The young L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar is well on his way to becoming something truly special. Section.80, Kendrick’s very strong 2011 album, was the work of a ferociously talented rapper and a restless, emotive mind. It wasn’t perfect — it chased a few too many half-baked ideas down different rabbit holes — but it felt like the beginning of something exciting. And a couple of months ago, I saw a room full of UVA students chanting along with nearly every one of that album’s twisty stanzas. The kid is catching on in a very real way. And now it’s worth noticing that he doesn’t come from a vacuum. In many ways, Kendrick is an heir to a long-storied L.A. rap underground that’s historically found ways to be fun and adventurous in equal measures; he’s got a ton of Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship in his creative DNA. And Kendrick is also one fourth of Black Hippy, a loose L.A. crew that includes three other rappers nearly as talented and inquisitive as Kendrick himself. Two days ago, Schoolboy Q, another Black Hippy member, dropped his new album Habits & Contradictions on iTunes. And like Section.80, this one seems like the work of a young, not quite fully-formed visionary. I wouldn’t be surprised if thousands of college students were frantically attempting to memorize its verses at this exact moment.
Within the ranks of Black Hippy, Kendrick is probably the most introspective member, whereas the relatively blunt-edged Jay Rock is the hardest. Schoolboy Q rests somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Habits & Contradictions has plenty of talk about drugs and guns and robbery, but it generally doesn’t attack these topics in standard rap ways. Instead, we get tracks like “My Homie,” a dense and wounded story-song rapped from the perspective of a kid fuming in prison after his friend ratted him out. That’s a common trope in rap — consider Jay-Z’s “A Week Ago” — but it’s almost never rendered with the sense of raw betrayal that Q brings to the track. Along similar lines, there’s stuff like “Raymond 1969,” a volatile and menacing track about feeling trapped in the underworld. And though there’s plenty of rote sex-talk and bragging on the album, it’s delivered with style and stuttery, polysyllabic force.
Q is very much a part of the internet-rap zeitgeist; I know people who think he stole LIVELOVEA$AP away from ASAP Rocky with his verse on “Brand New Guy.” And that comes into play on Habits & Contradictions. ASAP guests, as do all the other members of Black Hippy and a few other surging weed-and-sneakers types like Curren$y and Dom Kennedy. But Q doesn’t really need all those guests; he switches his voice up often enough that his voice never feels repetitive over the album’s hour-long playing time. Sonically, the album also covers a lot of ground. We get a few fun and surprising sample choices: Genesis’s fluttering “Firth Of Fifth” on “Gangsta In Designer,” Portishead’s wracked “Cowboys” on “Raymond 1969.” Lex Luger gets a chance to try out a crackly stoner-rap sound on “Grooveline Pt. 1,” whereas a track like “Druggy Wit Hoes Again” has a bloopy Casio-bounce simplicity. Sounds twist and ripple and constantly change, and that’s how the Black Hippy kids seem to like it.
I didn’t get an advance copy of Habits & Contradictions or anything. There’s a lot going on in this album, and I’m only beginning to pick it apart. But from jump, it’s pretty apparent that this is an exciting piece of work from an artists who’s still finding his voice. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good, and I’d be willing to bet that Schoolboy Q will do even better things further down the line.
Habits & Contradictions is out now on Top Dawg Entertainment. And this week, there are also a few other albums out that are worthy of some attention. Kathleen Edwards’s Voyageur is lovely and sonically sophisticated singer-songwriter folk-pop; Justin Vernon co-produces the album and helps bring the expansive instrumentation. Loma Prieta’s I.V. is harsh, explosive Converge-style post-hardcore with some impressively layered musical ideas. The Big Pink’s Future This is perfectly competent big-chorus Brit-rock. And the American release of The Boys, the album from the apparently ridiculously popular Korean girl group Girls Generation, has some unbelievably catchy tracks on it, even if the attempts at American pop-radio crossovers fall totally flat.