It's Monday, and the TDE/GQ thinkpieces are starting to roll in.
To recap: On Friday night, we learned that Kendrick Lamar—recently named GQ Magazine's Man of the Year, and thrown on the cover of the magazine with an accompanying feature profile in the issue—did not perform at GQ's vaunted Man of the Year party. Even more, he opted out of performing in protest, as a comment on the cover story GQ's Steve Marsh wrote about Lamar.
And we learned this because we got a press release telling us so. Straight from the CEO of Lamar's label imprint and management company, Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith of Top Dawg Entertainment.
In the release, Tiffith explains that GQ's story, written by Steve Marsh, threw him and his company "in a negative light," and goes on to explain:
Marsh's story was more focused on what most people would see as drama or bs. To say he was "surprised at our discipline" is completely disrespectful. Instead of putting emphasis on the good that TDE has done for west coast music, and for hip hop as a whole, he spoke on what most people would consider whats wrong with Hip Hop music. The racial overtones, immediately reminded everyone of a time in hip-hop that was destroyed by violence, resulting in the loss of two of our biggest stars. We would expect more from a publication with the stature and reputation that GQ has. As a result of this misrepresentation, I pulled Kendrick from his performance at GQ's annual Man Of The Year party Tuesday, November 12th. While we think it's a tremendous honor to be named as one of the Men Of The Year, these lazy comparisons and offensive suggestions are something we won't tolerate.
And the key passage in the piece that was mentioned in TDE's press release:
Twenty minutes later, Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, basically TDE's Suge Knight, asked if I had had a fun day. I said that I had and that I was surprised by their discipline. "You guys seem so calm," I said. "Well," Tiffith told me, "we're going to have to call it a night with you, because we about to get uncalm. You understand."
Tiffith took offense to the line about being "surprised" at TDE's discipline. Writer Jas Fly weighed in on that line and more, in a post to her Tumblr titled "KENDRICK IS RIGHT BECAUSE KANYE IS RIGHT":
Steven Marsh’s ‘surprise’ at TDE’s discipline is the same obnoxious backhanded snobbery that has plagued Hip Hop, lower socio-economic groups and people of color for generations. Classism is the new (accepted) racism. It’s an acknowledgement of low expectations based on a pre-judgment. It is not a compliment. It’s biased ignorance based on their thoughts on a particular person, group or culture. It is the idea that encloses around us, caging us into a narrow room marked ‘what we’re only good for.’ [....] What happened with Kendrick was simple: the machine we’ve revered acknowledged the gap between them and us.
Far be it from us to tell you if the GQ piece was or wasn't objectively offensive. That kind of determination should probably be made by your own reading of it, and what you take away from it.
As for GQ, their own statement in response to Tiffith—that they're mystified and disappointed by Tiffith's reaction—won't do anything to help the case of those arguing that the piece wasn't offensive.
Can you blame them, though? The editors at GQ would never knowingly publish something they knew to be offensive, at least in this way. Clarifications at this point would only put more chips on the table, and having already felt misconstrued on this story, they're not about to toss any more slabs of meat to the lion's den that is a royally pissed-off Internet.
It's easier to jump on the Angry Internet Gravy Train that is being angry at seemingly oversized institutions like GQ than it is to ask questions of TDE's side of things.
That said, it's easier to jump on the Angry Internet Gravy Train already very angry at traditional press institutions like GQ than it is to ask questions of TDE's side of things.
For example: The GQ party was held on Tuesday, November 12th. Why'd Tiffith send the release three days later, on Friday, November 15th? Was it simply because he just didn't get around to doing so? Or because nobody had yet noted Lamar's ostensibly significant absence from the party?
Strictly speaking in terms of shrewd business tact—which Tiffith has made clear is something we definitely shouldn't be surprised to see from him—TDE has nothing to lose by pulling Kendrick Lamar from the GQ party.
Pros: Kendrick doesn't have to play a show he probably wasn't getting much (if any) money for. More attention goes to the fact that Kendrick Lamar was named Man of the Year on the cover of GQ. And TDE gets to start and occupy the center of a conversation about the level of respect it deserves from everyone, by making an ostensibly brash move in protest for equality.
Cons: Kendrick Lamar doesn't get to entertain a GQ party. Especially conservative magazines might hesitate before putting K-Dot on the cover. But more likely than not, they won't, because a good cover is a good cover.
In other words, there are no cons.
Once they scored the kind of press that comes with a GQ cover story, TDE was in the clear to either go with the program, or go their own way and make more publicity lemonade out of the story. And they did, by not playing the party, and issuing a release about it three days later, leaving everyone to talk about it over the weekend. But putting aside the possibility of business savvy, what about the comments themselves?
For Ebony, Kris Ex writes:
Positioning Tiffith as an analog of one of the most reviled rap moguls ever is bad form. And ignoring the label’s accomplishments—Lamar’s debut major label album was certified platinum; he made Forbes’s Hip-Hop Cash Kings list this year—is poor journalism. The coverage was definitely lazy and disrespectful.
Let's start with the contention that Marsh left out any mention of TDE's accomplishments, specifically, the fact that the album went platinum.
From GQ's story, about 1,200 words before any mention of surprise or comparisons to Suge Knight:
"Good kid, m.A.A.d city sold an industry-shocking 241,000 copies its first week and went platinum this summer."
Also, from the story:
- On Kendrick's following: "A tweet from him to his 2.4 million followers…instantly [had] fifty-six retweets. After one minute, 600. After two minutes, 1,000."
- On Kendrick's critics: "Kendrick's major-label-debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, dropped, to universal acclaim."
- On the cycle of the "Control" verse: "'Control' leaked on YouTube late in the day on August 12; for a solid week, it was the biggest story in music. Just a few weeks after that, Kanye announced he was touring solo for the first time in five years and that his opening act would be Kendrick Lamar."
The story isn't exactly short on mentions of Kendrick Lamar's accomplishments. As for a lack of mention about TDE's accomplishments? Maybe that expectation would be more fair for a story about TDE.
Many of the critical takes on the piece—including Tiffith's—note the comparisons to Death Row and Suge Knight. Let's forget, for a moment, that Lamar himself explained in the story how Tupac once appeared to him in a vision.
To rule out that possibility that Tiffith knew exactly what the upshot was, here, would be to deny him the expectation of that business savvy he and others argue GQ did with their story.
Are the comparisons to Death Row so potent that they, as Tiffith notes, "[remind] everyone of a time in hip-hop that was destroyed by violence"?
If so, then this passage certainly seems out of place:
They have a seriousness of purpose, a rigorous discipline that can feel slightly monastic at times. Kendrick doesn't smoke weed or drink booze. In the time I spent with him, I never witnessed anyone roll even the thinnest spider leg of a jay, nor did I see Kendrick so much as glance at the many, many girls around him.
There's that word again: Discipline. Characterized as "slightly monastic." If nobody should take note that the hottest rap posse in America lives life less like a 24/7 party and more like a straight edge touring van, the state of narrative might be in trouble.
Furthermore, Marsh's surprise at TDE's low-key, sober "discipline" comes right before Tiffith explains, in his own words, that they're about to do the very thing that contradicts the image of TDE has has:
"Well," Tiffith told me, "we're going to have to call it a night with you, because we about to get uncalm. You understand."
To not include this exchange in a profile about Kendrick Lamar would be to sit on a piece of a story everyone was talking about for days when it happened. It's the sixth-to-last paragraph in the piece, which stands accused of being "focused on what most people would see as drama or BS."
If you can find criticism of the story reflecting that view prior to TDE issuing their Friday release—from anyone—we'd love to read it. Tiffith, for his part, said nothing of the sort when responding to Marsh's ideas about dicipline nor indicated any issue until the release was sent out.
And neither Tiffith, nor any writers, said anything when he was compared to Suge Knight in an interview with Vibe as recently as August, either:
TDE is the first West Coast label in a long time to produce quality music and success similar to Death Row’s. What do you feel are the similarities and differences between the two?
I respect Suge for what he’s done in music. He had the coast booming. They had a star roster; I think I have a star roster. Shit was a lot wilder back then and I think shit got a little out of control in certain situations. I try to stay calm; I try not to have the big entourage because sometimes when people see so many dudes moving they want to challenge you. We got a lot of similarities, but we don't club like they clubbed ‘cause you always got someone that want to come and try some shit.
As for noting TDE's steadfast ascent and where work ethic comes into play? From that same interview:
You're a West Coast guy who's well-respected in the street. Now you're a respected music executive. How were you able to make the transition?
Really, just hard work, learning lessons as we go.
Kris-Ex isn't wrong when he writes that if "TDE felt there was racism going on, it’s not something that should be discounted." Neither is Jas Fly, when she writes: "We have to tell this truth. We have to point classism out as we do racism." And this all goes without saying that the only people who will fully understand the intentions and the dynamics of that exact exchange will remain Marsh and Top Dawg themselves. Everything else is what we take away from the piece as individuals, and there's never any harm in having a meaningful conversation about classism, racism, and where we don't or do see it.
All that said? To offer up the possibility that TDE was making less a passionate statement and more a smart, calculated move is cynical, sure.
But to rule out that possibility—the suggestion that Tiffith knew exactly what the upshot was here, and that he was acting out of something less than the purest and most passionate intentions—would be to deny him the expectation of business savvy that he himself will tell you he's earned. It's that same savvy he and others argue GQ denied him with their story. That'd be, in Tiffith's words, "completely disrespectful."
And if there's anything TDE has demanded of all of us as this has played out, it's most definitely respect.