Before Kendrick Lamar Leaves, TDE’s Top 5 Albums

Kendrick Lamar is dropping one final album with Top Dawg Entertainment. What a run they’ve had together. And what better time to look back and rank the label's Top 5 albums. 

Kendrick Lamar Top Dawg

Kendrick Lamar is dropping one final album with Top Dawg Entertainment. What a run they’ve had together. And what better time to look back and rank the TDE label’s Top 5 albums. 

5 hours and 52 minutes, by my reckoning, until midnight. We’ve got the name, what I imagine will be the lead single, and what appears to be the album’s main artwork. Now we just need the music.

But as we impatiently await the opening of one Kendrick constructed door, another one is set to close. The rapper has already announced Mr Morale & the Big Steppers will be his last album with Top Dawg Entertainment. 

“I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years,” he said. “The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators. As I continue to pursue my life’s calling.”

As Kendrick alludes to, the cultural imprint of Top Dawg is up there with the most influential of any record label this century. The sheer quality of the artists are one thing – Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad, SiR, Schoolboy Q, SZA, oh and Kendrick – but the way their sound has shaped popular music is most impressive. They have been the critical pinnacle of rap, during the era where rap became mainstream. 

Somehow, some way, I’m going to try and reduce TDE’s incredible discography to just my favourite five.

5. Control System – Ab Soul

ab soul top dawg entertainment tde

The debut of TDE’s most enigmatic and mysterious star, Control System is electric. Kendrick himself once said, “When I first met Ab-Soul, I thought he was a nerd. A nerdy, wizardish genius.” This genius and wizardry is on display across the Control System, which perhaps lacks some of the refinery of the albums below, but makes it so memorable that it has to be on the list.

‘Terrorist Threat’ is a stand out. So are ‘The Book of Soul’ and ‘Black Lip Bastard’. Ab-Soul seems like an intense dude. He’s also one of the most gifted MCs alive. I love it.

4. Redemption – Jay Rock

redemption jack rock top dawg entertainment tde

I thought Redemption was fantastic. For some reason, it seemed to disappear from memory rather quickly – after all ‘OSOM’ (out of sight, out of mind) – but maybe that was just for me.

‘WIN’ is one of Jay Rock’s best tracks, who sounded sharp across the record and enlisted class features as well. Both J.Cole and Jay Rock deliver on ‘OSOM’, 2018 about being the year when Cole, post-KOD and having no features on his own music, started showing up everywhere on everyone elses. (Brilliant verses on Anderson .Paak, 6lack and Bas tracks soon followed).

Future can obviously be a bit more hit or miss, but his verse on ‘King’s Dead’ holds a special, slightly comical place in my heart. ‘Wow Freestyle’ with Kendrick is brilliant, as is ‘Redemption’ on SZA.

3. The Sun’s Tirade – Isaiah Rashad

Isaiah Rashad top dawg entertainment tde

Although coming in at number three, The Sun’s Tirade is probably the album I feel the most personal attachment to. Isaiah Rashad set the standard high on 2014’s Cilvia Demo, and followed it up by going one further with 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade. Contemplative and melodic rap, the Tennessee native confirmed he was good enough to stand up against Top Dawg’s top dogs.

‘4r Da Squaw’ hooks you in at the start, and ‘AA’ is another great, upbeat track, but the real stand out is ‘Silkk Da Shocka’ with Syd. A genuine sad-boy all-timer. A beautiful song with a vulnerability I couldn’t do justice by trying to convey.

2. good kid, m.A.A.d. city – Kendrick Lamar

kendrick lamar good kid maad city tde

A lot of people think it’s a toss up between this and the final, yet-to-be-revealed album on this list. I don’t think it’s even close, but that’s not because there’s anything wrong with good kid, mA.A.d city.

It’s a bonafide classic. An undeniable 5-star album. Right up there with the very best, not just of Kendrick and TDE, but rap.

Like so many others, it was an album that introduced me to Kendrick and is still far and away the album of his that I go back and listen to the most. Whilst in hindsight it’s clear from the early mixtapes and the Section.80 debut that K.Dot was a star before good kid, M.A.A.d city, this felt like the moment where it became clear how special he was.

Tracks like ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, ‘Swimming Pools’ and ‘Money Trees’ are classics, but there’s another two tracks on this that are a cut above the rest, for me. ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’ is hypnotic, poignant, even funny, while ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ is as good a 12 minutes of music as you’ll ever find.

Before we get to number one, I’d like to cheat a little bit with some honourable mentions (basically everything TDE that didn’t make the Top 5) in chronological order:

  • Section.80 – Kendrick Lamar
  • Cilvia Demo – Isaiah Rashad
  • Oxymoron – Schoolboy Q
  • Untitled Unmastered – Kendrick Lamar
  • DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar (This one really should be on the list, but I’m trying to spread the love and had to cull one of his. It can’t be all Kenny. DAMN‘s a top 5, of course. Number 3 if I’m being rational. Number 4 if I remove the personal nostalgia. It won a Pulitzer for god’s sake.)
  • Ctrl – SZA

1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

kendrick tpab top dawg entertainment tde

I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I feel the same.

One could write a 100 page dissertation on TPAB. I’ll try condense it into a 100-ish word blurb.

Simply the best rap album ever.

I love Illmatic. I love Madvillainy. I love My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There’s a whole host more, all deserving of being in the conversation, but I don’t see how that conversation can end with anything other than To Pimp A Butterfly prevailing.

Endless replay value. Quality and diversity in flow, production and subject matter. Packed with societal commentary that is insightful, brave and relentless.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard ‘U’. I didn’t know you could do anything like the final two minutes of that song. Before, you couldn’t. The album version of ‘I’ is incredible. So are ‘These Walls’, ‘Alright’ and ‘King Kunta’. ‘Mortal Man’ is probably the best outro I’ve ever heard, where ‘Blacker the Berry’ is argubaly the best song I’ve ever heard. The culmination of an album that is itself the culmination of rap and hip-hop culture to date.

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