On Thursday, Ringer Films debuted Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss, its sixth and final installment of the first volume of the Music Box series. To mark the occasion, we’ve ranked the top 100 rap songs of the 2010s and are looking back at a few of the movements that defined the genre in the decade, including the SoundCloud rap scene that birthed Juice as an artist. Check HBO’s listings or HBO Max to watch the documentary.
Kendrick Lamar’s connection to Top Dawg Entertainment, the label he’s been signed to since he was a teenager, predates its existence. On “Duckworth.,” the final song on his fourth album, 2017’s Damn., the Compton rapper spins a four-minute story revealing the depth of his bond to TDE founder and CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Back in the ’90s, Tiffith, two feet firmly planted in the streets, spared the life of a KFC employee who happened to be Kendrick’s father, Kenny “Ducky” Duckworth, during a planned robbery attempt. “Who ever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight …” As a noted monotheist who’s uniquely in tune with his spirituality, Kendrick has been candid about the power of faith and fate in his world. “Duckworth.” acknowledges that when he met Tiffith years later, it was a life-changing twist of the latter. Had Tiffith robbed that KFC and murdered Kendrick’s father, it would’ve denied the world of one of hip-hop’s greatest unions.
TDE, which Tiffith founded in 2004 after building a recording studio in his Carson, California, home, rose from obscurity to become the prototype for independent success in hip-hop during the 2010s. It took over an industry that had been knocked off balance by the same music blogs instrumental in the label’s ascent. Each pillar of the label’s initial core (Kendrick, the overly dedicated thinker; ScHoolboy Q, the growling jokester; Ab-Soul, the walking conspiracy theory; and Jay Rock, the label’s stoic bedrock) brought their own dynamic to the table, but fit together perfectly as the unofficial group Black Hippy. TDE’s grassroots success led to a partnership with Interscope Records and Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, allowing it to secure major-label resources while retaining its independence. Soon enough, TDE branched out beyond hip-hop and Greater Los Angeles, signing New Jersey singer SZA and Tennessee rapper Isaiah Rashad. The reach grew as the roster did. In 2017—when Damn. and SZA’s Ctrl were released—Billboard reported that TDE accounted for nearly 5 percent of the market share in hip-hop and R&B that year. To date, five TDE releases have topped the Billboard 200, TDE artists have won 13 Grammys, and SZA and ScHoolboy Q have developed into bona fide stars alongside Kendrick. Still, no star has burned brighter than his. Kendrick has achieved widespread critical acclaim and commercial success at the highest level, but the sheer scope of his work—in addition to its quality—from 2011’s Section.80 through Damn. has made him one of the biggest artists in music. (He’s become a go-to signal of virtue for white people eager to show their cultural awareness.) He and TDE’s collaborative efforts have made him the greatest rapper of his generation while the label has set a standard by operating on its own terms. But after 17 years, that relationship is coming to an end.
Following radio silence, rumors of his exit, and a statement playfully refuting them, Kendrick announced in August that his highly anticipated fifth album will be his last on TDE. “I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years,” he wrote in an open letter. “The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators.” It’s natural to wonder what led to this major development, but Kendrick’s description of Tiffith is nearly as intriguing. It gets to the root of what made TDE excel for the past decade: It created an atmosphere for its artists to flourish and gave them the freedom to be who they are. Together, Kendrick and TDE ruled an era of hip-hop through a perfect blend of rogue artistry and commercial appeal, showing what’s possible when a virtuosic artist is given the space to become that.
Although TDE operated like a well-oiled machine for the majority of the 2010s, the success was not immediate. Its first major-label encounter came in 2007, when Jay Rock, TDE’s first artist, signed to Warner Bros. through Asylum Records. Label restructuring left his debut album, Follow Me Home, hanging in the balance for three years after the deal fell apart in 2010. The experience made TDE wary of dealing with majors, but shaped how it handled the rollouts for Kendrick and every artist that followed. “I said, ‘The Internet is about to take over this shit, so let’s target that,’” Tiffith told Billboard in 2014. This sparked TDE’s direct-to-consumer strategy, as Kendrick’s Overly Dedicated mixtape was initially released exclusively to digital retailers like iTunes in 2010. The buzz he earned through the support of blogs such as Nah Right, 2 DopeBoyz, and RapRadar helped Section.80 debut at no. 113 on the Billboard 200 the following year without radio support.
TDE also sent its artists out on tour together while the label was ascending, including as much of the roster as possible regardless of how big their audience was. This helped each of them cultivate their own fan bases during the moment when fellow millennials were watching artists their age seize the spotlight for the first time. When the time came to work on individual projects, the whole label was roped into the creative process—that’s why, in addition to guest appearances and uncredited background vocals, you got instances of pure brilliance like “Ab-Souls Outro” on Section.80. But beyond the support and resources, TDE got out of their artists’ way creatively, save for the expected feedback. Each TDE artist has their own eccentricities, but this autonomy did wonders for Kendrick, whose tendency to switch flows and cadences, sometimes mid-verse, is key to his artistry—love it or hate it. The leverage that TDE established as an indie outfit gave Kendrick the leeway to indulge in his quirks and ambitions, leading to a string of intricate concept albums that garnered sweeping mainstream approval once he broke the plane.
Despite some thematic overlap, Kendrick’s four albums employ different approaches to cover a range of topics. Section.80 echoes the plight of a generation prone to self-medication because it was born in a powder keg and left with nothing but scorched earth to make the most of. 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, his major-label debut, is a layered, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale complete with a Maya Angelou cameo. 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most dense, knotty, and audacious pieces of music of the 21st century, exploring Kendrick’s struggle with his newfound success and broader issues of Black identity. Fuck the Willie Lynch theory (which is based on a fabrication, anyway), “Wesley’s Theory” speaks to a tangible threat: Uncle Sam at your figurative door with his hand out. “Alright” became a protest anthem because it offered a salve to anyone buckling under the weight of state-sanctioned violence against Black people and every other form of institutional racism. And on Damn., Kendrick examines his life, front to back, while wrestling with the concept of fate and his own mortality against the anarchic backdrop of the Trump administration. Each of his albums have captured the frustrations, soul, and spirit of Black America in their own way, but anointing him the “voice of a generation” is trite: Kendrick doesn’t speak for other dysfunctional bastards of the Reagan era, he speaks to us, those born in its aftermath, and countless others.
Sonically, Kendrick’s music has been as daring as his articulation of the subject matter, reaching beyond hip-hop to incorporate jazz (both smooth and strident) and dizzying funk on To Pimp a Butterfly, then reeling things back in for a sound more in line with contemporary hip-hop on Damn. And impressively, all of the music has been extremely well-received no matter how big a swing he took.
No hip-hop album has remained on Billboard’s album chart longer than Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. To Pimp a Butterfly became Kendrick’s first no. 1 album, then Untitled Unmastered, a compilation consisting of To Pimp a Butterfly demos, followed suit in 2016. Every song on Damn. is certified platinum by the RIAA. And in 2018, Damn. became the first hip-hop album to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. This honor came just months after TDE released Black Panther: The Album, which was curated by Kendrick and executive-produced by him and Tiffith. A Pulitzer and a Marvel bag certainly don’t validate TDE or Kendrick’s work, but they do speak to its reach—particularly the former, because it shows what’s possible when an artist with tremendous potential comes up in the right situation. “It’s less about the award and more about the concept of people that came before us and the people that’s gonna come after us,” Free, then TDE’s copresident, told Vibe in 2018. “That’s what you do it for. It’s about shaking up the system and showing people it doesn’t have to be the way it’s supposed to, the way you think it’s gon’ be.”
2018’s Championship Tour was conceived as a well-deserved victory lap for TDE, but in hindsight, it was the beginning of the end of the label as it had been known from a structural standpoint. Free, Kendrick’s longtime friend and former manager, left TDE in 2019. In early 2020, he and Kendrick, who directed several videos together as The Little Homies, founded the media company pgLang. Perhaps this was the first piece of writing on the wall. Later that year, Reason, who joined TDE in 2018, told HipHopDX that the label was “going through a weird time” and mentioned that Kendrick hadn’t released new music “because of family things.” “Love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family,” he wrote in the announcement of his final TDE album. Kendrick is notoriously private, so he’ll likely keep the specifics close to the vest, but family—which has always been central to him—appears to be integral to his next phase.
Baby Keem’s “Family Ties,” released a week after his cousin Kendrick’s note and featuring his first verse of 2021, is a glimpse of the future. Keem’s debut album, The Melodic Blue, was released through Columbia Records and pgLang. Tiffith previously told Billboard that Kendrick “owns a percentage of TDE”; now Kendrick and Free are the top dogs with full control of whatever they create moving forward. In an Instagram post confirming Kendrick’s departure, which expressed “FULL support” for his future endeavors, Tiffith wrote: “It’s been an honor and a privilege for TDE to bless the world with the GOAT!” Kendrick is not without flaw (making a woman the personification of evil on arguably his greatest artistic achievement is a decision worthy of critique, to say the least), but even at barely 5-foot-6, he looms over his peers through a rare blend of technical skill, commercial viability, and ingenuity. TDE nurtured this by creating the environment for him to blossom into what he’s become; now he’s positioned to pursue exactly what he wants with the cachet of being who he is. Lamenting their impending split is understandable considering what their relationship has produced, but as Kendrick promised, new flows are coming and the chances of him treating this grand finale like a contractual obligation are unlikely. Kendrick’s previous album concluded emphatically with a gunshot; you can bet he wants to end his TDE career with a bang.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.