It all starts with Kendrick Lamar.
In the months leading up to the release of ScHoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions 10 years ago today, Compton rapper and fellow Black Hippy member Kendrick Lamar was putting his imprint on the Blog Era and Southern California rap. Lamar, a signee to Top Dawg Entertainment — a Black-owned independent rap label based in Carson — was best known for a Lil Wayne tribute mixtape and the 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated. His July 2011 debut album Section.80 made waves for the euphoric “A.D.H.D.,” celestial production, and its Goodie Mob-meets-2Pac penchant for making approachable songs about societal issues such as teenagers’ sex work, drug use, and beauty standards for Black women. It’s a respectable record – a start for a rapper with a dexterity that took him years to perfect — but it isn’t quite the album its partisans make it out to be.
Kendrick fans that long for his independent days are as delusional as his call to forget about your ethnicity. Despite including the excellent “Rigamortus,” Section.80 is an overrated record that tries for half-baked ideas on Society™ like someone who slept through the class on Reaganomics. Its attempts at tinfoil-hat galaxy-brain raps pale compared to Goodie Mob and Prodigy, or even Kendrick’s own post-Obama-administration work. The raw writing on the record aspires to be something you’d read on Reddit; instead it lands at the Hotep section of the Black Student Union of USC. Some of the eccentric thoughts and ideas on Section.80 can be endearing, but when Kendrick raps about a teenage sex worker, it is oafishly telegraphed. “Keisha’s Song” thrice uses Rosa Parks’ name metaphorically to tell the story of teenage sex abuse. “Tammy’s Song” takes a story about mischievous men and suggests that women turn to other women when men cheat, something that would be straight out of the books from Steve Harvey.
Despite the album’s flaws, it created a lane for TDE and the rest of Black Hippy, the group that comprised Kendrick, gangster rapper Jay Rock, conspiracy theorist Ab-Soul, and former military brat-turned-convict ScHoolboy Q. The ninth track on 80, “The Spiteful Chant,” featured Q in rare form, rapping desperately about not seeing his daughter, being saddled with poverty, and only having his Glock on him but still coming up through his hardships. It was the preview of the on-the-run drug-using trials-and-tribulations raps that would eventually make Q a household name. Where Kendrick was cerebral, Q rapped like he had no control; he couldn’t wait to say what he had to say. TDE went from recording in their home studios to Kendrick being featured on Drake’s Take Care a few months later in November. It had been a long time coming, but the socially aware, appealingly nerdy, yet ultra-competitive upstarts at TDE were coming up towards the end of the Blog Era and heading to the mainstream. ScHoolboy Q was looking to add to that.
“I used to leave the house, be gone until 6 in the morning, and my mom never even knew”, the rapper born Quincy Hanley told the L.A. Weekly a decade ago. After his parents broke up at an Army base in Germany, ScHoolboy Q’s mom moved him back to her native Los Angeles. Q grew up in the notorious Figueroa streets, less than two miles from where Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans were in the midst of the record-setting, rule-breaking college football dynasty. When he was 12, Q joined the 52 Hoover Crips. “My homies were doing it and I wanted to do it,” he once told Complex. “I can’t really explain that. I didn’t get into it [having beef] with another hood or anything like that. I was just following the leader. I wasn’t thinking about it – like it was nothing. When I was 16, it got real for me, like, ‘Damn, I’m really gang-banging.’” Despite a buzzing high school football career as a wide receiver, Q was lured into the streets by his friend Floyd’s brother. The athlete-turned-gangbanger sold Oxycotin. Following a six-month bid for a home invasion and some inspiration from 50 Cent, Q started rapping.
Q’s music had the smell of someone who sold Oxy. There aren’t details about his hands being ashy because of long winters in the cold, his car parked in the travel lodge, or how much lean he makes. It felt like a ride to the darkest corners of humanity. Music for the nihilistic deeds of the block. The sweet spot in the middle, for both the drug dealers and the drug abusers. Where Kendrick’s songs and albums were moralistic, like miniature John Singleton or Spike Lee works, Q was amoral. He often portrayed gang life as cynical and inevitable; he asked for forgiveness from God but claimed the man upstairs never heard the request. Yet even at his darkest, there was hedonism in his hellscape. His music was for the hopeless, recorded after benders that cleaned his pockets even more than they already were.
This made Q feel like the most captivating TDE artist at the time. All the nerd kids in the high schools preferred Kendrick off the bat. His Drake feature was hypnotic, and his do-good attitude, like Pharcyde meets Andre 3000, was infectious. But the hoopers and the rough crowd liked Quincy. Biggie Smalls once said you’re either slingin’ crack rock or you’ve got a wicked jump shot. Across the country, a generation later, Q played into that same bifurcation for Black kids in the hood. Habits & Contradictions opens with “Sacreligious,” where Q states, “We look up to entertainers, ballplayers, and pistol-bangers.” This is not exactly the truth. Even in the most crime-infested neighborhoods, there are working-class Black people around. But rappers are not known for their sociopolitical veraciousness. The bottom line is that Q’s neighborhood has driven him to his feelings of decadence, hopelessness, and violence.
Q moves throughout Habits with volcanic energy, exemplified by the single “Hands On The Wheel,” a self-indulgent party track featuring Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky and built upon a sample of Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit Of Happiness.” Rocky, who had released the seminal Live.Love.A$AP mixtape just months earlier, was Q’s spiritual connection. Q’s music with Kendrick was fine; it ultimately fit because of their proximity to one another. But it was with Rocky where Quincy always sounded the best, never more so than with “Hands On The Wheel.” “Brand New Guy,” their collaboration on Live.Love.A$AP, had made waves from Harlem to Houston, but that song was defined by its jigginess. It was one huge Tumblr track, designed for the art guys that said they had dreams of being like Rocky and his running partner, A$AP Yams. “Hands On The Wheel” was different. Q was headed to a house party on Figueroa with Rocky, hellbent on driving under the influence of pills, weed, lean, and ecstasy. The song brought them some minor fire: Hot 97 radio host Peter Rosenberg, whose brother-in-law had passed away after being hit by a drunk driver, once asked Q about the message he was sending. But Habits & Contradictions was at its best when death was in the corner of your mind.
Q’s melodic ability, now gone from his music, was present on tracks like “Oxy Music.” So was his chaos. On the last verse, he alternated from background vocals to primary vocals like the devil on one shoulder fighting with the angel on the other. If there is something Q’s music is missing now, it is that old sense of discomfort and stop-start unpredictability. He would lash out, or sound steady, or quietly talk to himself. Now, his ad-libs are conveyed comfortability. His production is less risky too. “Raymond 1969” recounted the history of the Crips over Portishead a year before the Weeknd sampled “Machine Gun.” Q was in rare form, opening with the couplet: “They say the gangsters are back, gave God a heart attack/ Red eye insomniac, let’s get this fucker live.” Q was at his best as a heretic in the desolate Los Angeles nighttime heat, scoffing at the God you thought existed, like Doughboy with an Rx in his side pocket.
The production on Habits & Contradictions was consistently excellent. The likes of Mike Will-Made It, Alchemist, DJ Dahi, and Lex Luger laced Q with the moody backdrop that he needed, and their unconventional samples became templates for a subversive, herky-jerky record. On Lex Luger’s great “Groovline, Pt. I” beat, which sampled Marlena Shaw’s “Feel Like Makin Love,” Q and guest stars Curren$y and Dom Kennedy sounded slick telling a sybaritic story of a rap world Q was about to belong to. By far, the best beat and song on the record is “NigHtmare on Figg St,” with its interpolation of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas In Paris.” It sounds like an alarm clock to what is going to be the worst day of your life.
Q was never the best rapper out of his young West Coast peers, but he was making the best music. Like Odd Future, Q had rhymes that would assuredly put a priest into a hospital with one-liners like “Drive to pussy more than I drive to church.” But where Odd Future was otherworldly and demonic, Q always stayed within his humanity: See Alchemist’s “My Homie,” a Jay-Z-like story of betrayal with a casual delivery. It was that dynamic — the nonchalant tone — that made Q stand out from the earnest Kendrick. Still, the contrast that sometimes made them seem like ill-fitting teammates could work to their advantage too, as heard just one track later on “Blessed,” where Kendrick followed up Q’s verses about a dead friend with an intense guest verse about appreciating where you’ve gotten in life. “Blessed” is not available on streaming services, but it remains the best collaboration Q and Kendrick have ever done, the sound of both rappers’ strengths crashing into one another. A couple more songs and Habits & Contradictions‘ wild ride was over, having established the most interesting character on the West Coast at the time. Q was the amoral gangster, the groovy rapper, and the Oxy user with boisterousness. And he wasn’t playing on the golf course yet.
It’s ironic to say all this now that Kendrick Lamar is the most widely acclaimed rapper on the planet. good kid m.A.A.d. city added to a lineage of classics about coming of age in a neighborhood meant to get you to turn on one another. To Pimp A Butterfly is a claustrophobic and unrelenting album about depression and the status Kendrick feels as a Black man in this country. TPAB and DAMN., his best one, are both widescreen albums about his dynamic as a Black celebrity in America. They have the look of serious records, and they are, with songs like “Alright” becoming rallying cries for a movement (much to my chagrin because of his sometimes conservative politics).
Meanwhile Q’s music has weakened. The debauchery is gone. The nostalgia for a time where it was fun to revel in our insecurities and complexities is gone. It’s safe now. There’s no friction and it often feels like the work of a bloated artist who is looking for his hunger again. CrasH Talk even had an ill-advised Travis Scott feature. Blank Face LP is solid, but if that is supposed to be a classic rap album that paints vivid pictures, the signature on the bottom has faded and the tailoring is off. For a while, Q was better than Kendrick. He was more dynamic as a rapper, made a much better album, was more fun to follow on a daily basis, was less didactic as an artist. Habits was an example of a tortured man who did not know what to do in his life yet. Between the devil and deep blue sea sat ScHoolboy Q, tormented by his uncle’s drug use, his homies no longer being there for him, and his self-torpedoing brain.