Schoolboy Q's "Blank Face LP" is a harrowing, psychedelic opus.
"Every album I was dropping from Setbacks, to Habits, to Oxy, everybody was like, 'What's the album about?' It's like bruh, can I drop it first?"
That was Schoolboy Q on Hot 97 last week, responding to a question it seems like he's heard a thousand times. You can't blame radio hosts, as well as fans, for being curious though. Each one of Q's albums is the product of a different mindframe, time period, and sound, each of which is intricately explored and mined for its contradictory elements. While this means that each ensuing project is distinct from the others, it's also not something you can expect Q to sum up in a sentence or two.
His last two projects were mainly concerned with addiction, but in exploring how that affected gang life in South Central, L.A. as a whole, life as a dealer, Q's relationships, and his family throughout different periods in his life, he wound up with two startlingly different documents of his struggle. To mega-simplify it, Habits & Contradictions was the moment when a drug user realizes they're addicted but still has no intention of slowing down ("You sat me down, I'm still tryna get higher"), and Oxymoron was when it all became too much to cope with, when he realized the lifestyle was unsustainable ("Prescription drugs, I fell in love/My little secret, she gon' kill a thug"). Now that Q has overcome his pill addiction though, what corner of his life experience will he turn his expertly depth-perceiving gaze upon?
The only appropriate answer seems to be: all of it. Whereas Schoolboy's previous albums trained a microscope on snapshots of his life, Blank Face takes us from his childhood to the present, focusing a good deal on the days when he was most active as a Crip, but also tying that in to his current career as a rapper, and larger statements on gang relations in L.A. and race relations in the country as a whole. This is about as dense an album as you can get, and though it's much more literal than Kendrick Lamar's metaphor-and-parable-driven To Pimp A Butterfly, there's still a lot to unpack to get to the heart of Q's messages. Attempting to make the definitive "LA album" has been lucrative pursuit in hip hop in the past couple of years, and in that sense, Blank Face will sit nicely alongside YG and Kendrick's last two albums, Vince Staples' Summertime '06, Dr. Dre's Compton, and The Game's Documentary 2, while also bringing a much deeper exploration of internal conflict to the table.
When Schoolboy Q talks about the current state of his life on the album, it's decidedly more optimistic than he's ever been. He's finally realized that it's not better to burn out than to fade away, citing BB King's prolific twilight years (the dude was playing around 200 shows a year into his 80s) as a goal on "Kno Ya Wrong." On "Whateva U Want," he's thrilled to discover that although he can now afford any luxury item a woman could desire, the current woman in question doesn't need any of that. He's devoted to fatherhood, presenting the idyllic elements of his daughter's life ("Easter egg huntin', pickin' seeds out the pumpkin/Six years straight the valentine for my munchkin, I made a queen outta nothin'") in sharp contrast with his own childhood, where juvenile treats only showed up alongside unavoidable Fig Street fallout ("This that raised by your granny, pistols and Now & Laters"). It's very clear that Q's in a better place than he's ever been-- the only thing is, he spends only a very small fraction of Blank Face's runtime addressing his own circumstances in the present. He's best at writing about turmoil, and now that he's gotten off of the psychiatrist's couch of his last two albums, he has to look elsewhere to find it.
Even considering his current tranquility, Q has plenty of hair-raising material stored up in his memory banks-- from the album-opening imagery of his grandma "sweeping shells out the driveway" to the gang sweep he describes on the final track, which is bolstered by verses from guys who sound like they're not quite as removed from that life as Q is now. This album is a psychedelic maelstrom of cautionary tales, presented in the form of acid flashbacks in Q's mind. Even the sweeter-sounding doses of nostalgia, like the piano-led shuffle of "Know Ya Wrong," are populated by demons from the past such as leeches, childhood adversaries, and crackhead uncles. We still get a very clear picture of why Q chose this life, but you'd have to be a fool to come away from Blank Face thinking that it glorifies anything other than the betterment of one's circumstances by any means necessary.
While there are some individual songs that feel out-of-sync with the album as a whole, the production and choice of guests are executed perfectly throughout. Whereas Oxymoron had an austere, ice-cold sound that fit its drug-numbed vibe, Blank Face is warm and bursting with life, but not in an inviting way. It's more like a man on fire running around in shock, or a thick radioactive haze moving over a panicked city. This bombed-out psychedelia works extraordinarily well with Q's wild-eyed, cartoonish delivery, and casts him in an apocalyptic South Central sequel of the seriously disturbing '60s film Fritz The Cat. Voices flit in and out to lend different perspectives, from Anderson .Paak's disturbed beat poetry, to SZA and Candice Pillay's female voices of reason, to Jadakiss, E-40, and Tha Dogg Pound's assertions that no, things were not all that different 30 years ago. Especially potent is the pairing of Staples with Q, both of whom remind you that Crips don't just have to worry about Bloods and police, but also their own rival sets. At its best, Blank Face plays like a forgotten hybrid of the Blaxploitation (shouts out to Dolemite) and druggy New Hollywood schools of cinema, with cameos from the iconic character actors of both eras.
Much has been made about Schoolboy Q's revealing claim that Interscope "made" him put sex jam "Overtime" on the album, and after hearing it sandwiched between the can't-believe-I-made-it-past-25 joy of the title track and harrowing postscript of "Tookie Knows II," you have to empathize with him. It's not a bad track (I don't think there is one of those on Blank Face), but similar to how Atlantic's meddling seemed to get in the way of Ty Dolla $ign's narrative on Free TC last year, the album's final cut makes me want to hear the version Q first turned in to his label. In addition to "Overtime," the chirpy buildups-and-synth of "Whateva U Want" and the overly chipper single "THat Part" both feel abrupt and out-of-step with the rest of the album, despite both being better than "Overtime." If "Studio" didn't convince you, "THat Part" is proof that Q can make great singles when he wants to, but when it comes in direct conflict with an otherwise opus-like album, I'd take the latter any day.
On his past three albums, Schoolboy Q has continued to sharpen his narrative skills, becoming increasingly more adept at showing us every angle of his conscious without muddling the picture. Blank Face functions as a retort to the belief that certain artists need psychoactive substances for both inspiration and subject matter, because although Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron dealt with addition in vital, startling ways, this album proves that Q's no one-trick-pony. We've always known he was equally gifted at rapping about both selling and taking drugs, but it turns out that when he stops doing both habitually, more interesting subjects and ideas flood into the vacant space. What we're left with also disproves Danny Brown's "Dope Song" theory that tales of drug slanging and gangbanging get less potent with age. With a clear mind and a few years' distance, Q is able to view his past with newfound context, relating it to his current day-to-day and noticing intricacies that he may not have in the moment. Q applies this methodical approach to every subject he raps about, and that's his genius.