Last week, Top Dawg Ent., the record label home of Kendrick Lamar, released a statement explaining why they decided to pull the rapper from GQ’s Men of the Year Party. Calling the magazine’s recent cover story on Lamar—which referred to Top Dawg CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith as “basically TDE’s Suge Knight”—“disrespectful.” Citing “racial overtones,” Tiffith wrote, “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.”
Unlike Jay Z’s stilted legalese and unnatural wording in his statements surrounding accusations of racial profiling at Barneys, TDE’s release gives no fu*ks: “Our reputation, work ethic, and product is something that we guard with our lives.”
GQ editor-in-Chief Jim Nelson responded: “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.”
Out of context it’s nothing new—a subject doesn’t like their press coverage, makes a statement; the publication stands by their story. But taken in context, with the race card on the table, it becomes something much more complex. In this situation, both sides have good arguments, but neither is completely right. Or completely wrong.
Part of the issue is that Tiffith has, for his own reasons, mostly shunned interviews, thereby leaving a vacuum to be filled by a writer’s imagination. If you go by the scarce public information on him—his alleged gang ties, his standing as a certified OG in L.A. with serious ambitions of being a bona fide power in the music industry—the Suge Knight comparison is applicable.
But GQ writer Steve Marsh didn’t have to go off word on the street. He got to spend hours (if not days) with Tiffith. In person, Tiffith exhibits none of the arrogance that Knight so easily displayed, and anyone who can’t tell the difference between Anthony Tiffith and Marion Knight essentially can’t differentiate one type of street ni**a from another type of street ni**a, and probably doesn’t use the word “ni**a” in public. The comparison also fails because Suge pushed hard to be a celebrity, while most people wouldn’t know Tiffith if they sat next to him courtside at a Lakers game. (And he’s always there.)
Though the article referred to Lamar as “one of the best rappers ever to come out of the place that has produced many of the best rappers ever” and spent a paragraph gushing about his debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city (“practically a Black Ulysses”), most of the piece’s 2,300 words was dedicated to the not-quite drama surrounding Kendrick these past few months: his verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” his tension with Drake, a supposed altercation with Sean Combs at an MTV VMA after party in NY.
It also couched the first half of the story within a story about one of Lamar’s homies who died as result of a drive-by shooting. It’s all the kind of zoological observations and sensationalism cherished by cultural tourists when they decide to come sightseeing in Black affairs.
That’s not to say that White people can’t get it right—because they can. In the past both The Fader and NPR covered TDE with even-headed observations that showcased not only Tiffith’s leadership, but the uniqueness of TDE in the current market space. As a label, they’re still developing and incubating artists for years at a time, largely shunning the free street album/mixtape game and releasing independent albums. One wouldn’t expect GQ to get the importance of any of this, because it’s not a music publication. It’s telling that Steve Marsh tends to cover the clothing of NBA athletes for GQ (maybe he’s on their Negro beat?) and television and film for Vulture. Why was he chosen for this story in the first place?
There’s also an ancillary point about the level of access rap artists tend to give White publications. Thinking that the White man’s ice is colder, Rick Ross allowed GQ to hang out at his home and accompany him to the strip club for a 2011 story. Likewise, Jay Z bestowed “unprecedented access” upon Vanity Fair for a cover story this year. Marsh got to hang out with Kendrick on a cross-country plane ride and hang with him during the VMA’s—a far cry from the “interview them at the photoshoot” opportunity I was given when recently interviewing the entire TDE roster for an XXL cover story. And that’s not sour grapes—that’s just facts.
Ultimately, what’s offensive about the story is not what was said, but what wasn’t said. Yes, 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. But was it racist?
In reading the piece, it’s hard to see where there are any tinges of racism. Still, racism isn’t always overt, and if TDE felt there was racism going on, it’s not something that should be discounted. The invisibility of White privilege means that Whites don’t often get when they’re being racist or condescending. Just like Nelson’s admonition that TDE “pull[ed] [Lamar] at the last minute from the performance he had promised to give” doesn’t outright call the label unprofessional, a cracker doesn’t always have to call a spade a spade in order to call him a spade.