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SZA, Isaiah Rashad & the Benefits of TDE's Tough Love

Sometimes it takes someone outside the creative process to guide it.
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I can’t speak for every creative type out there, but for many of us, the blessing of being creatively proficient comes with the curse of never knowing when enough is enough. That same spark that makes us create in the first place eventually turns into a raging pursuit of perfection where the endpoint is rarely clear-cut, and there’s always the nagging urge to burn it all to the ground and start over.

Creatives are notoriously terrible with deadlines (sorry, every editor or manager I've ever had) and some of the most prolific and influential artists of our generation have become so by assembling a team around them that knows the difference between legitimate improvements and the hamster wheel of creative uncertainty. In a music market flooded by an abundance of talent, those special creative wranglers are often just as important to the end product as the artists themselves.

Following her acclaimed debut album Ctrl, TDE’s SZA recently told The Guardian that someone from the label essentially stole back the hard drive containing her album and arranged for it be released.

Eventually, Rowe explains, Ctrl came out in June because “they cut me off”. So who decided it was finished? “They just took my hard drive from me. That was all. I just kept fucking everything up. I just kept moving shit around. I was choosing from 150, 200 songs, so I’m just like, who knows what’s good any more?” She doesn’t know who took it, just that it was gone from the safe in the studio one day.

SZA’s account of how Ctrl was finalized and eventually released is a perfect example of TDE’s grasp on the creative process, understanding when enough is actually enough, but it’s not a lone example.

When listening to fellow TDE artist Isaiah Rashad’s most recent album, The Sun’s Tirade, there are several moments where label comrades are heard pushing Rashad to essentially get his shit together. On the opening track "where u at?," TDE co-president Dave Free can be heard chastising Rashad for how much time has gone by without receiving a cut of the album.

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While it may sound harsh to those outside TDE’s creative circle, it’s inclusion on the album points to the fact that Isaiah knew Dave was right, and the artist has since admitted in interviews to having nearly ruined his chances with the label through creative procrastination and drug abuse.

Those who have followed TDE closely know that the label operates like a family, complete with tight-knit camaraderie, shit-talking and the type of tough love that brought us fantastic albums from both SZA and Isaiah Rashad when they themselves were unsure of how the finished product might congeal.

In the case of SZA, her comments to The Guardian illuminate a trust in and appreciation for TDE’s stern guidance. The frustration of being pushed to finally put an end to the creative process quickly gives way to an admission that without that tough love, who knows what the final product might have looked like?

So after all that, this Ctrl isn’t necessarily the Ctrl you would have put out? “No, absolutely not. Any longer and I probably wouldn’t … I’m also driving myself fucking crazy, so I don’t know. Give me another month and it would have been something completely different.”

Ultimately, Ctrl came out the way it did because TDE took what sounds like a jumbled mess of creative energy and turned it into an album that highlights SZA’s strengths without sacrificing focus or quality, a practice many labels in the past have tried to execute but have failed. Rather than rushing artists in pursuit of a check, TDE’s management seems more concerned with condensing the creative energy of their artists to a palatable form, and so far, their eye for what that looks like remains unrivaled.

Whether it’s stealing hard drives, (lovingly) shaming an artist into turning in an album draft or helping its artists retain financial security, there’s a level of genuine care and guidance demonstrated by the TDE camp that plays no minor role in the outstanding quality of their finished products. The artists are aware of this, too, and eventually are able to rebound from even the most frustrating checkpoints during the creative process to accept and appreciate the kind of stringent, paternal guidance that TDE manages to provide for them.

As much as we have the artists to thank for creating an abundance of material to draw from, let’s take a moment to appreciate Top, Punch, Dave, retOne, and Moosa for their ability to see the potential in these wonderful creatives and hone that potential into something truly special—by any means necessary.

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