On the Black Hippy remix of “THat Part” — a remix that isn’t on Schoolboy Q’s album Blank Face LP, even as a bonus track, even though its Kendrick Lamar verse is clearly miles better than the Kanye West verse on the album version — Schoolboy Q lets loose with some furious, and surprising, invective: “Gangbanging like we stand for something when Alton Sterling getting killed for nothing / Two cowards in the car, they just there to film / Saying Black Lives Matter, should’ve died with him.” I don’t agree with those lines, and I don’t think anyone does. The people who filmed Baton Rouge police killing Alton Sterling should not be dead, and I’m guessing those lines are why the remix has since disappeared from SoundCloud. But there’s a sputtering, freaked-out rage to those lines that resonates anyway. There is no real rational response to this fucked-up, insane summer we’re having, and so people are venting all that pent-up tension at something, anything. And that stomach-churning instability is all over Blank Face LP, which, a few days after its release, immediately stands out as the best thing Schoolboy Q has ever done.
Schoolboy Q has made plenty of good music since he first linked up with the TDE collective. I picked Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron, his last two albums, as Albums Of The Week when they came out. But within the context of TDE, Q has always stood firmly within the shadow of Kendrick Lamar, a once-in-a-generation talent who tends to suck up all the air in the room. With Kendrick around, Q couldn’t really become a transcendent star. Instead, he’s been filling a similar role to what A$AP Ferg does within the A$AP Mob. He’s the consigliere, the unreformed barking tough guy who gets over by making party anthems. He doesn’t have the charisma or the immediately evident power of the star in his group, but he has something, and he makes the most of it. Or, in any case, that’s what he has been doing. Blank Face makes it apparent that he’s capable of much, much more. On Blank Face, he’s nothing less than Kendrick’s peer and equal.
He’s different, of course. Kendrick is both a light-years-beyond technician and an inward-looking seeker. Q is something else. He’s a gang guy, a Hoover Crip, and he isn’t shy about talking about it. He doesn’t have Kendrick’s insight, or his ability to see the events of his life in a larger societal context. But he does have a grimy, lived-in rage that’s capable of making a statement as grand and cinematic as anything Kendrick has made. That’s what Blank Face is. It’s a majestic album, one that draws on the sonic expansiveness of decades of West Coast rap and turns it into something serrated and personal. He comes on like a raspy demon, spitting out lines about hopelessness and survival like they’re poison in his mouth. Blank Face is a deeply druggy album, but there’s nothing calm or laid-back about it. Instead, the high it evokes is the sort where you’re sweating on your couch, gritting your teeth, waiting for it to be over. It’s a doomed, feverish record, eloquent in its hopelessness.
As a rapper, Q doesn’t traffic in immaculately prepared, beautifully worded lines, the way so many of his contemporaries do. He does have a knack for bracing, visceral imagery: “I’m riding cycs through Hoover City, my knuckles full of teeth.” But what’s most striking about him is the intensity of his delivery. His voice is hoarse, frantic. He’s not calm and in control, the way rappers are supposed to be. Instead, he interrupts himself, trails off, throws off his own flow. He’ll be completely locked into the beat, and then he’ll make some back-of-the-throat cawing noise and jag off in a completely different direction. And he’s preoccupied with violence in ways that other rappers aren’t. There’s never any peace to his music, even when he’s partying. Here’s his idea idea of childhood reminiscing: “It was cool till that gang sweep / Now I’m in back of a van and my wrists got a band.” Here’s his sort of tough-guy threat: “Pistol through your Civic / Most die before they hear it, turn a nigga to a spirit.” And he’s happiest when he’s offering up something like this: “I put the knife to the coca leaf and turn that crack / I put the nine to your coconut and pull that back.” Everywhere in his music, doom lurks. He sounds comfortable with it. It’s the outlook we see reflected in Q’s great “By Any Means“/”Tookie Knows II“/”Black THougHts” video trilogy, a cinematic work that’s naturalistic and violent and absorbing and ultimately so, so sad.
Most of the music on Blank Face comes from the members of Digi+Phonics, the in-house production team at TDE. And as with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, they tunnel deep into the history of West Coast rap to come up with the album’s aesthetic. But where TPAB lived at the intersection of jazz and G-funk, Blank Face goes in more sinister directions. Like YG’s Still Brazy, another recent masterpiece of bloodthirsty West Coast rap, Blank Face comes immersed in the loping menace of ’90s LA. But where Still Brazy drew quotation marks around those old records, Blank Face internalizes that cinematic tension and turns it into something new. You can hear bits and pieces of lots of things in the album’s sound: Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Tha Dogg Pound, Compton’s Most Wanted, DJ Quik. But the Digi+Phonics guys — as well as the other producers on the album, who range from Metro Boomin to Tyler, The Creator — turn all that into a cloud of dread. They pile the album high with screaming guitars and off-kilter horror-movie synth churns. They shroud every voice in echo and reverb. They make it sound like a nightmare. A funky nightmare.
During his New York listening party for Blank Face, Q said that the album’s sole sex song — the Miguel collab “Overtime,” buried at track 16 on a 17-song album — was a concession. The label made him put it on there. He didn’t want to do it. That’s how dedicated he was to the vision of a cohesive, violent, erratic rap album. And yet, even “Overtime” swirls darkly, never compromising the album’s sonic identity even when it’s got Miguel purring about wanting to fuck. “Whateva U Want,” the album’s sole club-ready party song, works in similar ways. It’s got an ominous synth-rumble and an R&B chorus that sounds like a ghostly echo from a doomed soul. On the whole, Blank Face is something that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago: a big-budget major-label rap album that, even in compromise, stays dark. That’s a beautiful thing.
It’s a personal thing, too. This is not a TDE group effort. Other than a breathy SZA chorus and a few buried-in-the-mix Kendrick Lamar backing vocals, Q’s labelmates never show up on Blank Face. The only ultra-famous guest star is Kanye West, whose “THat Part” appearance turns out to be pretty unnecessary. Instead, Q surrounds himself with kindred spirits, guys like Anderson .Paak and Lance Skiiiwalker, whose scraggly halfway-to-spoken-word appearances don’t quite fall under the “R&B” spectrum. And he also includes his rap elders, California heroes E-40 and Tha Dogg Pound. And he saves space for the raspy-voiced New York demon Jadakiss, whose nihilistic outlook and grisly delivery, now that I think about it, must’ve been hugely influential for Q. The Jada verse on “Groovy Tony” is the best thing I’ve heard from that guy in years: “Blank face: exactly what I’ma have when the cops come / Body language is the same as when the shots rung / Holding a 38 and a shotgun / Real nigga, we all know you are not one.” It’s the kind of sentiment Q radiates throughout the album.
After spending some time with Blank Face, I’m now convinced that Q is no longer the Ferg to Kendrick’s Rocky. Instead, he’s more like the Beanie Sigel to Kendrick’s Jay Z. He’s the brooding, dangerous presence who exists in his friend’s shadow but who, when you listen hard enough, might be every bit as great. Jay Z is one of the greatest rappers of all time, but so is Beanie. So is Kendrick. And if he can make another album or two on this level, we’ll have to talk about Schoolboy Q in those same terms.
1. Dreezy – “Spazz”
Chicago is full of tremendously exciting young rappers from Chance The Rapper’s afterschool-freestyle orbit: Joey Purp, Towkio, guys like that. And yet, the city’s most exciting rap newcomer might be this lady, who spits filthy, casual badassery over Atlanta-style beats like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Her album is out on Friday. I can’t wait.
2. Z-Ro – “No Justice No Peace”
Gravelly, virtuosic Houston legend Z-Ro spent a day watching the news and working on music with Mike Dean, who was the white, Guitar Center-looking production genius behind a whole lot of Rap-A-Lot classics before he was Kanye West’s white, Guitar Center-looking production partner. Together, they came up with the most urgent, powerful civil rights anthem that this fucked up week has produced.
3. Bricc Baby – “Activis”
During a week that didn’t see an instant classic from Schoolboy Q, I might’ve had more space to prop up Nasty Dealer 2, the bleary, unsettling, very good new Bricc Baby mixtape. (I’d also have room to say some things about Young Greatness’ equally impressive I Tried To Tell Em 2, another tape you should seek out immediately.) Instead, I’ll just leave you with one question: If Bricc Baby really drinks that much cough syrup, why does he sound like he’s been gargling hot asphalt all day?
4. Gucci Mane – “On Me” (Feat. 2Pac)
A posthumous Gucci/Pac collab makes no sense whatsoever, and it comes out sounding incredible. The world is an amazing place.
5. Towkio – “Work 4 Me”
I would like to build a house out of those drum sounds.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"me no conversate with the Blake" – tHat sHark
— Molly Lambert (@mollylambert) July 12, 2016