I am confident to say that ScHoolboy Q is the best artist of the Black Hippy crew after Kendrick Lamar, and I am only able to say this with Blank Face. Put simply, this is some 74 minutes of dark nights in the west coast, looking for temporary satisfaction in women and drugs, with a production and feature roster that’ll make you drool. For the record, Ab-Soul, whose Control System positioned Ab-Soul to be the most interesting persona of the Black Hippy crew, has fallen off the deep end with 2014’s These Days… and haphazard guest verses. Meanwhile, Jay Rock took an unforgivable amount of time to follow up on Follow Me Home and what we received was a solid album marked by two highlights (“Easy Bake” and “Vice City”).
For the record, ScHoolboy Q isn’t as consistent as Jay Rock: Oxymoron, his major label debut, was problematic; the bigger sounds from bigger producers for a bigger audience didn’t mesh well with ScHoolboy Q’s aesthetic, and the less I think of his verse on Tinashe’s “2 On,” the better. And he isn’t as lyrically interesting as Ab-Soul at Soul’s best, to say nothing of Kendrick Lamar. Aside from “Blessed,” Habits & Contradictions was hardly about its lyrics (with hooks like “if I fucked her once, I can fuck her twice / if I fuck her twice, I might change her life”), but rather 18 tracks of nightmare grooves. At 17 tracks, Blank Face, returns to that setup after Oxymoron’s detour, and though I’m sure other critics will say that this one’s too long, I’m happy to say there isn’t much to cut out.
That includes “Overtime,” which ScHoolboy Q has suggested that was Interscope’s demand to have an R&B-leaning track to land some radio time. (Q has since recanted: “I said the label forced me to put it on; I didn’t mean it that way.”) The obvious comparisons are toOxymoron’s “Studio,” with Miguel (and an invisible Kendrick Lamar) replacing BJ the Chicago Kid on hook-duty. But neither song are the typical R&B/hip-hop hits that grace radios: despite being Q’s highest charting single, “Studio” had a wailing sample in the background that suggested something sinister underneath the surface. Similarly, “Overtime”’s dark and disorienting groove is anxious, and as for the complaints about the hook, let’s be honest, who other than Sex God Miguel would you have deliver “I wanna fuck right now?” And that also includes “THat Part,” whose guest feature from Kanye West has gotten a lot of derision. Sure, stuff like “Blow the back out ’til you backless” leaves something to be desired, but he sounds absolutely unhinged, and if I have to suffer a lazy “catfish” rhyme (with itself) for one “Beggars can’t be choosers, bitch, this ain’t Chipotle!”, so be it.
Broadly speaking, the production roster here is chock full of heavy hitters who all keep in line with ScHoolboy Q’s vision, and the rotating door of producers (plus the rotating door of voices) keeps the groove varied. In addition to Sounwave and Tae Beast of Digi-Phonics handling a handful of these tracks, we have old collaborators in The Alchemist, DJ Dahi, Tyler, the Creator and Nez & Rio, as well as new friendships being formed with Swizz Beatz and Metro Boomin & Southside. Not feeling the trap rap of “Dope Dealer” or “THat Part”? Fine, sink your teeth into the bi-partite “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”, distinguishing itself from the single version with a completely new section, replete with hard-smashing drums and bass that’s so dirty, it’s likely doing something obscene to your girlfriend as we speak. Not feeling the violence throughout? Fine, check out the lovely sample in the background air of the contemplative “Lord Have Mercy.” Dislike the love-song of “WHateva U Want,” with Dr. Dre’s newest talent Candice Pillay’s billowing voice providing some of the most vivid colour ScHoolboy Q has ever rapped over (this is, after all, Q’s first album cover to not be in black-and-white)? Fine, check out the jazzy horns of “Kno Ya Wrong” where The Alchemist supplies Q with another indelible piano sample, etc. With 17 varied tracks, I can play this game all day.
I should think any west coast hip-hop lover would love a lot of ScHoolboy Q’s decisions here, which often play like love-letters to the west. On “Big Body,” he pairs west coast veterans Tha Dogg Pound over a beat provided by (comparatively) new-school Tyler, the Creator (a beat that’s surprisingly playful given Tyler’s predilection towards darker sounds). Elsewhere, the orchestral “Str8 Balling” quotes 2Pac, while Q pairs up with the kindred Vince Staples on “Ride Out” (which might’ve benefited more from a less bombastic beat, methinks). Other highlights include “TorcH”, which contains the roars of electric guitar contrasting with the twinkles of the piano line; the choruses of “By Any Means” and “Neva CHange”; the kinetic bass-line and guitar flickers of “Blank Face,” where Anderson .Paak returns the favour of ScHoolboy Q helping out on “Am I Wrong” with some of his most impassioned vocals, ever. And I think delegating Kendrick Lamar to background hook duty instead of letting him have his own verse was a bold move: Lamar did steal the show on both Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron.
All told, this is ScHoolboy Q’s best album. It might just be me, but it’s been a slow year so far in terms of hip-hop (actually that criticism isn’t solely reserved to hip-hop). The new Chance mixtape was, of course, great. Efforts by Aesop Rock, Homeboy Sandman and Open Mike Eagle were all solid, as expected. The collection of Kendrick Lamar leftovers was enough to tide people over until the next Kendrick Lamar, I suppose. But the efforts by Future and Young Thug suggest that maybe 2015 was their peak, and both the latest Drake album and Vic Mensa EP were disappointing. What’s supposed to signify? What’s something that I can pull out regularly, even two years from now? Pulling no punches:Blank Face is the second best hip-hop album of 2016 so far, after The Life of Pablo.