Today, Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular, respected rap artists on the planet, but his label boss at Top Dawg Entertainment, Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, wasn't so sure he had "it" when the two first met.
In a new interview with Billboard for their inaugural Hip-Hop Power Players issue, which features Lamar and Tiffith on the cover, TDE co-presidents Dave Free and Terrence “Punch” Henderson revealed that Kendrick had to prove to Tiffith he was up for the challenge.
"He probably won’t admit it, but Top didn’t get Kendrick early on," Henderson says. "That’s why I think my relationship to Kendrick was so interesting: I got what he was doing."
During their first meeting, Kendrick told Top he was "ill," to which Top replied, "All right, prove it." "Kendrick got into the booth and rapped for an hour straight," Free says.
Top might have been the first person to put Kendrick's skills to the test, but he certainly wasn't the last. In 2013, less than two years after Lamar inked a label deal with TDE and Interscope/Aftermath, Kendrick got the chance to work with Eminem on "Love Game," a song from his The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Before Kendrick put pen to paper, though, Eminem made Kendrick clear the room, write his verse and record it, with only the engineer present.
Here's Ed Sheeran, of all people, telling the story this past January on The Zach Sang Show:
"Eminem heard that Kendrick Lamar was the best rapper and he invited him to the studio to get him on a song. He arrived and Kendrick came with all his mates and Eminem said, 'I just want you in the studio, just you on your own. And then my engineer is gonna come in and then record you doing it. But your mates aren’t allowed in.' Eminem said that he did it to test Kendrick because he thought he had a ghostwriter."
The days of Kendrick having to prove himself to a label owner or a rap superstar are long gone, but you could easily make the argument that, without being doubted throughout his career, Kendrick wouldn't be the game-changing, chart-topping, multi-GRAMMY award-winning, Platinum-certified artist that he is today.