“Westside, Right On Time” was released as a throwaway in mid-August of 2012, ahead of the October release of Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album good kid, M.A.A.D city. This stretch of the year signaled a downturn of a lucrative time for Top Dawg Entertainment; stardom was exploding into view all around each of its members Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Lamar himself. “Westside, Right On Time” was more than a song that didn’t make the album; it was a victory lap that encapsulated the sheer excitement of the West Coast’s coming dominance in the industry. Producer Canei Finch sampled the 1972 song “How Love Hurts” by The Sylvers and repurposed it into mountains of vibrant embers. Four lines from the original song make their way into the song’s intro:

“Pillars of joy can be found / Through the thought of you / I’ll be troubled and bustled / And scorned for your love.”

The sampled song sings about the idea of love, but in rap music its thematic sense takes on a new context: the thought of eminence, the wish for it, and the means to be troubled in pursuit of it. This stanza sets the precedent that Kendrick Lamar and Young Jeezy celebrate throughout the song’s brief run time, being a master class of preparation and execution. Kendrick was at the beginning of his career, entrenched in the union of Top Dawg—the label that’s powered the growth of his star power—and Black Hippy, the strapping quaternary he inhibits with Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab Soul. 2012 was a time of growth and evolution of the aesthetic that the group would come to cultivate: that of anomalous, mercurial scholars existing on the outskirts of modern rap elitism, while being purveyors of the kind of lyricism that dominated the genre in its Golden Era—albeit with a darker, drearier twist. That year, three projects helped to mold their brand into the near-legendary machine that exists today, a kaleidoscope lens of the fractured human psyche explored through three focal points. ScHoolboy Q’s Habits and Contradictions, Ab-Soul’s Control System, and Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City bared the innards of the human soul, engaging in conversation to paint an all-encompassing picture of life’s darkest moments.

January 14, 2012 marked the release of Habits and Contradictions, ScHoolboy’s second studio album that he claimed served as not a sequel, but a prequel to his debut project Setbacks. His first album was concerned with the limitations that would prevent him from rapping or enjoying the thrills of his changing life circumstances; Habits and Contradictions was concerned with the anxieties of life’s minutiae, constantly setting them against the quirks of his personality that give birth to his random obiters about life. Album opener “Sacrilegious” explores the contradictions that a killer searching for salvation feels. On the opposite side, “Blessed” explores what he has in comparison to the people around him. Elsewhere throughout the morose album, the soul is stretched. “Hands on the Wheel” is a haunting embrace of the inebriated lifestyle that 20-somethings wholeheartedly fetishize, even though it involves dangerous implications for anyone on the opposite side of their headlights.

In the midst of these juxtapositions between his dealings as well as those of others, a disposition emerged – that of debauchery in the midst of trauma. For as dark as the album’s production and striking (yet inconsistent in tone) lyricism sank to, Habits and Contradictions avoided extrapolating excessive pain because of its preference for serving as a soundtrack to parties. Q, maybe unknowingly, became the voice of hipsters that were hesitant to embrace the nihilistic tendencies of Odd Future, yet felt as if traditional hip-hop was too mundane. Plush, luxe instrumentals were one thing; schizophrenic ad-libs and sadistic non-sequiturs created a picture of a mad man. Q was rap’s most vibrant, unpredictable figure, even if his entertainment was delivered through a simultaneously painful and exhausting lens.

Ab Soul released _Control System _on May 11, 2012. To many, the album served as an introduction into his wonderfully spacy world. In fact, I take it back; to call Ab-Soul spacy would do a disservice to his articulate brand and fascination with exploring the innards of the brain’s chambers, both physical and metaphysical. Soul released the visual for the insidiously creepy “Pineal Gland” a month before the album hit shelves. Between the nervous production and crisp flows that featured “blink and you’ll miss it” punchlines bereft with wit, Ab-Soul enticed plenty of souls (no pun intended) to mentally invest in his brand, thinking that his upcoming album would feature more of this raucous type of music that existed in the same vacuum as Habits and Contradictions did before it.

Control System didn’t. Instead, Ab-Soul strayed away from drugs as a vice, and focused on the freedom they brought the brain to overcome societal norms. The album’s cover featured the Kabbalah Tree of Life and its Sephiroth, central mystical symbols of esoteric Judaism that represent divine emanations of man’s spiritual path of scene, the nature of divinity revealed, and the human soul. The album lacked bright spots of happiness and leisure, yet avoided delving into gloomy territory. It broke new, off-kilter ground with strict analysis and education of topics largely delegated to faceless YouTube channels with less than 30 views per video.

“Bohemian Grove” introduced hip-hop to the playground of rich organic mayonnaise that’s existed separate from society since the 1880s, possibly influencing worldly events from a 2700-acre locale in Monte Rio, California. Soul balanced explaining his desire for a beautiful woman with surface details about the sandbox for the powerful in a masterful way, inviting the listener to do their own research. Most of Soul’s lyricism works this way; the aforementioned “Pineal Gland” serves as a three-minute infomercial about the mind-freeing capabilities of Dimethyltryptamine that practically begs the listener to do their own Googles.

Throughout the album’s 17 tracks, which by today’s standards, would seem excessively long, Soul’s shattered window into his soul becomes clearer as he educates. “Terrorist Threats” makes clear his disillusion with the ruling government and utter disbelief in post-secondary education. He regularly namedrops historical figures with casual ease, such as Aleister Crowley, a poet dubbed the “Wickedest Man in the World” throughout the course of his lifetime from 1877-1947, and Selassie, the former Emperor of Ethiopia and God incarnate, also known as Jah Rastafari. “SOPA” briefly touches on internet censorship while Soul purposefully “babbles on”—as he reveals that MCs with meaningless raps do on “Terrorist Threats”—letting the important bits of it marinate in the listener’s ears. Right on cue, ScHoolboy Q comes in with a similar, meaningless sentiment, truly showcasing the similarities and differences in their portrayals of the soul’s depth.

“The Book Of Soul” may perhaps be the most blistering cut that warms the eyelids. His ex-girlfriend Alori Joh—a central singing force that added a powerful adhesive to Kendrick’s Section.80 by providing backup vocals to “No Makeup,” “Tammy’s Song,” and “F Your Ethnicity” as well as most of Top Dawg Entertainment’s artists’ earliest works—committed suicide that February. The story of their relationship was told through Soul’s verses, stretching back to an unreleased Kendrick song from 2009 where he first introduced her to the public’s eye. “The Book Of Soul” wrapped up the star-crossed lovers story on a somber note, reflecting on the ways that his soul has shattered since her untimely death. The melancholy production is a feint, appearing initially as bliss before traversing the innards of their relationship through the panes of his memory museum. Soul’s most open song bared the emotionally slit wrists that battered him into a corner, just as his larger album did.

Q’s Habits and Contradictions album, followed by Soul’s Control System delivered two crestfallen artistic depictions of decaying humanity. From the gloomy to the enlightened, listeners were subject to imagery of mid-life paragons with the weight of the world on their shoulders, constantly plagued with the understanding of ways of the world that they may not have wished to be wiser about. To understand their outlook and the reasons for their choices, Top Dawg Entertainment had to take us back to the beginning. This is why when good Kid, M.A.A.D City came out, Top Dawg was recognized as the most well-rounded, talented collective in the game. Everything that had released from the group (save for Jay Rock) in 2012 had finally started to make sense.

GKMC is a concept album that explores the outcome of poor choices that arise in the constantly mutating adolescent brain. Listeners were placed at the beginning of Kendrick’s inception – Kendrick the artist, the idea, not the person. “Backseat Freestyle” was thought to initially be a meaningless track in the spirit of ScHoolboy Q’s gloomy party ambience, but proved to be another beast entirely within the album’s context—a knee-jerk response to needing to spit after being provoked by friends. Camaraderie also plays a large part in the album’s lifeblood; Kendrick’s character subjects himself to life-altering situations in “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “M.A.A.D City,” especially on the latter, with a claustrophobic instrumental and heightened vocal channeling the alarming, looming feeling of the world closing in on him after staging a robbery at a workplace he used to be employed at.

But even when he went down the waterhole that TDE was becoming known for, he offered a glimpse at his acceptance of reality and repurposing the grief of everyday life into possible joy. “Swimming Pools” attacked liquor, one of the common vices of a tortured soul, and showed how threatening its use is. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” used death and loss to continue telling a story and translate a message of unceasing violence needing to be extinguished. “Poetic Justice” found the beginning of love and offered a glimmer of hope for it to bloom in the future. The album’s ability to humanize its feelings differed from diluting them with drugs, or seeking enlightenment. We understood the essence of the soul that would grow into either of Kendrick’s contemporaries.

Taken together, Habits and Contradictions, Control System, and good kid, M.A.A.D City offer a complete picture of the soul. They contain commonalities in production styles and emotional channels that are then flipped and explored throughout each project. As a collective, its ability to excavate the faces of the soul is second to none. While it took for those three albums to all be released to get the gist of the group’s aesthetic, the pieces were always there. Jay Rock, although not included in that year’s lineup, laid the foundation with 2011’s Follow Me Home that served as the label’s introduction, bringing into the picture the setting that the group’s music would utilize as a playground. Fast forward six years and the label’s roster is much healthier. ScHoolboy Q is reportedly preparing another album. Kendrick’s released two more albums since then. Ab-Soul’s released one, and since, it’s been pretty quiet. But the way that his mind works, maybe that’s what he wants. Jay Rock further mined his thought-provoking base for one of 2018’s best projects.

The pieces of the puzzle, once not fully put together, make sense now that they’ve been connected. All because of one strong year.

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