Son Raw’s back on his rap shit
You’d be forgiven for having low expectations when it comes to new Schoolboy Q music. While Oxymoron was a conventional success—it hit #1, earned a Grammy nomination and ensured Q’s festival bookings stayed more plentiful than dispensaries in LA—it was also a bloated, narcotic mess that achieved those successes at the cost of being an enjoyable experience for actual rap fans. Above all else, it felt forced; a label-prodded attempt to match Kendrick Lamar’s success by doubling down on Quincy’s turn-up anthems at the expense of his natural, weeded-aided bonhomie.
Like sophomore albums by peers A$AP Rocky and Ferg, it wasn’t the kind of record you come back to, but it was the kind that doubled the artist’s Spotify spins in the casual fan demographic. Given that this sort of careerist move usually signifies the end of a rapper’s artistic development and the beginning of their appearances in bad Hollywood cameos, we’re lucky MTV didn’t eye TDE for a Pimp My Ride reboot.
Like I said, low expectations.
And yet The Blank Face LP goes against all conventional wisdom and rectifies most of Oxymoron’s flaws: it’s not just good in light of a poor major label debut, it’s a legitimately good record, the one fans were expecting two years ago. Staving off a slide into workmanlike gangsterism, Blank Face goes back to the darkness, habits, and contradictions that made Schoolboy’s first two projects so engaging, all while retaining the higher production values that saved Oxymoron from the cutout bin. It’s not an apology, but it’s also undoubtedly a course correction.
Much of the improvement is due to comfort: now that Kendrick has gone full #WokeGod, no one expects another TDE artist to compete, and with a crossover fanbase established, Q is now free to do what he does best and rap like a Kush-powered Crip Dr. Gonzo. Oxymoron singles like “Man of the Year,” “Hell of a Night,” and “Break the Bank” tried their hardest to sell you on Schoolboy Q, the-EDM compatible rapper with big hooks. The Blank Face LP just wants to be the soundtrack to your smoking session on the darkest night of the year.
The shift in attitude is barely perceptible on paper, with TDE’s in-house DigiPhonics team (most notably Tae Beast) and close Q affiliates Nez & Rio, Alchemist, and Tyler once again providing most of the production. Yet seemingly freed from having to generate Q’s breakout hit, almost everyone takes the opportunity to descend into the sort of druggy, funkadelic, boom-bap that balances acid-fried guitars and drum breaks in equal measure. It’s also a welcome move away from Kendrick’s establishment approved jazz.
Even when outsiders are called for backup, most notably Southside and Metro Boomin’ on Dope Dealer, the nocturnal vibe is maintained. If the album has any clear antecedents, it’s Redman and Cypress Hill’s pharmaceutical-powered descents into the depths of their own psychs, back in the mid ’90s, an undertapped wellspring of inspiration if there ever was one in an era where “’90s inspired” means off-brand Premo.
The record isn’t flawless. Kanye’s stream-of-consciousness on “tHat Part” is equally entertaining and grating, and Q himself still struggles with writing full verses without hopping from one idea to the next. It’s a lack of coherence that can be overlooked for emcees like Future and Thug, whose lyrics are secondary at best, but here, it diminishes Blank Face’s overall concept, which never really comes into focus thematically, despite the musical coherence. More pressingly, it’s also too long, though that’s easily remedied by skipping “Overtime,” a penultimate label-mandated slow jam, and “Tookie Knows Pt. II,” a buzz single probably tacked on for the sake of its spins counting towards the album’s first week streaming numbers.
Nevertheless, Blank Face LP is a win by any metric, a compulsively listenable record that never second guesses itself and that trusts the listener to go down an ill-lit, lysergic path, even when the destination isn’t apparent. Fellow Angeleno YG’s Still Brazy is an obvious point of contrast: while that album is a bright, pop-minded, high-def remake of 2Pac’s Parliament and Zapp-fueled gangsta rap, Blank Face is a murky, subterranean take on rap’s proggy impressionism. It’s less concerned with narrative cohesion than capturing the paranoia and gloom of street life. For a rapper who was seemingly lost in the middle of the road just a few months ago, that’s an unqualified victory.