It’s Top Dawg who penned the five-point plan that hangs on the studio wall. Modeled loosely around 50 Cent’s rise to success, the poster board details the core traits necessary to become a rap star: Charisma, Substance, Lyrics, Uniqueness and Work Ethic. Rock distills this model to an even simpler motto: “Just make good music.”
This approach might seem antithetical in an era when entire rap careers are built on viral videos and short bursts of blog buzz, but it’s working. Each TDE release is like a clinic on how to produce rap music. Alone or together, their song concepts are fully baked, their intonations are highly energetic, their cadences extend and recoil organically. Where their contemporaries prioritize attitude and surface aesthetics, they focus on virtuosity and structure. In short, they just know well enough to try and the effort is reflected in their growing fan base. As Ab-Soul, emerging from his perpetual pothead haze, puts it, “If you make a good cake it doesn’t matter where you put it or what you put it in, somebody gonna eat it.”
Soul often speaks in such colloquial wisdoms. He was raised in Carson as the child (and later, a clerk) of a minor Los Angeles record store empire—after 30 years, his grandfather shuttered Magic Disc Music in Carson last year, and his uncle just announced the same fate for his V.I.P. Records in Long Beach (where Snoop Dogg recorded his first demo and can be seen rapping on the rooftop in the “What’s My Name?” video). As a rapper, Soul comes from the lyrical side of the hip-hop spectrum, citing late-’90s thesaurus abuser Canibus as an early influence and online message board text battles as his training ground. These days he operates with a distant cool that places him on a slightly different energy level than the rest of the collective. He’s both the crew’s sage observer and, frequently, the butt of its jokes.
“Soul know he’s the mascot,” says Lamar. “When I first met [him] I thought he was a nerd. A nerdy, wizardish genius. But it was another side of him that I saw an hour later when I went outside and he had two Black & Milds in his mouth.” If Black Hippy were siblings (and they basically are) Soul would undoubtedly be the baby brother. Though, when presented with this comparison, he’s quick to point out that he’s actually a few months older than Lamar.
“They’re all from the hood and I’m from the suburbs so I’m kind of an outcast,” Soul explains. “They give me a lot of problems like I’m not down.” As if on cue, Schoolboy Q responds from the other side of the table: “…gay ass dog doing an interview!” The heckling continues, with Q eventually chiming in: “You look like a black girl’s pearl tongue.” Soul struggles to get a word in edgewise, eventually trying to reason his way out of this allegation by deconstructing the genital slang. “Pearl tongue… Explain that to me. The pearl has a tongue?” After light debate about what pearl goes in which tongue, Q abruptly abandons the anatomical considerations. “You look like a squirrel’s ass,” he says.