Why Kendrick may have wanted to move on from TDE
Kendrick Lamar and TDE have had one of the longest partnerships between a hip-hop label and its flagship artist. TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith called it a victory lap. It’s been 17 years, which is a long, long time.
But this news shouldn’t be a surprise. In the past few years, Kendrick has dropped clues that change may come:
-March 2020: launches pgLang, his new venture with Dave Free—TDE’s former co-president who left the label in 2019
-October 2020: signs deal with Universal Music Publishing
-October 2020: playfully addresses rumors that he left TDE. (but didn’t deny it either)
His social media bios now says founder @pglang. Kendrick including “founder” sticks out. It’s the first time he can say that about anything he’s worked on.
K.dot didn’t start TDE. Top Dawg started the label then signed Kendrick in 2004. According to Top, Kendrick owns a percentage of TDE. But that percentage is likely lower than the co-founder stake that J. Cole has in Dreamville, Drake with OVO Sound, or Jay Z had at Roc-a-Fella Records.
Kendrick is rarely mentioned among hip-hop’s highest earners. Forbes once wrote an article about how Kendrick is *not* a cash king! He earns most of his money through music and the occasional real estate moves. Both can make money, but it’s hard to generate substantial wealth without much equity in companies.
For years, Kendrick looked past most business partnerships and stayed focused on music. His love for hip-hop is admirable, but it’s hard to ignore trends of older artists who focused on business early on and are still living well.
Folks like Diddy, Jay Z, and Master P are in their 50s, healthy, and wealthy. Music was their gateway to other businesses. Meanwhile, Black Rob struggled to afford his medical bills before he passed, and the DMX estate didn’t have much money when he died. It’s been tough to watch them struggle, knowing that they relied primarily on music-related revenues.
Kendrick doesn’t have to become a billionaire mogul to be well off. But his recent moves are a step toward a balance that can work for him. He’s always had an interest in film, so pgLang’s plans are a step in that direction. In recent years, Kendrick has also invested in both Triller and EngineEars, so he’s shifting his tone for the right opportunities.
Kung Fu Kenny may land higher on that Forbes list soon enough.
How Will TDE’s Kendrick Lamar era be remembered?
After Kendrick’s announcement, TDE’s president Terrence “Punch” Henderson shared his thoughts. “It’s funny when things change, because most of the time we automatically assume it’s something negative.”
This was a response to the narrative that Kendrick left on bad terms with TDE, but it’s also connected to broader speculation about TDE and its artist relationships.
In the age of social media, hip-hop drama gets overblown and sensationalized. The platforms rewards extreme behavior, so the truth is rarely as strong as whatever the narrative is.
Has TDE been perfect? No. SZA has aired frustrations on multiple occasions and some of its album release tactics don’t line up. But companies can still be a success despite their missteps and disputes. Don’t let hip-hop Twitter fool you.
Some of the most idolized organizations still had big issues. The San Antonio Spurs were seen as the NBA’s organizational excellence. Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich were thick as thieves. But this is the same team that had a player cheat on his wife with another player’s wife. It’s also the same team that star player Kawhi Leonard stopped trusting with medical decisions. That doesn’t take away the team’s five championships. The same can be said about the New England Patriots and their countless scandals and unhappy stars. Even the best-run orgs have had messy moments.
When Snoop Dogg said, TDE is “a better version of Death Row Records” he was right. TDE didn’t reach the cultural peak that Death Row did in 1995, but TDE’s run lasted much longer and it did a much better by its artists.
Record Labels Outlasting Their Flagship Artists
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 reminds me of the Trapital Podcast interview I had last year with Dreamville CEO Ib Hamad. He talked about his goal to separate Dreamville’s brand from J. Cole’s brand. J. Cole wasn’t leaving Dreamville, but Ib knows that the brand can’t rely on Cole forever.
That’s the future for TDE as well. It still has proven artists like SZA, Jay Rock, Isaiah Rashad, and ScHoolboy Q. But it doesn’t have another superstar like Kendrick.
Most hip-hop record labels struggle to transition from one flagship artist to another. Despite Dame Dash’s best efforts, Roc-a-Fella didn’t outlast Jay Z’s run. Murder Inc didn’t survive past Ja Rule. Death Row’s implosion after Tupac Shakur’s death has been well-documented. The list goes on. This transition is even harder now when there is more power than ever individual artist-driven brands.
Quality Control is the most recent success story. Migos was its first flagship act, and Lil’ Baby has since taken the reigns. It’s rare, but it’s easier since QC existed before they signed the Migos. Bad Boy, Cash Money, and Def Jam also outlived their flagship artists, but they are exceptions, not the norm.
TDE will try to add itself to the list of those exceptions. Perhaps Kendrick’s final TDE project will help pass the torch? Maybe the label signs another artist who can take over the reins. It won’t be easy, but TDE is up for the challenge.