a West Coast flair. As the vocal artists of the label have grown in their creativity and workmanship, the men behind the sounds have as well. Biting lyrics are important, but they are nothing without adequate tunes to accompany them.
As the indie label headquartered in Los Angles continues to advance its brand as being one of hip-hop's elite, TDE's prosperity hasn't been without drama. The label experienced many pitfalls during its joint venture with Warner Bros., delaying the release of Jay Rock's debut album. There was also the tragic death of R&B artist Alori Joh, a frequent TDE collaborator, which emotionally devastated the entire team. Even recently, Ab-Soul and SZA have taken to social media to voice their displeasure over being shelved while their label mates prosper. But what family is without occasional tribulations and disagreements? It seems with each setback the group endures, the label uses its misfortunes as fuel to improve its body of work.
TDE has established itself as a development powerhouse with a loyal group of talented artists banded together in their commitment to producing quality content. It's a sustainable recipe that has produced three platinum albums, ten top 10 rap albums, and a devout following from millions of fans. Should this continue, TDE won't just claim the title of being the best hip-hop label of 2016, it will sit atop the throne for years to come.