The Top Dawg Entertainment label looks far different in 2022 than it did five years ago, going through several dramatic changes. Back in 2017, the peak of the label’s grip on the modern music landscape, Kendrick Lamar had just released his Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN., SZA dropped her now-classic project Ctrl, Jay Rock was still reeling from the highs of 90059 and would soon go on to release Redemption and Isaiah Rashad and ScHoolboy Q had unleashed two of the best albums from the label’s discography in The Sun’s Tirade and Blank Face LP. In the mid to late aughts, TDE was one of, if not the, most formidable imprint in rap, a label which dared to push the envelope and springboard exciting new voices without smoothing out the quirks that made them compelling.

But in the five years since the label’s peak, TDE embarked on a tumultuous path, one which found their leading star stepping aside from the collective. But Kendrick’s departure wasn’t the only issue; Jay Rock and Ab-Soul haven’t released a new project since 2018 and 2016, respectively, Isaiah Rashad’s The House Is Burning from last year felt like a step back from his excellent The Sun’s Tirade and Cilvia Demo, Reason, SiR and Zacari have struggled to take control of the reigns and SZA was publicly beefing (albeit with the potential it was a planned stunt to increase engagement) with TDE President Punch. That leaves newer signees to pick up the slack, particularly Ray Vaughn and, more immediately, Doechii.

The Tampa rapper is heralded as one of TDE’s biggest hopes and with the release of her first TDE EP she / her / black bitch, all eyes are set firmly on her to lead the label into the next generation. But if the HipHopDX Rising Star  is to reach those heights with TDE, she’ll have to recreate the magic of her pre-signing work. Doechii’s early music was teeming with energy and unpredictability. From her introduction with the viral “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake” (“Hi, my name’s Doechii with two i’s”) to her breakout guest verse on Rashad’s “Wat U Sed” from The House Is Burning, all of her debut songs felt fresh and unique; she filled a void in Hip Hop and thrived through her individuality. 

she / her / black bitch is technically sound but comes across as painfully constructed. Whereas early Doechii songs such as “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake” and “What’s Your Name?” feel spontaneous and playful, most of the songs on her latest release seem artificial and robotic. EP opener “Swamp Bitches” with Rico Nasty features some quotable lines (“That ain’t a Rollie, that’s a Casio” and “Lil’ white bitch on Depop, she a lil’ teapot/Two left feet, them Reeboks/Shawty did freelance, now she a free thot”), but the Kal Banx-produced beat feels too stiff for Doechii and far more fitting for her guest.

The EP format is often used as a sampler or teaser for a forthcoming full-length album. It’s a necessary tool in an artist’s arsenal. But she / her / black bitch is too vague with its execution and presents Doechii as an artist with half-baked ideas, when her past work has proven that’s far from the case. The project feels more like a focused attempt by her team to see which styles will best perform, not what makes the best music.

“Bitches Be” featuring Jst Ray is a strange choice, as the song not only presents itself as a blatant bite of SZA’s style, but it feels awkward and ill-fitting slotted after the rap-heavy “Swamp Bitches” and the much better “Bitch I’m Nice.” She finds a pocket on “This Bitch Matters” but again faces the disconnect between the song’s boom-bap style and the rest of the tracklist. Everything about this EP feels too broad and unfocused. Doechii has proven herself to be a properly unique artist, but she / her / black bitch could’ve been made by any number of artists — the originality is zapped away from her. It’s important to note, though, it’s just a teaser EP. However, if this was meant to showcase the direction Doechii is going, a recourse may be needed.

Isaiah Rashad Raps With Precision On Comeback Album 'The House Is Burning'

Luckily for Doechii, the “Persuasive” remix with SZA is an undeniable hit. Kal Banx easily makes up for the awkward “Swamp Bitches” beat with snappy, house-inspired production, the perfect foundation for the TDE teammates to bounce off each other. It features one of the Ctrl singer’s best contributions in recent memory and far better captures the captivating zany energy that got Doechii signed in the first place.

With the full support of TDE behind her, it seems unlikely she’ll fail, but for Doechii to pump life back into her label, she’ll need to set aside expectations and lean fully into her own sound and style.

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