In June rapper Kembe X, raised in suburban South Holland but now based in Los Angeles, sent the hip-hop rumor mill into overdrive when he posted a photo of himself wearing a chain with the TDE logo. For the uninitiated, that stands for Top Dawg Entertainment, the label behind LA rappers Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul, the four of whom make up the Black Hippy Crew. TDE has expanded its roster slowly in the past few years, signing Tennessee MC Isaiah Rashad and New Jersey singer SZA in 2013. In February of this year, TDE founder Anthony Tiffith posted an Instagram photo of a whiteboard featuring the label’s plans for the year, which included a release schedule and two new signees, listed as “John Doe 1” and “John Doe 2.” TDE named the first artist back in May—Lance Skiiiwalker, a Chicago rapper who’ll drop his first album on the label before the end of the year. So when Kembe X posted the photo of himself in a TDE chain, the rap Internet naturally assumed he was the second.
Tiffith dispelled those rumors with a couple tweets, writing that “Kembe X is a friend of the family.” Kembe’s relationship with TDE were being established when I spoke with him, rapper Alex Wiley, and their crew, the Village, for a 2012 Reader feature; Kembe and Alex had been recruiting Isaiah Rashad to join the Village, and when I visited them in South Holland they were trying to coordinate an in-person meeting with him. The Village dissolved earlier this year, and Kembe isn’t on TDE, but it’s still a pleasure to watch him tweak and evolve his sound.
In July, Kembe self-released the album Talk Back, and its bombastic third single, “Squad Day (Work Week),” contains the same sort of thumping, soul-sampling magic that first got me hooked on his music. Kembe turns vulnerability and deprivation into a ferocious call to arms, using his hardships to fuel his drive for success: “I only ever had my mama, my world, my self.” Kembe plays Double Door on Wednesday night as part of his tour to support Talk Back; Alex Wiley headlines, and Supa Bwe and Mike Gao open.