Rumors recently arose that Kendrick Lamar was set to leave TDE, his longtime home, to be the flagship artist on his pgLang label. He quickly debunked the Twitter speculation in a call with TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith,’ joking that the rumors “got ’em sayin’ I done shook the label and all that, man.” He also asked Top Dawg, “Why would I fall off?” That question has many layers.
“King Kendrick” was one of the biggest rappers of the 2010s. Good Kid Maad City, To Pimp A Butterfly, Untitled, and DAMN is an incredible run of albums, and there’s no reason to feel like he’s not capable of maintaining that excellence. How many albums will he drop this decade that become lauded as classics? Will his output make him his generation’s go-to choice for greatest rapper ever, especially when he’s already in a lot of top-fives?
It looks like Kendrick, unlike other great rappers who made pivots, is predominantly focused on music. But how long will music be his number one career priority? There are many exciting questions just like these surrounding Kendrick as he enters the 2020s as a hip-hop OG at just 33.
The first step in that journey could come this year. Kendrick has been mostly quiet of late — a disappointing development for those who wanted him to speak up on social issues — but we all know he’s working on an album. At the top of 2020, Billboard editorial director and current columnist Bill Werde revealed that Kendrick may “finally be done” recording his upcoming album, “and that he’s pulling in more rock sounds this time.” Werde gave an indication that the always ambitious artist was gearing to drop a new album that his fans are eager to hear — but then COVID hit.
The global pandemic has muddied the plans for many top-tier artists. While it’s been a plentiful year of quality projects, releases from artists of Kendrick’s commercial stature are events, with tours and other financial boons attached to them. A tour is obviously not happening anytime soon. TDE is famously discerning about their releases, so the uncertainty of the pandemic has undoubtedly affected the prospects of an album that was reportedly done recording ten months ago.
But hope is not lost on a Kendrick project this year. Top Dawg said in May that it was coming “soon.” He was spotted in LA in September, reportedly filming a video. Perhaps TDE has realized that our current climate is the new normal, and they might as well drop a project that’s sure to be one of the top-streamed whenever it’s released.
It will be interesting to see whether the project still has a rock influence when it comes out, and how those sonics will affect Kendrick’s approach to the project as an MC. His spastic delivery and elastic flow find a home on any type of production. To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled are some of the jazziest projects of recent memory, so it will be interesting to see how the pivot takes form.
WIll there be any other pivots coming from Kendrick? At 33, he’s still at his creative zenith. But history shows that’s not always enough to keep ambitious artists in the game. At 33, Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy an album that many of his stans regard as his best. When Jay-Z was 33, he had recently released The Black Album, his supposed ”retirement album” that’s generally placed in the top half of his catalog by fans. In 2006, Nas released Untitled at 33, a polarizing, but well-regarded album. All three of those projects showed that they could produce as long as they wanted — but rap isn’t all they wanted to do. Fashion goals began to play a larger role in Kanye’s life. For Jay-Z and Nas, it was entrepreneurial endeavors. They had all run rap so long that they were looking for their next challenge.
Will that happen with Kendrick? In March, he collaborated with Dave Free to launch PgLang, which is… still a mystery. The platform’s launch was characteristically ambiguous, with a redacted mission statement that indicates they don’t want us to know what they are until we see what they do. The recent rumor was disproven, but it still made the thought of Kendrick taking advantage of his influence and becoming his own boss an intriguing one.
We’ve seen this story occur with other top-selling rap acts of the 2010s. Drake now pushes his OVO label more than Young Money/Cash Money. Meek Mill pushes Dreamchasers more than MMG. The days of J. Cole as “Jay-Z’s artist” at Roc Nation feel like ancient history, as Dreamville is one of hip-hop’s most recognized crews. In all three cases, there’s no acrimony with their original bosses, labels, or crews, just a realization that all three men are their own entities — who could be upset if Kendrick decided to be that, too?
But of course, PgLang could predominantly be a content studio, like J. Cole’s recent bid to turn “big ideas into reality” with a Dreamville content studio that promises to extend “far beyond music.” Kendrick has created some of the game’s most creative visuals. It’s exciting to think of him and Free merging their visions along with previous collaborators and upcoming digital creators. Along with music videos would they do short films? Full-length features? The questions are endless with PgLang.
There aren’t many quotes out there that suggest where Kendrick’s head is at for the future, which is actually a good thing. His fellow top-tier rap acts like Jay-Z, J. Cole, and Drake move with an air of mystery that keeps fans plenty intrigued about their next move. With rappers now going hard into their late 40s (and Jay-Z into his 50s), we could conceivably see Kendrick Lamar making music for this decade, the next, and beyond — if he wants to. What will his catalog look like by then? Who knows. What is known is that Kendrick is set to drop a followup to DAMN “soon.” Where he goes from there will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2020s.