If you’ve ever seen Schoolboy Q live, you’ve probably seen him doing the dance he does: Both hands up, pogoing sideways, spinning, careening, head bobbling madly in every direction. It’s a chaotic, all-over-the-place dance, and I’m amazed he doesn’t accidentally whirl off the stage at least once a show. (Q started out as Kendrick Lamar’s hypeman, and I have to imagine he was a fucking great hypeman.) But when Q is doing that dance, his face tends to be blank, impassive, even thoughtful. He’s not losing himself; he’s merely conveying the impression that he’s losing himself. It’s calculated, theatrical performance. And he takes the same sort of approach to his rapping. Listen to the way he raps on “Gangsta,” the first track from his new album Oxymoron. His voice is strained and urgent, madly fluctuating among different pitches and cadences. Deep in the track, he makes a hilarious array of dizzy noises: Croaks, screeches, yips, growls, echoing back-of-the-throat grains. But all this surrounds a technically fluid, lyrically sharp I-will-fuck-you-up rap song, one that hits all the fundaments and never loses the thread. Q isn’t an Ol’ Dirty Bastard-style agent of chaos, but sometimes he wants you to think he is. And with Oxymoron, he’s devoted impressive levels of craft into making the greatest staggering-drunk rap album in recent memory.
Q’s last album was called Habits & Contradictions, but the title actually fits Oxymoron better. Habits & Contradictions presented Q the way he’d presumably prefer to be heard. It’s a weird, dark, intense, compelling album. The hooks, when they’re there, almost seem to arrive by accident, and the beats are scattered and unstable things. But that was an underground album from a promising young rapper without much name recognition, and Oxymoron is an album that comes with expectations attached. It’s Q’s first album under his Interscope deal, and you can hear the bits where the label people pressured Q to make his music friendlier than the stuff he’d be naturally inclined to make. And it’s the first album from the Black Hippy crew since Kendrick Lamar’s game-changing Good Kid, m.A.A.d. city, and there are moments where Q, or his collaborators, seem to be striving for that album’s levels of earthshaking importance. But Q isn’t the same type of rapper as Kendrick, and he’d rather bark at girls and yammer death threats than encapsulate the fears and thrills of being a young guy growing up in a dangerous area. So there’s a tension between Q’s rapping habits and the contradictions that his new circumstances have imposed upon him. But that tension works. Whatever messy compromises had to go into the album’s creation, it’s a blast hearing Q attempting to fit his giddy uncentered-hammerhead style into something resembling a commercial rap album. Even when he’s rapping next to 2 Chainz on a beat that Mike Will Made-It made, he’s constantly exploding in every direction. He can’t contain himself, and that makes it more interesting when he tries.
On a quick breeze through Oxymoron, it’s easy to guess which tracks are the ones that Interscope types insisted on, and all of them come out weird and off-kilter. The aforementioned 2 Chainz collab “What They Want” turns out to be terse and eerie, with Q lapsing into a high-pitched malevolent-Muppet voice on the hooks — not exactly “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” then. “Man Of The Year” is a celebratory song about Q finding girls to dance for him, and it’s got a glorious backwards string loop in its beat, but even its party-talk is feral and urgent rather than self-satisfied. “Hell Of A Night” is club-rap with EDM undercurrents, and maybe someone along the way thought Q had a “Wild For The Night” on his hands, but its ferocious hi-hat programming and blistering, locked-in rapping make it, paradoxically, one of the album’s toughest-sounding songs. And a song like that, it turns in, fits in just beautifully next to the low-creeping boom-bap of the Raekwon collab “Find My Way” and the slurry, cathartic six-minute fuck-you-up marathon “Break The Bank.” And if a song like the seven-minute wayward-youth memoir “Hoover Street” aims for Good Kid-style nostalgic introspection, it’s told from the perspective of the kid who dove headlong into gang life, not the one who did what he could to resist it. In its way, though, that song is just as pointed and observant as anything on Kendrick’s album; there are powerfully realized vignettes where Q describes living with a junkie uncle (“He sweats a lot, he’s slimming down / I also notice moms be locking doors when he around”) or the feeling when a friend’s older brother showed him his first gun (“we like, ‘daaaaamn, nigga'”).
And then there’s all the drug talk. In interviews, Q is pretty forthright about how he is high basically all the time. Talking to Angie Martinez recently, for instance, he confessed that he’s got a big problem with lean, even though it deads his sex drive and he can’t make good music when he’s on it. That’s why he hasn’t shown up on many other people’s songs lately; he’s not up to it. He knocked it off, he says, when he was making Oxymoron, and he’ll knock it off again before he goes back to making music. Still, drugs hang heavy over Oxymoron, and it’s clear that we’re hearing from someone who hasn’t worked through all his problems yet. As on Danny Brown’s Old, there’s a confessional element here, though it’s not as finely and pointedly realized. On “Prescription – Oxymoron,” for instance, Q talks about ignoring calls from his mother and his daughter because he’s too high to deal with anything. Unlike on Old, though, moments like that aren’t the point of the album; they’re just one more trouble that Q has to deal with. He’s living through it but maybe not trying to figure out what it means — habits and contradictions, again.
But somehow, it always hangs together, and maybe that’s where the calculation comes in. Oxymoron has plenty of smaller pleasures: The feel-good scene-stealing verses from underappreciated West Coast rap greats Kurupt and Suga Free, the jazzy psychedelic drift of “His And Her Fiend,” the razor-sharp catharsis of “Break The Bank.” But the biggest, most enduring pleasure is in hearing a rapper as gifted and unique as Q just tearing through a series of impeccably selected, expensively recorded beats. Even when you’re not paying attention to what he’s saying, Q bounces his voice off of these tracks with Tasmanian Devil fervor, switching up flows and styles often enough that the goofy buzz never wears off. Q is a complicated figure, one who’s maybe never quite sure how much energy he should be giving off or how much of himself wants to reveal. But he’s also great at rapping, and that, itself, is the best reason to dive deep into Oxymoron. “Collard Greens,” the Kendrick Lamar collab he released last year, wasn’t a big radio hit or anything, but over the months, it’s sunk in. At this point, its off-kilter bounce, its echoing hook, Kendrick’s decision to deliver his entire voice in Devin The Dude’s Zeldar voice — it all sound better than it did the first time. That song has legs, and the other Oxymoron songs, the ones we haven’t had time to process the same way, probably do too. They linger.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Beck’s warm, classicist, gorgeously downbeat Morning Phase.
• St. Vincent’s sweeping, skronky, singular self-titled album.
• Wild Beasts’ smooth, dark, cinematic art-rocker Present Tense.
• Neneh Cherry’s skittering Four Tet-produced solo comeback Blank Project.
• The Notwist’s pulsing, tuneful return Close To The Glass.
• Vertical Scratchers’ jittery, melodic post-Enon move Daughter Of Everything.
• Bleeding Rainbow’s scuzzy, urgent, impressive Interrupt.
• Creative Adult’s dark, inventive debut Psychic Mess.
• Death Vessel’s majestically quirky Island Intervals.
• Synthy Thee Oh Sees side project Damaged Bug’s debut Hubba Bubba.
• Flagland’s wooly DIY debut Love Hard.
• Yellow Ostrich’s small-scale head-trip Cosmos.
• Throw Me The Statue synthpop offshoot Pillar Point’s self-titled debut.
• Tacocat’s bubblepunk attack NVM.
• Silversun Pickups’ career-spanning The Singles Collection.
• Major Lazer’s Apocalypse Soon EP.
• Friend Roulette’s Grow Younger EP.
• Special Explosion’s The Art Of Mothering EP.