Tell Kendrick move from the throne, I came for it.”
- Schoolboy Q, 2014
At the start of the decade, Schoolboy Q had a run of modest commercial success after dropping two full-length albums on the TDE label. While Q was establishing his presence in the industry, his fellow label-mate and hip-hop poster-boy Kendrick Lamar was rising to rap royalty in the comfortable bosom of Dr. Dre. Schoolboy wanted to prove that he belonged in this conversation and attempted to prove it with Oxymoron. Oxy was supposed to be what good kid, m.A.A.d City was for Kendrick Lamar; a career-defining album, an essential hip-hop record etc. Instead, the reaction was generally split. His attempt to appeal his aesthetic to larger audiences wasn’t done with the smooth and genuine efforts of Lamar. This was the start of a separation between Kendrick and his label-mates that only grew as the years went by. By 2016, Kendrick had added another classic and even had a B-side collection that stood head and shoulders above any of the recent non-Kendrick TDE releases. Top Dawg was beginning to look less and less like rap’s best label, and more and more like the label with the best rapper.
Blank Face features a more mature and polished version of what he does best.
That’s exactly why Blank Face should be considered a comeback album. It reaffirms the notion that Top Dawg is diverse in talent and that Schoolboy is a great, capable example that exemplifies it. Blank Face runs for a total of 72 minutes and mostly adheres to the aggressive style Q has given us throughout the years. Unlike Oxymoron’s gritty, harsh aesthetic, Blank Face is much more colorful.
So yeah, lyrically, it’s nothing new. A concept? A narrative? Not exactly.
Schoolboy Q has never been touted as a spectacular lyricist and the reasoning is justified. He gets by with tight flow, clever use of ad-libs, and raw subject matter. Rarely will Q drop momentum-halting lines like A$AP Rocky or Ab-Soul and he’s certainly not doing the lyrical gymnastics of Kendrick (evident in “Collard Greens”). Blank Face offers subject matter that, broadly speaking, is similar to what he has given us in the past. In fact, he overtly states it on the opening track “TorcH”: “This that fuck the blogs / the afterbell, we hang in halls / Underage smokin’ weed and alcohol.” Q has realized the allure of his past and automatically reverts to it. When you’re an ex-gangbanging, drug-dealing Crip, what else about you will really hold an audience’s attention? The stories aren’t quite told with the same honesty as Oxymoron, but Blank Face features a more mature and polished version of what he does best. Whether it’s the sinister tales of “Groovy Tony”, the materialistic themes of “WHateva U Want”, or the bombastic machismo of “Ride Out”, Q stays true to what got him here.
So yeah, lyrically, it’s nothing new. A concept? A narrative? Not exactly. The magnificent production does allow him, however, to avoid unoriginality through the variety of different sounds he experiments with. From a sonic standpoint, this is the most interesting sounding Schoolboy album by a long-shot. Again, Oxymoron faltered at times when trying to fuse Q’s drug-addled aesthetic with booming hooks and commercial appeal. Blank Face is the perfect marriage between persona and sound.
Some will criticize its length, which is fair – the album could easily lose “Overtime” and “Big Body Benz” without any complaint.
Behind the boards, the stacked team of producers stay true to Q’s vision. The highlights – and there are a lot of them – include: Swizz Beatz’ flip of a haunting 1963 Donald Byrd song on “Lord Have Mercy”; the filthy bassline on the beat change between “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”, the sinister Three 6 Mafia sample from the untouchable Metro Boomin on “Dope Dealer”, the phat-as-fuck synth that comes in at the 0:26 mark of the infallible banger “JoHn Muir”, just take your pick. Of course, nerdy sample dissection doesn’t do it justice. This album needs to be played while riding around at night to fully comprehend the immaculate production.
That isn’t to say anything about the variety of simply outstanding hooks. Need a reason to go back to these songs if the rapping and production isn’t enough? Check out the synth that descends over the delicate vocals of Candice Pillay on “WHateva U Want”. Check out Kendrick Lamar wholly completing the “By Any Means” hook. Check the gorgeous saxophone sample on the hook of “JoHn Muir”, SZA stealing the show on the hook of “Neva CHange”. Again, take your pick. Even the hook on the label-forced “Overtime” features the sexiest man in R&B (Miguel) putting your girl in the mood. Or how about the gloomy hook-verse contrast on “THat Part” – the way it just kind of … sits… as Q punctuates each bar with the song’s title. As for Kanye West’s guest appearance on that song, it’s lazy (similar to every other Kanye guest verse in recent memory) but if you haven’t found yourself anticipating the line “Okay, okay, okay, okay, o-KAY!” then I don’t believe you.
Speaking of guest features – a gold star should be given for assigning Kendrick to hook duty after he murdered Q on his own shit the two times before (see “Blessings” and especially see “Collard Greens”). Having an Anderson .Paak feature is the obvious move in 2016 – and not surprisingly it works both times (“TorcH” and “Blank Face”). Jadakiss‘ appearance sounds completely perfect for the darkness of “Groovy Tony”. Even the polarizing E-40 verse can be enjoyed by those outside the Bay Area. The way he squeezes in “I got a way with my words, my lingo, and vernacular…” into one bar and then capitalizes it with “…marketable” – that’s just awesome.
This is Q’s best album – and the more I listen to it the more I think that it’s not even close. Some will criticize its length, which is fair – the album could easily lose “Overtime” and “Big Body Benz” without any complaint. As a whole, the variety of the aforementioned beats, hooks, and verses completely justify the length. On “TorcH” Schoolboy defiantly states, “This be the realest shit I wrote.” After 72 minutes of aimlessly riding through the dark streets of Q’s world, we have no choice but to believe him.