Top Dawg Entertainment is already one of rap’s most lethal labels but 2016 might be its biggest year yet. Last week, CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith teased the roster's rollout plan with a preview of their upcoming projects. After taking home five Grammys last month, Kendrick Lamar kicked things off with the surprise release of Untitled Unmastered. Now, the label’s co-president Terrence “Punch” Henderson and longtime A&R/producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears tell Billboard (separately) why there’s even more to be excited about.
“Just be ready,” Sounwave says. “It's a lot. Everybody's just about done with their projects, locked and loaded, so whenever the big dog Top Dawg is ready to press the trigger button, that's when we're gonna go.”
Here's what to expect from each TDE signee in the next 365.
“Right now, we’re wrapping up [ScHoolboy] Q’s project,” Sounwave says. The follow-up to Q’s dynamic LP Oxymoron is already garnering praise from Punch, noting Q's lyrical gems.
"What’s standing out to me right now, is [Q’s] attention to detail,” Punch explains. "The details in his bars is way up. To me, he’s way more lyrical on this album than he’s ever been. There’s a certain imagery that he’s bringing out in this one. I’m an album guy so I like all of those intricacies throughout the whole project.”
Ab-Soul is also chipping away at his forthcoming project, which follows 2014’s These Days… Presently in the mixing phase, Soulo’s next effort is set to be an introspective one, according to Punch.
"Soul’s whole thing is him trying to find a balance within himself,” he says. "I don’t want to speak on that one too much or give too much away because you’re gonna hear it on the album, but it’s definitely deep in self-reflection."
SZA will also be making a special delivery this year. The songstress, who is still in the late creative stages of her follow-up to 2014’s Z, has been keeping busy following the Rihanna collaboration “Consideration” and even a BRIT Awards performance with the bad gal. When it comes to her own effort, though, Punch gushes about TDE's First Lady.
"Her project is bananas right now,” Punch says. "It’s phenomenal. Between her last album and this one, there’s so much clarity in her vocals and her tone. It’s much more deliberate than it was on [Z]. There was a lot of ambient, vibe-y, moody type sounding records [on that album]. With this one, she’s giving you her, with a level of clarity that you haven’t heard from her yet.”
One of the newer label additions, Isaiah Rashad is also crafting his follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed Cilvia Demo. Though still in the creative stages, the project’s showing his development and ability to try new things, Punch says, while noting that his essence remains the same.
"[Isaiah’s] showing a whole lot of growth musically,” he adds. "He’s experimenting with different sounds, different instrumentation [and] he’s still bringing across that same level of pain that attracted me to him in the first place.”
As the camp preps their next releases, another Top Dawg act is working on recovering from a major motorcycle accident. Jay Rock, who’s been crafting his 90059 follow-up, recently underwent surgery to repair a broken femur and a broken hip.
"He’s recovering,” Punch says. "It’s going to be a process. He was hurt pretty bad. He was in the midst of recording his next stuff. The best part was that there wasn’t no type of head injury so he got all his senses.
“It’s a lot of pain right now,” he adds. “But he went through the surgeries or whatever and he out the hospital, just recovering now. He’s gonna be good though. He’s in good spirits, for sure.”
On Top's whiteboard, TDE looks ahead to 2017 with a "possible release" -- the Black Hippy compilation. The rap collective -- comprised of Kendrick, Soul, Jay and Q -- is still a dream that could eventually become reality. Sounwave says he’s been asking about the project “in all the meetings” as well but the Black Hippy LP requires locking all four MCs in a room, according to Punch.
“That’s the thing. Everybody has their individual careers, so it’s tough to find the time for everybody to get back together," the co-prez explains. "We’re really just going to have to block out a couple of months, or however long, and just lock everybody in the studio like the old days.”
Sounwave mirrors these thoughts. “We don't like to send records, e-mail verses,” he says. “When we get into the studio, we get everybody into the studio. It has to be the best vibes and work [being] put forth. So we take our time with it." He also says, "I'm sure [the Black Hippy album] will happen, but as of right now I can't tell you when.”
What Sounwave can tell fans is that he’s going to start working on his own material. “Everybody's in my ear like, ‘Dog, what are you doing? You have to start a project,’” the producer says, without specifying a timeline. “I finally hit that point to where I felt like I'm ready. Once I get Q settled, then I can put a lot of focus on my project as well. Everybody else is just about ready to go so it looks like I should have enough time to do something for myself.”
Punch is on the same wavelength as Sounwave. As Billboard reported earlier this week, he’s also eyeing a solo LP. “I think I'mma do a project for sure," he said, without giving an exact date. "I think I'm going to finally finish it.”
John Doe 1 & John Doe 2
There are two TDE acts who have yet to be formally introduced. Currently known as "John Doe 1" and "John Doe 2," Sounwave kept mum about the new signees while Punch was a little more open.
First, he denies the rumors that he is one of those John Does, and second, he says followers can expect originality from the unknown acts. “What I can tell you is that, from our track record, everybody has their own lane,” he says, “And everybody’s original.”
There’s still no information about when the John Does will be dropping new music. One of them was listed on Top’s board as “TBD” while the other is in “2nd stage creative.” That might sound a bit confusing, but Sounwave broke down their creative stages.
“Your first phase is literally trying to figure out what direction you want to go in, what type of beat selection,” he said. “Once you get that, something might spark an interest and then it's phase two, eliminating the first phase. Then eventually you get to the third phase, which is like, ‘This is the core of my album, let's do it around this.’ That's how the different stages work.”
Although TDE has plenty on deck, the label also plans on giving each release its own space. “We like to give the artist their breathing room,” Sounwave explains. “Like, if Q's coming out, we like to put 100 percent focus on Q. Everybody on the label is gonna focus on Q and it's not like Q comes out and then the next week we're gonna put out another artist. No, we want that record to get as much recognition as possible so everybody's going to just push for that.”
The label’s pushing for great strides this year because, well, that’s what they’ve been doing every year, Sounwave says. TDE’s 2016 takeover is simply the next step in that process.
“We always hit our goals, and we set our goals to be even higher and higher each year,” the producer explains. “As long as we keep on actually climbing that level of success, then I'm happy. Everybody's in a good place, everybody's happy, everybody's ready to go. I just can't wait to see what happens from this point. It's always getting better. Never settle. Our motto is, ‘Hustle like you broke.’ So even though everybody got money, we still have the mindset of being super, dead broke. Stay hungry.”
--Additional reporting by Dan Rys