Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP (Album Review)

Blank Face LP 1

L.A. rapper ScHoolboy Q is back as a better class of criminal on his third album.

A lot has changed since we last heard a new ScHoolboy Q album.

Q’s last album, the hit-filled Oxymoron, was released early in 2014, at the cusp of TDE’s worldwide takeover as Q and his crew of Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and SZA (Isaiah wasn’t signed yet) were beginning to solidify themselves as heavyweights in their respective lanes. Kendrick’s conceptual good kid, m.a.a.d city had already established him as rap’s most promising prospect, while Jay Rock’s spadefuls of tough street rap lyricism had his fans anxiously waiting for an album that wouldnt release until almost two years later, 90059. Ab-Soul and SZA both released records that year that, while both good, failed to push them out of the shadow of their label-mates. ScHoolboy Q was recognised as the charmisatic party animal, the ravenous drug addict, the ruthless ex-gangsta, and the family man. He was recognised as the oxymoron.

The tensions between each aspect of the rapper’s personality has been a major theme in his music for years now – Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron both wrestled with the plagues of a lifestyle stretched thin, and how hard it was to keep each of the opposite extremities of his psyche separated. He best demonstrated this with the gloomy, vulnerable and personal as Prescription, an emotional track about Q struggling with a crippling drug addiction and the anxiety and stress that came with it, being bundled with a hype trap banger about slinging crack.

But, like I said, a lot has changed since 2014.

ScHoolboy Q isn’t the same man he once was – he’s lost a lot of weight, kicked his addictions (excluding weed) and, through the rise of Snapchat, become recognised as both a social media icon and one of the funniest celebrities to date.

It also appears that his mantra towards life has changed. Where his last two albums seemed nestled in the plagues of a multi-faceted life, his latest effort presents a new demeanour and ultimately new outlook on life: the Blank Face. He no longer frustratedly snarls with resent at his internal conflicts, but instead embraces each aspect of himself and seems to be resigned to ‘the way things are’. It’s almost as if Q has grown tired of distinguishing between who he is, or which ‘face’ he’s putting on – it’s a concept that didn’t entirely click with me until the album’s title track, where Anderson .Paak croons over guitar licks and a thick bassline “be what you wanna be as long as you get the money right”, before Q raps about a past of crippin’ and a present of worshipping his daughter.

The South Central native released Blank Face LP last Friday, finally disseminating the work he’s been slowly crafting in his home studio for the past few years, that fans have been anticipating since it’s announcement by Top Dawg Entertainment founder, Anthony Tiffith, at the end of February 2016. Fans got the first taste of Blank Face on April 5th, when Q dropped the menacing lead single, Groovy Tony along with a music video; a first-person account of a demented night in a junkyard filled with stacked corpses and crashed cars engulfed in flame. The following single, THat Part, was released on May 13th, containing a first time collaboration with Saint Pablo himself. It actually turns out to be an album standout in the context of the record – it’s just a fun, crowd-pleaser track with huge replay value and a lyrically awful but insanely enjoyable and memorable Ye feature. The visual for THat Part dropped on June 2nd, featuring Kanye galavanting through an erie home with rooms dimly illuminated in blood-red lighting – a music video that would ultimately go on to reflect the overall vibe of the album.

Dead inverted bare trees limbs hang over a masked Q, encompassed by ominous orange cloudy skyscape. The creepy album art alone sets the dark and sinister mood strung throughout Blank Face. The production on the album stays consistently murky, abrasive, densely layered and wonderfully composed throughout it’s runtime. Gloomy riffs ripple under Q and Anderson .Paak vocals over jazzy horns on this act’s opener, TorcH. .Paak‘s raspy delivery flows melodically with this dark beat, and blends well with the dark production provided by  Nez & Rio (Man of the Year). The highlight in this tracks production is on the hook, .Paak releases an intense delivery while Q‘s vocals resonate in sporadic patterns underneath hollow drums while a muffled down-pitched voice runs parallel with .Paak.

Kno Ya Wrong serves as a perfect representation of why ScHoolboy is closely associated with the term “groovy.” Heavy-footed bass thumps under rippling chimes and twinkling keys, courtesy of The Alchemist, carry the rapper’s laid-back delivery until a mid-song beatswitch introduces Lance Skiiiwalker (who I maintain still just sounds like Jay Rock if he got drunk and sang karaoke) over a warbling new soundscape glossed with glassy electric guitar riffs and a pulsing bassline.

If you’re not at least slightly unsettled by the abstruse, shadowy tone of this album by the end of track five, the crackling laughter the introduces Ride Out is sure to suck you into the inky depths of the album. Sounwave‘s hard-hitting, wonky production conjures up imagery of an abandoned carnival illuminated by dusty lights on the bulbs lined across the buildings, with Q and Vince Staples roaming through the streets littered with food crumbs and forgotten change, spitting bars like they’re the last words they’ll manage before succumbing to the concrete jungle. It’s a grimy, ruthless and dark – words that could be described several cuts on the album including the haunting Tookie Knows II, the relentless, heavy stomp of Eddie Kane, and top-down trunk-shaker JoHn Muir.

The album temporarily switches pace on track #7, WHateva You Want, adding a more upbeat vibe compared to the rest of the album, saturated with wavy synths and straight-forward percussion. While this track (in addition to the obnoxious Big Body and the underwhelming Overtime, this album’s diet-Studio) seems out of place in the album’s tracklist, Tae Beast‘s production and a nice enough Candice Pillay feature help to make an appealing, catchy song that you can expect to in rotation on college campuses and radio waves throughout summer ’16. In the context of the track list’s sequencing, it’s a misstep that ruptures what would have been the incredible one-two-combo of Ride Out and what is potentially the best cut on the album, By Any Means – a track with a bare-bones growl of an instrumental that crunches away beneath Q‘s snarl and a ghostly Kendrick Lamar refrain. Foreboding murmurs rumble underneath a hard-hitting beat, and transitions perfectly into Metro Boomin and Southside produced Dope Dealer which features a comically bad E-40 verse that listeners have claimed sounds like two Obama’s arguing with each other. 

Blank Face is a heavy album – it’s a listen that feels densely layered, and far less accessible than it’s hit-stacked predecessor. However, it’s weighed down by some unfortunate filler cuts and songs that seem to slightly outstay their welcome, and a concept that could’ve benefitted from some further exploration.

But alas, it’s a different experiment for Q, and a welcome addition to his discography as he continues to learn more about himself as a man and test how far he can push his music.

Written by Dillon McCroskey – Introduction by Harvey Piper-Andrew

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