Top Dawg Entertainment had a banner year in 2013. They capped off 2012 with Kendrick Lamar’s prodigious release and rode the tidal wave of success all the way to a platinum album and even into this year’s Grammy’s. While good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t earn anything that night other than a sanctimonious text message, the cultural impact of the album helped catapult the whole Black Hippy and TDE squad into the limelight. However, there were plenty of quality releases to come out of Top Dawg’s house prior to October 2012 that deserve to be talked about, as well. With Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron finally arriving on iTunes (and those big brick and mortar things in the real world), we thought it would be appropriate to take a retrospective on the past releases of the label. Kendrick may be running ahead of the pack, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the label is lagging behind. TDE has been eatin’ for years. [Ed. Note: This list is meant to examine official albums over projects initially given away for free, thus omitting such releases as Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated and Jay Rock’s Black Friday.]
Schoolboy Q will be the first to tell you he didn’t always dream of becoming a rapper. In fact, he noted that the concept behind Setbacks was to talk about all the reasons why he can’t rap. From drugs to women, Schoolboy had plenty of distractions and rap was only a means to an end. Given this, one would assume the album would more or less suck, but it’s quite impressive, especially considering all the aforementioned circumstances. Q had a long way to go to improve his mic skills, but the material was already in place for a promising career.
Ab-Soul said he wanted Longterm Mentality to capture his life and his aspirations in the music business. While his debut was not meant to be a continuation of his Longterm mixtapes, it was still an all-encompassing idea of the themes presented in the previous two works. Songs like “Almost There” demonstrate Ab’s sacrifices and ambition to make it big in the game. While the album was understandably a little raw and underdeveloped, it was clear that Ab-Soul had plenty of potential and a lot more to say.
Isaiah Rashad initially planned for Cilvia Demo to be exclusively verses, with each song averaging around 90 seconds. After continued studio time, the project morphed into an official EP (although even that can be debated given its LP length). Rashad seamlessly blends harmonizing, rapping and melodies into a dreamy 14-track sequence. Vices, demons, insecurities and hopes are all explored here, and are mostly handled exclusively by Rashad with minimal features, making for an even more impressive debut.
Ab-Soul may be the “weirdo” of the Black Hippy crew, but he comes alive through his music. His independent sophomore effort demonstrated plenty of growth for one year’s time. While Longterm Mentality focused inward, Ab turned his pen outward on Control System and broadened his subject matter to society and politics. He continued to self-analyze as well, except this time it was with far more polished beats and flows.
A year following Setbacks, Schoolboy Q had grown into a far more confident rapper. He showcased a better understanding of song structure, with a hit record in “Hands on the Wheel,” while demonstrating rarely-seen vulnerability on ‘Blessed.” Furthermore, he became infinitely more menacing and haunting on “Oxy Music” and “Nightmare on Figg Street.” The makings of Oxymoron were already in place here.
After a few false starts, Q’s major label debut arrived to critical praise. The missteps of Setbacks and Habits & Contradictions were mostly absent on Oxymoron and we instead received a focused body of work. Furthering the introspection from his previous album, Q delved deeper into his drugs problems on “Prescription,” easily his most personal record to date. Records like “Gangsta” and “Fuck LA” showcased the aggressive side of Schoolboy that made him a TDE favorite and he even tacked on some crossover potentials such as ‘Studio” for good measure. The South Central spitter also proved he could mostly stand on his own two feet, limiting the Black Hippy features and going for self. While Oxymoron may not have been the crowned jewel of the Top Dawg catalog, it was by far Schoolboy Q’s best body of work.
Kendrick had been around for a while by the time Section.80 rolled in, but it was this album that put the Compton native on the mainstream map (and caught the ear of Dr. Dre). Kendrick’s penchant for anthemic hooks was fully developed by this point, and he flexed those abilities with tracks like “Fuck Your Ethnicity” and “HiiiPower.” While there were plenty of attention grabbers such as those, it was Kendrick’s heart that kept people listening. “Tammy’s Song” and “Keisha’s Song” showed the depth that the Black Hippy capo had and his potential for crafting timeless music.
Following Jay Rock home was an exhausting ordeal. The Watts rapper had unsuccessful stints at both Asylum and Warner Records before finally signing to Tech N9ne’s Strange Music in 2010. Rock would then spend a while on the road and deliver his Black Friday mixtape before finally dropping his debut album in July 2011. While Follow Me Home was not a commercial success, it was critically praised for its classic West Coast lyrics and booming production. Songs like “Elbows” and “Just Like Me” demonstrated Rock’s knowledge for the importance of powerful hooks, while “Code Red” and “Bout That” delivered a menacing feel for his core audience. The album bleeds with vintage West Coast gangsterism yet sets itself apart with fresh flows ideas.
No surprise here. When it came out to unanimous critical praise in October 2012, Kendrick Lamar said the only thing keeping good kid, m.A.A.d city from classic status was time. Well, it has been over a year and the album is still as good as ever, if not better. GKMC is a fully-conceived, thought-out story, the likes of which we rarely get in hip-hop. Not only does the album require your full attention in order to understand the narrative, but it also has some jams on there for you to vibe to. “Backseat Freestyle” and “m.A.A.d city” are high octane tracks that demand movement when being played, while “Money Trees” and ‘Poetic Justice” soothe your soul. Add to that moving records like “Sing About Me” and you have the recipe for a masterpiece.
Where does Oxymoron fit in to TDE’s catalog now that its available? Let us know.