Top Dawg Entertainment is already one of music’s most prominent labels, but the home of Kendrick Lamar, SZA and ScHoolboy Q could be on its way to conquering Hollywood next. The imprint’s recently announced involvement in Black Panther’s soundtrack feels like the beginning of that journey toward film and television dominance.
It might seem surprising, but CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith has actually been hinting at this for months. “People really don’t know that Kendrick owns a percentage of TDE,” he told Billboard in September. “The movie, the TV shit that we’re working on, Kendrick’s going to be executive producer on whatever we do.” In 2016, the label teased TDE Films and, more recently, Top confirmed that Black Panther: The Album is just a sign of things to come. “We’re always working on new goals at TDE,” he said. “So teaming up with Disney, Marvel Studios and the Black Panther film makes perfect sense.”
These “new goals” also make perfect sense because TDE has shown Hollywood potential for years, thanks in part to its very own in-house directorial powerhouse. As “the little homies,” Kendrick and label president Dave Free have become highly acclaimed directors, masterminding magnificent visuals like “Alright” (with Colin Tilley), “ELEMENT.” (with Jonas Lindstroem) and “HUMBLE.” (with Dave Meyers). That type of music video success could spill over into theaters, as the likes of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek and Antoine Fuqua have shown in the past. In 2015, I asked Free about the little homies’ plans during an interview with MTV News. “This is really a hobby,” he explained at the time. “It hasn’t grown into a business yet. It’s definitely going to get there: movies, film and everything else.” Nearly three years later, one can’t help but wonder if that time for “movies, film and everything else” is now.
SZA, who broke out with last year’s Ctrl, would be another major player in this Hollywood takeover. Her love of film and television has been well-documented throughout her career, including references to Forrest Gump on “Love Galore,” Martin on “Go Gina,” The Wizard of Oz on “Prom,” and The Green Mile on “Green Mile.” She’s even named songs after actresses like “Drew Barrymore” and “Julia” (as in Julia Roberts), but her own destiny might end up being behind the camera like the little homies. In June, the TDE songbird was asked if she’d ever take a stab at directing movies. “Yeah,” she told Vulture, adding that she’d even asked Dave Meyers (who directed “Drew Barrymore”) if she could intern for him in the future. It looks like the director’s chair awaits SZA too.
Scripts shouldn’t be hard to come by. After all, Kendrick is frequently celebrated for superb storytelling on tracks like “How Much a Dollar Cost,” “Sing About Me” and “DUCKWORTH.” Fellow Black Hippy stars Ab-Soul (“Book of Soul”) and Jay Rock (“Fly on the Wall”) are lauded for their own gripping narratives, while ScHoolboy Q has already made a mini-movie out of tracks from 2016’s stellar Blank Face LP. Whether turning existing songs or albums into movies or crafting new scripts altogether, TDE’s storytelling prowess should be able to transfer from instrumentals to script pages with ease.
Naturally, scoring would be an integral part of this equation. Thanks to a stable of internal producers like Sounwave, Tae Beast and Willie B, that shouldn’t be a problem for TDE. In 2015, Sounwave actually revealed that he already looked at his job under that light while crafting To Pimp a Butterfly’s outro. “We needed to score this amazing movie to close out the album,” he told Spin. “We ended up putting together a jam session that produced two hours of stuff, that allowed me to take bits and pieces and fit it together, and really make it like a score-type movement.”
Kendrick has also gotten the stamp of approval from Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who produced his Alicia Keys collaboration “It’s On Again” for 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now, Black Panther brings the label closer to that potential, with songs from the soundtrack being intertwined with Ryan Coogler’s film. One of the project’s newest songs, “King’s Dead” (featuring Lamar, Jay Rock, and Future), even references the movie’s characters, blending the worlds even more seamlessly.
Beyond Coogler and Zimmer, Hollywood has clearly been paying attention to TDE’s moves. Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins, for example, claimed To Pimp a Butterfly inspired part of Moonlight’s opening; Issa Rae said SZA heavily influenced Insecure’s score; and Emmy-winning director Ava DuVernay (The 13th) has celebrated Kendrick’s “strong narrative” visuals and “electric” onstage aura. Recently, writer/director David Ayer (Training Day) said Lamar was also at the top of his list of rappers he’d like to work with, during an interview with Rap-Up. “He’s got a real presence,” he said of the Compton rhymer, who could follow in the footsteps of rappers turned big-screen power players like Ice Cube, Will Smith, Common and Queen Latifah.
Last year, Don Cheadle made an interesting revelation about Kendrick Lamar, which feels even more relevant today. After appearing in the little homies- and Nabil-directed video for “DNA.,” Cheadle said he tried and failed to tap Lamar for one of his projects in the past. “I maybe wanted him to try his hand at acting, which he was very reticent to do at that time,” Cheadle told Pitchfork. “He didn’t feel like that was his lane and said he wasn’t ready…He was like, ‘Nah, I don’t do anything unless I know I can do it.’” With TDE Films quickly becoming a reality, K-Dot seems to know that he can help lead Top Dawg’s Hollywood takeover now more than ever. For now, that starts with Black Panther: The Album, which is due Feb. 9.