Album Review: ScHoolboy Q Redefines Gangsta Rap For 2016

It was not until ScHoolboy Q‘s 2014 album Oxymoron that I fully realised how important he was, not only for his talents, but for his remarkably unique position in the modern hip-hop landscape. 29-year-old Quincey Matthew Hanley has bridged the gap between then and now, between the traditional and modern, the gangsta and the conscious – and this has never been clearer, more well-presented, nor more crucially relevant, than on his new album Blank Face. 

Along with his Top Dawg Entertainment brethren (including Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Isaiah Rashad and Ab-Soul), ScHoolboy Q has become one of the most respected rappers today, which is not a statement to take lightly, considering gangsta rap has by and large given way to more trending-friendly schools like trap, singing-rap, and any rapper born on the internet. With that in mind, last week’s album release has clawed its way into my mind and my ears, and the more I listen, the more I learn. Much like labelmate Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 knockout To Pimp A Butterfly, there is so much to absorb and unravel, and the more you decipher, the more layers you uncover. There’s absolutely nothing surface level about this record. Oh, and there’s no goddamn autotune. 

ScHoolboy Q’s gravelly tone, heavy subject matter, and citation of Tupac, Biggie and 50 Cent have unsurprisingly earned him the title of TDE’s “bad boy”. But Blank Face is no traditional gangsta album, although old school guests like Dogg Pound and E-40 may initially suggest otherwise. Throughout the seventeen tracks, totalling a lengthy seventy two minutes, he addresses ordinary themes with extraordinary sagacity; gang life, money (earning and spending) guns, drug dealing, women and life on the streets. But where many albums stop there, these only form part of the Blank Face landscape – here, they’re explored and analysed within a context.

Gangsta rap is often criticised for espousing and glamourising a destructive, criminal lifestyle. Blank Face does not encourage or endorse. It opens a window into a dark, often painfully real world. This album reveals all angles of a detailed, dangerous place we usually only see one side of. ScHoolboy Q presents intimate tales of a troubled world, all atop the meanest beats, heaviest bars and some of the smoothest jazz of 2016.

From the first moments of the first song, it’s clear that Blank Face will draw more than a few comparisons to To Pimp A Butterfly, the devil to its angel, the yin to its yang. While the opening track of Oxymoron was the woozy and aggressive Gangsta, the first sounds we hear on Blank Face are a sleazy bass, a cacophony of distant voices, Anderson Paak and a distorted guitar. The first words on the album are “I’ll trade the noise for a piece of divine,” courtesy of Paak. We later find out that this line has been sampled from the album’s title and penultimate track, which features one of Paak’s most confronting verses to date. 

Q’s first line is “This that, fuck the blogs.” Well, he may not care about my opinion, but I sure as shit care about his. The first verse covers it all: smoking and drinking at school, gangster life (“Boyz N the Hood wasn’t even close”), girls, money, racial profiling and more. “Summertime, we don’t trust n*ggas in winter clothes,” he reflects, later revealing, “This be the realest shit I wrote.”

In a recent interview, Q told Rolling Stone that the initial songs he recorded for this album were swathed in depression and sadness. He’s left in a pre-hook, noting, “Who needs a motherfucking friend? You see them motherfuckin’ rims?” as if to say he’s got so much money that he needs nobody, no real connection. Anyone whose been there knows that that mindset is only a bandaid, not a cure. Loneliness manifests rapidly once you can no longer ignoring what’s going on within. It’s what you do next that matters.

The multilayered lyrics continue; “runnin’ errands for grams, the paramedics at Tam’s.” He’s not just dealing dope, he’s dealing with its destructive consequences, too (both of addiction and the lifestyle – he’s been vocal about both). Musically and thematically, the opening track is a Blank Face overture, showcasing every aspect of what’s to come; musically, jazzy instrumentation, melodic hooks and big, brash beats; thematically, gangsta ideals, introspection, bravado and an icy look back over your shoulder at the streets you once called home.

From there we head into the gritty gospel of Swizz BeatsLord Have Mercy, in which Q takes a moment to reflect on his sins. The following two are the big pre-release singles – THat Part featuring Kanye West (later remixed by Black Hippy) and Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane ft. Jadakiss. It might just be because I’ve heard them so many times now, but these are among my least favourites. Kanye’s verse in particular has always felt lacklustre and weak, albeit catchy. That said, the worst songs on an amazing album are still miles ahead – and Jadakiss’ new verse on Groovy Tony is mint. The only skippable track on the whole record is Overtime, featuring Miguel and Justine Skye. To be honest, this is almost exclusively because Q recently admitted that he dislikes this song and that it’s only on the album because his label insisted. It’s not objectively bad (although much as I love Miguel, his over-sexed hook is undeniably basic), but to know that Q himself sees it as a blip vetoes any chance of connection. 

Kno Ya Wrong is one of my favourites. It opens on a choppy jazz instrumental, twinkling piano and brass. ScHoolboy’s tone is so gritty and animated, it naturally lends itself to anger and aggression, but is just as grounded in soul and emotion. This is a beautiful, understated track, which also features new TDE signee Lance Skiiiwalker, who delivers one of the most memorable, clever earworm hooks of the record with, “Girl, go jump in my back account, so I can deposit you, I’m going through withdrawals and I can’t afford to lose you.” The wailing guitar, too, makes this so special. An amazingly thorough blend of music and themes at play here. 

The selection of guest voices on this album is inarguably the best since TPAB, and yes, I’m taking TLOP and Coloring Book into account. To hear Q and Vince Staples flip bars on Ride Out is a dream come true. The pair reflect on the gory, graphic details of a life of violence and drugs, spat atop immense, blaring Sounwave production – those bass snarls, embellished with machine gun sound effects and flitting percussion is like a shot of adrenaline through the heart.

JoHn Muir is admittedly not a track that stood out to me straight away – until I saw this:

Realising I may have overlooked something special, I went back, and quickly discovered how strong it was. Named after his school, we walk through his streets, his family. In one of the most stark and confronting moments on Blank Face, he reveals: “Pissy sofas, sharin’ food with roaches, I’m gangsta, Crip, my poppa was a bitch, left me where hope just don’t exist. And every neighbour got a fence with bars on windows, my mom’s slavin’ for the rent.” 

In addition, Kendrick Lamar is without doubt responsible for the hook on this song, although uncredited, identified via that weird, deep voice that we also heard on King Kunta, Swimming Pools (Drank) and others.

Anderson Paak, Staples and SZA are the cream of today’s crop, but it is the throwback features that are worth talking about. He recently said, “If y’all noticed, I always get OGs on my albums… I usually don’t fuck with young ni**as,” which not only reaffirms the talents of his twentysomething contemporaries, but is a marvellous “fuck you” to the many who just grip onto here-and-now trending artists for hashtag-worthy features. Dope Dealer ft. E-40, like Ride Out, talks the hustler life. E-40’s verse might sound goofy to trap kids, but that’s no matter. His lyrics are dextrous as ever, and it fits the dark instrumental perfectly.

Big Body ft. Dogg Pound’s unpredictable rhyming schemes and sprightly Tyler, The Creator-produced instrumental have a slick, panicked To Pimp A Butterfly vibe, but Dogg Pound’s guest verse is one of my least favourite on the album. Interestingly, it so directly exhibits what’s changed about gangsta rap. For instance, it’s the only time we hear the word “slut” on the record. It doesn’t fit in, but the OGs are given a hall pass in the same way that you don’t tell your grandparents off for being racist homophobes.

That said, this album is hardly soft edges and introspection; it’s still gangsta, but it’s done differently. Dope Dealer, Big Body, Str8 Ballin and more could easily be interpreted as straight up celebrations of the hustle; the hardened, macho exterior is there, but the conscience beneath the surface has begun to emerge.

There’s a couple tracks with female guests, too. WHateva U Want features an airy hook from Candice Pillay, in the closest thing this album has to a love song. Q offers his girl a material world – money, cars, travel, “small shoppin’, hope a hundred thousand enough.” But it’s not as rosy as it seems – Q is quick to remind us exactly how he’s getting that coin. “Good weed and pain pills, big boy, we bringin’ in mils.” The best part comes right at the end, when Pillay surprisingly assures Q, “I don’t need your money, honey, I just want your love.”

With the exception of Overtime, the last few tracks on the album are my favourites. Neva CHange featuring SZA is so beautiful – a rolling bass, distant flutes, melodic synths, and her raspy hook. The theme of this song is touching, too, reflecting on the soberingly honest, human trait of not learning from one’s mistakes. These powerful verses, alongside Black THougHts and the Anderson Paak-featuring title track Blank Face, make up the album’s most socioculturally relevant and harrowing songs, made only the more powerful by how strongly they ring true today. The tracks address racial profiling, stereotypes, the relationship between black communities and law enforcement, and much more. That they were written more than a year ago says enough. 

Just this month he posted lyrics to Black THougHts in response to recent shootings, before revealing that they had been written months earlier.

This album is a triumph, and representative of so much more than ScHoolboy Q’s talents. This album is heavy, hard-hitting gangsta rap, in a way which not only suits a 2016 audience (ie rough as ever, but now with a freshly calibrated moral compass) but is astonishingly pertinent to the world we live in right now. It is certainly the most understandable and harrowing gangsta album of our time – one that both reflects on his own upbringing with unparalleled insight, and one that teaches us – yes, even us all the way over here in Australia – about the frank reality of a world so frighteningly real. ScHoolboy Q has taken themes often cast aside and criticised for their advocation of violence and crime, and turned it into one of the most introspective, thought-provoking records of the year. The timing is almost uncanny: the world has never needed this album as much as it does right now.

ScHoolboy Q Blank Face Tour Dates

Friday November 4: Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Saturday November 5: This That Festival, Newcastle
Tuesday November 8: Eatons Hill, Brisbane
Wednesday November 9: Festival Hall, Melbourne
Thursday November 10: Metro City, Perth

Tickets and more info here.

Image: TDE