Last week, rapper Kendrick Lamar was honored among GQ's elite in the magazine's Men of the Year issue. But Lamar's label boss didn't want the honor: Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, who represents Top Dawg Entertainment, unceremoniously pulled his artist from the party that accompanied the issue, calling out writer Steve Marsh's profile, "Kendrick Lamar: Rapper of the Year," for its "racial overtones."
Tiffith's statement in full reads:
In 2004, I founded Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) with the goal of providing a home for west coast artists and a platform for these artists to express themselves freely and to give their music to the world. From our beginning in 2005 with Jay Rock, to developing Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul, to most recently signing Isaiah Rashad and SZA. We, as TDE, have always prided ourselves in doing everything with heart, honor, and respect.
This week, Kendrick Lamar was named one of GQ's 2013 Men Of The Year, an honor that should have been celebrated as a milestone in his career and for the company. Instead, the story, written by Steve Marsh, put myself and my company in a negative light. 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. Furthermore, Kendrick deserved to be accurately documented. 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. Our reputation, work ethic, and product is something that we guard with our lives.
Here's what seems to be agreed upon as the most offensive quote from Marsh's piece:
Much of Kendrick's music now is an attempt to transcend his ravaged world without separating himself from it in judgment, about somehow gaining control over his household's chaos—some of his uncles were Crips, and his father was reportedly a Gangster Disciple in Chicago before moving to Compton—and over his neighborhood's warped commitment to adolescent pride. It's an ethos that extends to his crew. 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. "When I ask OGs why there's so much division in the streets—nobody never really knows," he says. "But you know one thing that everybody always mention? A woman."
There was also this, to which Triffith responded directly:
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, to his credit, didn't blindside GQ entirely with his response to the piece: He was clearly pissed after the exchange rolled off Marsh's tongue. However, it, like the rest of the piece, seems to be a truncated portrayal of a bunch of access. Certain explanatory details have been cut for the sake of brevity. For example in 2010, Lamar released a mix tape called Overly Dedicated. By Lamar's doing, Lamar's dedication is an item for discussion. It's hard to say whether specifically calling out Lamar's dedication is a confirmation of the work ethic the rapper himself brags about, or neglect of Lamar already having explained how dedicated he is.
The majority of people who wrote think pieces on this incident emphatically support the Triffith/Lamar side of the equation. Here are words from The Atlantic's Spencer Kornhaber, who categorically agrees with Tiffith, regarding the first Marsh quote above:
It's innocuous until you consider the underlying implications. The description of Lamar's crew "slightly monastic," "rigorous discipline" comes from them not getting high and Lamar not being a cad. In other words, being law-abiding and decent—which is only remarkable if we're assuming the group of people in question to not normally be law-abiding and decent.
There are reasons that assumption exists. One is that, as the article and Lamar himself notes, rap often portrays itself as hedonistic and sex-driven. But that's performance—an exaggeration in the name of self-expression, entertainment, and commerce. Why would it be extraordinary that a group of human beings, when you meet them, aren't quite the way pop culture portrays them? Perhaps Kendrick's crew is "calm" in comparison to other rap clans Marsh has hung out with, but if that's the case, the reader doesn't know it. Instead, we're expected to operate off of stereotypes. The point the piece seems to make isn't that those stereotypes are wrong or even that they describe a complicated reality, but that these particular people are exceptions.
Kornhaber also points out the article's description of Tiffith as a "basically TDE's Suge Knight," the thuggish former owner of Death Row Records, who has long been implicated in the still-unsolved murders of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls. Marsh also devotes ink to Lamar's beef with Drake. However, like the "discipline" mention, this doesn't seem particularly out of turn to discuss when discussing Lamar, partially because it's interesting and partially because the rapper is prone to on-record beef—his "Control" freestyle, in which he implored his peers to step up their rap game ("I got love for you all but I'm tryna murder you niggas...I'm trying to raise the bar high"), was among most discussed hip-hop verses of the year, and was his biggest and most memorable moment of all of 2013.
(Note Drake's name in there, which makes any real life beef the two may have particularly relevant. Also note Big Sean's and Jay Electronica's names — they both appear on that very track.)
GQ's editor-in-chief Jim Nelson responded to Triffith's allegations on the magazine's site:
Kendrick Lamar is one of the most talented new musicians to arrive on the scene in years. That's the reason we chose to celebrate him, wrote an incredibly positive article declaring him the next King of Rap, and gave him our highest honor: putting him on the cover of our Men of the Year issue. I'm not sure how you can spin that into a bad thing, and I encourage anyone interested to read the story and see for themselves. We were mystified and sorely disappointed by Top Dawg's decision to pull him at the last minute from the performance he had promised to give. The real shame is that people were deprived of the joy of seeing Kendrick perform live. I'm still a huge fan.
Giving Triffith the benefit of the doubt (assuming, for example, he's not over-emphasizing his feelings for the sake of publicity), what he's assuming is that the magazine's powers that be are ignorant and need schooling. That's reasonable, but holding his fingers in his ears while he makes a power play is not in the interest of communication or change. This is, essentially, a conversation that isn't functioning properly. There's no real etiquette to responding to such perceived "overtones," just like there's no real etiquette to interpreting a person you're being paid to profile.
For Marsh's part, here is a recent conversation he had on Twitter:
Lamar has yet to publicly respond on Twitter or elsewhere, so Tiffith's statement is the only official rebuttal to the GQ piece from the rapper's camp. It's unclear if Tiffith is using the royal "we," or if Lamar is in fact co-signing—if it's the latter, hopefully the statement represents the kind of accurate documentation that Tiffith claims Lamar deserves.
[Image via Getty]