“Yahk, yahk, yahk.” So rings the call, the proprietary Bat Signal issued forth from one Schoolboy Q to the members of the Black Hippy movement. As the happenstance jester of Kendrick Lamar’s TDE court, Schoolboy Q spent his early rap years serving primarily as hype man: a lean-sipping, stoned-out, caricature-turned-indie darling. He is as upfront about his proclivity for addiction as might be expected of someone that really did bang, thus far embracing the, “No risk? No thank you.” sentiment set forth on his debut Habits and Contradictions.
His initial crack at delivering on the promise fostered by indie released, widely acclaimed H&C—this time with major label backing and the brand recognition associated with his rap-game consuming crewmate K Dot—experiences only a slightly deleterious A&R-associated effect of having too many eyes, ears, and fingers on the project. On Oxymoron, Q is on a drunken, weed-fueled bender, and he wants everyone to know it. He is the nearest approximation of Snoop Dogg’s early-90’s rapacious stoner, having blown fully past passive addict, into the stratosphere with the maniacally strung out street preacher; the man with problems too transparent to attempt to publically eschew; the battle-worn, jaded virtuoso and their ilk. A rumpus affair, Q slaloms trashcans in the back alley between Gangster and Faded Streets. Whereas Lil’ Wayne reached in his pocket and pulled out a party, Q has a trench coat on and is supplied with whatever you need: weed, coke, ‘scripts, guns. His daughter tells us as much at the album’s onset: “Fuck rap. My Daddy a Gangsta.” Oxymoron, then, fits squarely into place as a grimier, less coordinated album than de facto gold standard good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and the less-lionized, more insurgent Control System by labelmate Ab-Soul. But that is Q’s aim; he will incite a riot with no plan of action but to spark up a blunt, cool the fuck out, and revel in the chaos.
Schoolboy Q is a nimble-enough rapper, with the chops to massage his shortcomings (a penchant for sloppily cobbling together punch lines; a would-be alienating, spasmodically isolationist persona that pops in and out of his rhymes at will, at times abrasive when he means to be mainstream), and he appears on Oxymoron having honed and refined his craft to commendable results. He excels in degrees only hinted at on Habits and Contradictions, waxing lyrical about his youth on “Hoover Street,” flipping lines like, “Think about it, the smoker ain’t got shit and everyday he still get a hit/ Whether jacking radios or sucking dick/ Sell his kids and chop his wrists and sealing his lips/ Cause he don’t want the feds arresting his fix.” His hooks are crisp and he storms into a verse like a bull elephant: headlong, but with a deliberateness that sets scores of lesser rappers at his feet. Q’s distinctive voice buries the lede beneath its wizened rawness, turning roisterous, aggressive romps to insouciant affairs mechanized by all seven capital vices. His skill is aided by the same acute predilection for storytelling featured prominently on Habits, brought forth further into the limelight on Oxy. Songs like “Gangsta,” “Hoover Street,” and “Break The Bank,” highlight a commitment to drudging up the past and turning it over easily, almost flippantly, like loose dirt. The album is not without its club-ready bangers too. Lamar-assisted “Collard Greens” has an earworm tick-bounce-hang-bounce formula, and both rappers staccato-flow blithely over the top. Fellow singles “Hell of a Night” and “Man of the Year” go hard, benefitting particularly from Q’s beguiling hooks and an ethereal backing loop that allows space for his voice to hold hostage the listener’s little grey cells.
Schoolboy Q holds his own against some seriously formidable talents on the album’s guest spots as well. While the aforementioned K Dot proves with his Spanish wordplay that he is still the prevailing man atop the hardware in the trophy case (just ask Mackelmore), Q is seen here pressing hard against the glass, testing its tensile strength, ready to break through. TDE come-along Jay Rock turns in a strong verse on “Los Awesome,” and Tyler, The Creator produces the perfect track to show off two of the most menacing voices in the hip-hop world today in he and Q. On “Blind Threats,” Raekwon’s indefatigable flow upstages Q on his own shit, blending slickly in with the film noir atmosphere. The Mike Will Made It ode to vintage Three 6 Mafia suffers from an uncharacteristically bland, uninspired 2 Chainz verse, but Q saves song by bowling it over, unleashing a barrage of “this that’s” that outline his modus operandi—drinking, fucking, selling hard—with a stain of cold blood. BJ The Chicago Kid’s chorus on “Studio” helps to highlight a particularly strong stretch of the album between “Hoover Street” and the hazy, recoiling “Prescription/Oxymoron,” in which Schoolboy Q again employs his daughter, ignoring her growing concern, accentuating a not-so-subtly poignant characteristic of addiction.
In all, this is an album that strives for, yearns for, and approaches the illustrious heights achieved by Q’s crewmembers and chief rivals. But it’s in this compulsory need to try to be everything that it falls just short. There is a notion that Schoolboy has been coerced on Oxymoron into condensing what we already know about the man and then serving us all Schoolboy, all the time. Which should, perhaps, be enough. He does not want for ability; he does not need any added charismatic flourishes. Even his habits and contradictions as a rapper are endearing, or at least suit his personality. There are no outstanding attenuated tracks on the album—nothing that in the first five times through I felt compelled to skip over. I can’t help sensing, though, that this album would have been better polished and served by incorporating some new direction or theory. Perhaps Kendrick had it right, going light-concept as a way to filter his thoughts and give his talents a distinct venue through which to radiate and metamorphose into something Greater Than. There’s certainly nothing wrong with what Q has chosen to do, and he would be well within his own right to stick to the script. His production choices were good, his verses all at least utilitarian, at most head-noddingly impressive, and Oxymoron is an album that I will revisit several times over the coming months. But it does not entirely satisfy the potential that Schoolboy Q possesses; it will not be the best rap album of the year.