Over the course of 18 studio albums, 19 mixtapes and one championship-induced tour, TDE proves that HiiiPower’s philosophy is still the movement.
“A lot of people don’t understand. They think it’s just a song. It’s really a big movement that we’ve got in L.A. that’s spreading like wildfire. HiiiPower: the three i’s represent heart, honor and respect. That’s how we carry ourselves in the streets, and just in the world, period.” – Kendrick Lamar to HipHopDX in 2011.
At present, it’s difficult to imagine TDE as anything less than the “mafia of the West,” as anything less than the label that’s home to some of the biggest national and international names in hip-hop—in all of music. But in 2011, on the heels of Kendrick Lamar’s debut Section.80, the label was just cobbling together its guiding philosophy of HiiiPower. Between the final two tracks on the album—“Ab-Soul’s Outro” and “HiiiPower”—Lamar and Soul wax poetic on the three pillars that inform both their music and their lives at large.
Ab-Soul breaks down the existence of HiiiPower as a byproduct of desperation and necessity, claiming they “started HiiiPower because our generation needed a generator,” and in the third verse, Lamar agrees: “See I spent twenty-three years on the earth searching for answers / ’til one day I realized I had to come up with my own.” Lamar’s quest for answers will haunt him for albums to come, permeating the poems of To Pimp A Butterfly as well as the vexed nature of 2017’s DAMN. Despite the ache of DAMN., his search for answers, his attachment to HiiiPower has not been fruitless—neither for him nor his labelmates.
The tenets of HiiiPower extend into and color each TDE release following Section.80. In recent memory, the pillars of heart, honor, and respect pair most closely with SZA’s CTRL, SiR’s November, and Lamar’s own DAMN. Parsing through each of these albums, we’ll find that whether or not these artists were conscious of their choices or not, their work exemplified the teachings of HiiiPower, delivering the pertinent messages to their fans regardless of their familiarity with the concept.
CTRL is undoubtedly marked by SZA’s heart, her willingness to be vulnerable in a way that is altogether endearing and approachable. The record is more than a grip of love songs and break-up anthems, it’s a fully realized body of work that catalogs the hoops the heart jumps through to get love from others and from SZA herself. Consider each track on CTRL a trial the heart must conquer, and while themes of loves lost are nothing new, it’s the conviction laden in this HiiiPower tenet that makes CTRL a refreshing and genuine listen.
Her attendance to her heart is why CTRL can play with as much ache and grief as it can glee and triumph, the tenet, in part, free SZA and informs her multifaceted approach to emotion. On “Drew Barrymore,” SZA mounts an internal view, critiquing her own heart as a last-ditch effort to achieve self-love. These threads follow her to “Normal Girl” and the gutting ballad that is “20 Something,” but by the final voice memo on the album, we see that there is enough love in the world for SZA, and for SZA to love herself.
On November, SiR does the honorable thing, showcasing all the low points in his love life, and accepts responsibility for the downfall of his relationship. A victim of his own ego, we have to applaud November because of the honor implicit in confession, how he humbles himself in order to grow. He admits to his own malintentions on “That’s Alright,” singing “All her little friends can’t stand me / ‘Cause they know, I would trade her love for a GRAMMY,” with little regret in his voice, but there’s a brief sonic break to let the weight of the admission settle. That blip of silence, the moment of honor in truth, keeps SiR from being crushed by his demons.
When the woman SiR hurts on November finds a healthier love, he lets her go, and in many ways, there’s honor in that passing of energy as well. “Now she don’t know me, ’cause somebody treatin’ her better,” he sings before admitting to all his faults on the second verse of “Better.” A title that, ironically, works as a double entendre to remind us that through his vulnerability, SiR is becoming a better man.
For Kendrick Lamar, there is respect, there is reverence, and there is the word of God. His 2017 album, DAMN., was enveloped in these themes from the first skit to the final bar, and even in the reverse tracklisting of the album. The record purports a fear of God and a fear of man, but not one that paralyzes, one that empowers. For DAMN. is driven by respect and from that respect comes an understanding of power and the weight each mortal man carries on his shoulders.
Once Lamar arrives at Godly status on “God,” the camp in his vocal delivery suggests an unparalleled reverence. Or, more simply, imitation is the highest form of flattery. There is subversion here as well, wherein Lamar pokes fun at those who believe materiality makes them holy, and to mount such a position, he must have respect for the scriptures that guide the record—he does. Lamar may be most aware that he is subscribing to the tenets of HiiiPower in his music, but that does not lead to him laying it on too thick. There are nuances and air to his layers that make his music accessible at every level of depth.
Armed with all of these connections, though, we have to wonder, how impactful has HiiiPower been since its inception in 2011? How effective have TDE been in disseminating their message while keeping the music from being pedantic, and do they run the risk of watering down their message altogether? With the threads presented about and the hundreds more to be made, the good news is that HiiiPower is not an easily dissolvable concept.
While the droves of fresh TDE fans aren’t entirely aware they’re hearing the tenets of HiiiPower in song every time they press play, they are receiving the message nonetheless. The messaging is strong, and in that strength, each of TDE’s albums has their own spirit and energy that gives them an implicit weight, something for listeners to sink into. So while there’s a lack of awareness for HiiiPower’s message in 2018, there are no shortage of ideas permeating not just TDE releases, but adjacent acts.
Meaning, in our quest to determine which matters more, a strong message or a strong awareness of said message, we have to admit that it is a bit of a moot point when the final product is sharp time and time again. A TDE fan can go their entire tenure without once reflecting on or researching HiiiPower, but they will undoubtedly walk away from the music, which is endowed with wisdom, a more conscious, heartfelt, honorable, and respectable person.
Whether or not you’re putting three fingers in the air, as Ab-Soul attests on “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” enlightenment is the true key. The one indisputable fact is that TDE’s releases will always enlighten the listener and carry a call to action. “Stand for something, or die in the morning,” as Kendrick Lamar would say. “Just call the shit HiiiPower.”
Donna-Claire Chesman is an East Coast-based music writer, who loves Big L and The Fugees as much as jazz and her pet parrot. Her work appears on DJBooth, Okayplayer, Vinyl Me, Please, Pigeons and Planes, Mass Appeal, XXL, and others. Find her on Twitter @DonnaCWrites, if you’re so inclined.