Soundcheck: ScHoolboy Q Breaks the Listening Slump

For the latest edition of Soundcheck, Donna-Claire dives into how a revisit of ScHoolboy Q's catalog dug her out of a recent listening slump, highlighted by pensive reflections on the street life to...
By    October 13, 2023

Image via Danielle Levitt/GQ

Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.

Donna-Claire is counting down to more playoff baseball by stopping herself from handing in a piece entirely written in second person.

It happens to the best of us, being unexcited about the things for which we care so deeply. Is “cataclysmic” a little much here? Is it bad to riffle through the annals of Spotify and hear a low-grade dialtone in your head? A droning that gets louder and louder the further you scroll, until you hit the TikTok-esque feed and wonder what is going on. With you. With everything. It feels worse to cut off an album you should like because you’re just not there. You’re nowhere. You’re searching for that novelty, that next thing to make you feel big emotions, but instead you’re finding hot vapor.

It’s not that all new music is bad. It’s not that, at least in my circles, we’re all staring at each other and wondering where the love went. There’s a goldmine of indie rap to cherish. It’s not even that my tastes are shifting and the growing pains are too great to bear. It’s that every day I am distracted by something else, by a debilitating anxiety that something just isn’t right, and I can’t sink in and scuttle through the dizzying loops and melodies of this album or that album. It’s hard to put it into words, but it looms. I want to live with records, chew on them until I crave their gristle and texture every waking minute of my life. Is that too much to ask? But, no, I can’t do that. I can’t feel okay about any one thing. I’m cooking in silence. It feels awful when my wife says, “Should we put something on?” while plucking arugula from our garden and I reply, “I don’t know what to play.”

I don’t know if music was “better then” or if it’s “worse now,” but I do know that digital media has atrophied my brain and the past has basically every answer you could imagine. So I return to the mid-2010s, my feel-good mecca of rap records. I’ve been thinking about the best memories I’ve made in the last decade of my life–the Jewish New Year just passed and I’m feeling reflective–so, I’ve been thinking about ScHoolboy Q, his perfect rap voice, and the breadth of his music as it soundtracked a very formative time visually marked by me wearing a selection of TDE merch hats every time I left the house.

In September, I revisited his entire catalog to try to map new memories atop the old ones, like some washed double exposure that looks good if you close your left and right eyes. I can’t shake the sense there’s no more memories to be made, or maybe I’m just stopping myself from being in the moment long enough to make them. Anyway. There’s something about the way Q siphons the air out of a room with his traumatic retellings, and then infuses life back into a space with all-time wall-crumbling bangers. He strikes the delicate balance needed to be an enduring album artist with thoughtful deep cuts and singles go off.

Back in 2016, at the time of the release of the Blank Face LP I got into a drunken argument about whether Q was a “personality rapper.” That stayed with me, though, the idea that you can delineate an artist’s personality from the sum of their music. On Blank Face especially, Q marries his hardened public persona with his more tender qualities. “Groovy Tony” and “JoHn Muir” are absolutely filthy and entertaining. He re-assembles Tha Dogg Pound for the playful and funky “Big Body,” which would be corny if it were any other rapper on the mic. But it’s more than that. It’s following Q on Snapchat (remember Snapchat?) and watching him goof off with his daughter and Mac Miller. It’s his daughter opening Oxymoron with “Fuck rap, my daddy a gangsta.”

Q is so sharp and inventive. Even when he sounds overly comfortable, as on his last release in 2019, CrasH Talk, there is still the blistering goodness of “Numb Numb Juice,” one of the grittiest songs on an otherwise stagnant album. Even as he petered out at the end the 2010s–Q himself has said CrasH Talk was kind of a soulless dud–his discography makes a crucial point about stepping back and stepping away, and being one with yourself without having to serve the observers. So often when an all-time rapper makes a just-fine album, there’s a rush to redeem themselves. Q did not give into that prideful impulse, and his legacy in the 2020s is better for it.

If you travel back into Oxymoron, Habits & Contradictions, and the mixtapes, it all feels like a perfect decade of rap evolution. Q goes from uneven to snarling. Gnarled beats get glossed up, but never sanded down. The secret best rapper on TDE appears as a grizzly bear, clawing his way through your brain and snapping up your attention.

For much of his discography, Q has dealt with the trauma of dealing, the heartbreaks of street life. I was struck by his voice and its serrated edge back in the early ‘10s, but as time went on and my appreciation for his writing grew, I also discovered that ScHoolboy Q has a powerful way of describing the most destructive of human impulses, emotional and physical. The lone verse of “Lord Have Mercy” is so riddled with anxiety (“I’m a gangbanger, deadbeat father and drug dealer”), I struggle to imagine a greater low for him. Sure, Blank Face has some pop-reaching trip-ups in “WHateva U Want” and “Overtime,” where it feels like Q didn’t learn from the concluding third of Oxymoron, but these songs are outweighed by blistering Hoover Street remembrances: “Used to sleep with roaches, crackhead uncle and all / Now a hundred thousand just an hour involved.”

My listening slump lasts a week, but feels like it lasts forever, because my perception of time has been destroyed by a cocktail of psych meds, a pandemic, and the malaise. But I do break out of it. I get what I’m looking for when I hear the ominous “Blaaaaank faaaaace” opener on Q’s 2016 record. His scrappy, tattered vocal delivery wakes me up. It’s the scene-setting. His head-swirling deluges of West Coast gang life stick to my ribs. The violence toted on “JoHn Muir,” for instance, spills out so casually. Q is 10, 11, 12, shooting and dealing. He is scary, but more importantly, human.

In 2012, I was sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s apartment jamming Setbacks for the first time when “Cycle” hit and the storytelling cut me up. Going from 12 to 21 and discussing the real cycles of violence that plague young Black men was staggering to me. It’s not that I lacked this awareness of systemic failure and institutional racism, it’s that ScHoolboy Q approached it at eye-level. He wrote in the style of boots-on-the-ground reportage that made his every word weighty and critical. But he was not a reporter, and this is where things get wrinkly in the best way. He was living his observations in real-time. The air of judgment you could expect from a Noisey doc was replaced by the sorrow of “Cycle” being just another day on the block. With that, Q comes from a lineage of gangsta rappers showing off the vulnerability inherent to that lifestyle, and for a new generation, he is a portal into a rich history.

Each of Q’s major releases features at least one darting, stomach-churning, and raw expression of street life, but nowadays, ScHoolboy Q loves to golf and be with his daughter. He may not ever release another album as tight as Blank Face or Habits, but I don’t need him to drop again. The world is different–the pandemic, the painful but necessary uprisings, the fact that I’m not trying to get drunk all the time–I don’t need to form new memories. I can relish the old ones, and I am content with the complete statement of his present discography. I don’t want to hear him rap about golfing. He doesn’t need to be in the streets and sustaining active trauma—don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating for suffering for consumers—to make good music. I just don’t know if he needs to make music at all. It’s like Frank Ocean. I don’t want the follow-up to Blonde, and neither does Frank.

This exercise in living with ScHoolboy Q’s discography has taught me something valuable about stillness, about appreciating the present. In the process of digging into his music, I am reminded that life is dynamic. We’re getting to the point now where the apex of my tastes from the previous decade—the decade I started music writing professionally —are becoming preserved artifacts. Soon, I will be washed and resembling my dear friend’s neighbor, who just yells at baseball all day every day. We call him “screaming grandpa,” and he seems to be getting on well. But the point is, artifacts are immortalized, and we can always come back to them. I shouldn’t make myself crazy looking for “more” and for “next.” Or else there will be nothing to leave behind. It’s better to just, like, play “Collard Greens” and remember taking shots of Three Olives vodka in your basement. The memory is worth more than the novelty of newness.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!