This latest salute is for arguably the most intriguing and the hottest label in Hip Hop right now. Starting as a west coast underground indie label, Top Dawg Entertainment, or TDE, became the home for acts such as Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, and Kendrick Lamar. Acclaimed, yet very slept-on, they were also the home early on for acts such as current Motown artist BJ The Chicago Kid and late R&B singer Alori Joh. Since 2008, TDE has been on people’s lips concerning how great the talent and the music was.
Through time, TDE has become a movement in itself, especially once TDE linked up with Aftermath for Kendrick and Interscope for ScHoolboy Q. Over the last couple years they signed two R&B singers (SZA and most recently Lance Skiiiwalker) and a young Tennessee emcee named Isaiah Rashad to propel their clout even more. TDE was responsible for the greatest and most impactful album of the millennium (see later) and a few other exceptional releases. With that being said, let’s begin.
15. Ab-Soul - These Days...
TDE’s residential thinking stoner, Ab-Soul, was confronted with heavy anticipation to follow up his incredible album Control System (see later). Heads finally got a brief video leak of an upcoming album called These Days… that featured a dark-sounding cut called “Stigmata”, and the buzz was building quickly.
The result was a decent album that aimed for more of a commercial sound. While it was hit and miss for the majority of the album, it was clear that Ab-Soul was still the guy to go beyond typical subject matter for a very interesting and intriguing listen.
14. Kendrick Lamar - The Kendrick Lamar EP
Where did we first start seeing the greatness that was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth? It was this “EP” from 2008. Seen now as his hard-to-get-a-hold-of cult classic much like Eminem’s Infinite or The Roots Organix, Kendrick’s penchant for poignant lyricism and captivating poetics were first displayed on cuts like “The Relevant”, “Vanity Slaves”, and “Let Me Be Me”.
If you don’t know about this album, do yourself a favor and go back to where it all started for King Kendrick.
13. ScHoolboy Q - Setbacks
In 2011 we were introduced to a young cat named ScHoolboy Q. His debut Setbacks was a very dope introduction to what would later become a Grammy-Award nominated career.
Setbacks was filled with street tales mixed with weed anthems to satisfy all his tree-heads. With great tracks like “Druggies Wit Hos” and “Kamikaze”, this was an excellent debut and a sign of even better things to come.
12. Kendrick Lamar - Overly Dedicated (O.D.)
With his name out there because of his buzzworthy debut The Kendrick Lamar EP, Kendrick Lamar continued his momentum with Overly Dedicated – a fantastic conceptual album that showed growth artistically and lyrically, with penetrating cuts like “Average Joe”, “Cut You Off”, and the stinging “Barbed Wire”.
We started seeing something special developing with this Compton native and this album was another example. Some have stated that this may have been the pre-cursor to To Pimp A Butterfly. Be that as it may, this album was excellent in more ways than one.
11. Ab-Soul - Longterm Mentality
Carson, CA native Ab-Soul delivered his debut digital album entitled Longterm Mentality, which if nothing else, grabbed you with its cover alone. However, once you peeped this cat you knew he had a lot on his mind, and that was something to be thankful for.
Over mellow grooves from the TDE in-house family, Soulo explores various aspects of his life and how he saw his future in the business. As evidenced with standouts like the Punch (TDE president)-assisted “Time Of The Essence” and “More Of A Euphoria”, Ab-Soul was more than an emcee getting high and talking shit. This dude had a great grasp of the world around him, and it resulted in a damn good album.
10. Jay Rock - Follow Me Home
Watts, Cali native Jay Rock is the unapologetic elder gangsta of the click. His debut, Follow Me Home, came of eighties and early nineties gangsta riding music reminiscing of N.W.A. or Compton’s Most Wanted.
An album that represented rags to riches and the struggles to get there, Follow Me Home was a hustler’s album. You knew once you peeped it that it was clear Jay Rock belonged to the TDE crew, as it wasn’t all shootouts and repping your colors. There was a method behind his madness and a story to his pain.
9. ScHoolboy Q - Oxymoron
What a 2014 for ScHoolboy Q. After his deal with Interscope under TDE, he was obtaining gold plaques for singles such as “Collard Greens” , “Studio”, and “Man Of The Year”. Let it be known: the rest of his Interscope debut, Oxymoron, was every bit as strong. Cuts like the haunting “Prescription”, the menacing “Hoover Street”, and the Alchemist-laced “Break The Bank” were simply flames.
More aggressive production and more spirited lyrics made this album more of a mainstream success story than prior albums Setbacks and Habits & Contradictions. This was one of 2014’s best albums and stands as one of the most successful TDE albums to date.
8. Jay Rock - 90059
A few years after releasing his promising Follow Me Home, Jay Rock delivered his sophomore album 90059 – the title being an ode to his hometown’s zip code. Noticeably shorter in length than his debut, this album pulls no punches with honesty and real G shit. While dropping buzzing singles like “Money Trees Deuce” and “Gumbo”, other cuts like the standout “Message” and especially the very nuts Black Hippy posse track “Vice City” were also noteworthy with heads. Showing a progression lyrically and conceptually, Rock hit heads with one of 2015’s coldest albums.
7. Kendrick Lamar - Section.80
With a buzz already reaching high levels, Kendrick Lamar returned with Section.80, his debut full-length album and an ode to the time period he was born in and the ills and struggles young people had to face during this time period.
A very thoughtful and insightful conceptual album, we continue to see the building genius of King Kendrick. Over engaging yet subtle production, Kendrick dropped jewels aplenty on this beyond fantastic album. Exploring morality, the justice system, crack cocaine, and prostitution among other dark vices within the Black community, the album was told through the eyes of fictional characters Tammy and Keisha. Make no mistake about it, this album showed that Kendrick’s pen knew how to cry.
6. ScHoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions
Hoping to improve upon the success of Setbacks, ScHoolboy Q delivered his next project Habits & Contradictions, which he described as a prequel to Setbacks. A conceptual album describing the contradictions of a man’s life and the conflict between his conscience and his thugged-out persona, Habits & Contradictions is an excellently put together album.
Dark, brooding, and meticulous, ScHoolboy had you enthralled by his travels of accepting his need to murder to trying to understand how Blessed he really had been. Cuts like “Oxy Music”, “Sacrilegious”, and “Nightmare On Figg Street” are so draped with aggression and poignancy that it’s impossible to ignore the appeal of this album. This album still stands as his magnum opus to this day.
5. Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo
Straight from Chattanooga, Tennessee comes Isaiah Rashad, TDE’s first southern representative. His debut EP, Cilvia Demo, was something special and something we hadn’t quite heard come from the South in some time. This cat possessed raw talent and potent lyrics to fit right in with the unmistakable talent that TDE presented.
Some have dubbed him the Kendrick of the South. Although that remains to be seen, there’s no mistaking that with cuts like the standout “Menthol”, “Brad Jordan”, and “West Savannah”, Rashad’s future with TDE looks very damn good and there’s no reason to think that there isn’t a classic album building within him. Don’t get it twisted: this album stands as one of the most heralded debuts in all of the TDE camp.
4. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, M.A.A.D. City
One of the most phenomenal releases to hit Hip Hop in years came in the form of Kendrick’s major label debut, as this was his first album under TDE in a partnership with Dre’s Aftermath label.
After making a buzz with the very funky “Recipe” and the incredible ode to alcoholism “Swimming Pools”, good kid, M.A.A.D. City dropped, and we were absolutely floored. Up to now we had seen a gradual increase in lyricism, concepts and just building off his prodigious talent. Detailing the story of a young kid trying to make it out his crazy Compton streets but constantly being drawn back into his environment, this album bleeds of such memorable classic debuts such as Illmatic, Ready To Die, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and The Documentary.
This was the album that officially put Compton and the west back on the map, as he became the new savior for the west with this widely acclaimed prize of an album.
3. Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered
During his game-changing sessions constructing To Pimp A Butterfly, there were some cuts that didn’t make it past the cutting room floor. As to why they never made it, we may never know, as these cuts sounded, with proper mixing and mastering of course, like they BELONGED on his masterpiece.
Seen as his own version of The Lost Tapes, Untitled Unmastered was a breathtaking look at what could’ve been. Not as if To Pimp A Butterfly could have been any more perfect, but it would’ve been simply astounding had these cuts been included as well. While there are no official titles to these cuts, Kendrick and Top Dawg may need to seriously think about finishing the mixing of these cuts, and add to a legacy that already has him as one of the greatest emcees in Hip Hop history.
2. Ab-Soul - Control System
While we were still in awe of Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality album, he dropped his next album, Control System. Experimenting with different flows and showing versatility, he quickly became considered every bit of a star as Kendrick.
As good as Longterm Mentality was, and how nicely we got fully introduced to this thinking stoner, it was this magnificent album that really let us know just there’s a lot more to this Carson native than drugs and getting high.
Control System shows us a conscious young cat who was in tune with the corruption of the world, as well as other areas such as love, loss, and his own personal health. Incredibly poignant and at times heartbreakingly personal, Ab-Soul makes us confrontational with “Terrorist Threats”, made us think and read with “Pineal Gland”, and made us cry with his deeply somber and painful eulogy to his late girlfriend, and TDE artist Alori Joh, “The Book Of Soul”. Truthfully, we haven’t heard a more depressing, yet beautiful, dedication to a lost loved one in many a year, over one of the most melancholy melodies ever heard. To make the loss even more heartfelt, we hear her angelic voice on the tracks “Empathy” and “A Rebellion”.
With an album that stands as one of the single best TDE projects to this day, we knew there was something very human about this young emcee, and it bled all over this exceptional album.
1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
Do I even need to continue? What else can I say that hasn’t already been said about this timeless piece of music? The most important Hip Hop album of our generation, and certainly the most impactful in over a decade, is the new standard of greatness in Hip Hop, and we have Kendrick to thank for it.
This Grammy Award-winning monument changed the entire landscape of Hip Hop in 2015. The introspection and depth on this album is as human as anything you could possibly hear on wax. We got introduced to the new young jack on The Kendrick Lamar EP, a rising impressive talent on Overly Dedicated, a prodigious songwriter and emcee on Section.80, a new west coast savior on good kid, M.A.A.D. City, and with To Pimp A Butterfly, he was crowned ‘King”.
Without question, the leader of the new school, and possessor of Hip Hop’s new landmark is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. Black consciousness met up with jaded fame and self-destruction on this generational album, and with cuts like “How Much A Dollar Cost”, “Mortal Man”, and “U”, Kendrick painfully puts a mirror up examining those areas that we as a culture need desperate help with, while never ignoring our power and pride on uplifting cuts like “Complexion” and “I”.
Just when people had somewhat given up on how Hip Hop has been presented over the last few years, this was that album that made us proud to be not only Hip Hop lovers but fans of world-changing music. To say the very least, this is the greatest TDE album produced, and possibly the best they’ll ever do. Can Kendrick outdo perfection? We’ll see.
As you can see, TDE is a label to be reckoned with and it continues to show it’s potential to take over all of Hip Hop. With forthcoming releases from ScHoolboy, Ab-Soul, and Isaiah Rashad (along with R&B acts SZA and Lance Skiiiwalker), this will be another busy year for Top Dawg Entertainment, and it’s very likely more classics will emerge from this incredible label.