“I’m not going to say what it’s gon’ do. What it needs to do is take me to the next level,” ScHoolboy Q teased of his 2012 breakout project, Habits & Contradictions in a PSA shared on YouTube a little over a week before the album was due. At the time, Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster was limited to the Black Hippy members, though only two had seen success to varying degrees. Jay Rock had already scored a spot on the XXL Freshman cover and released his debut album; the strength of 2011’s Section.80 put Kendrick Lamar in a class of his own as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg passed the torch to the West Coast’s chosen one. For ScHoolboy Q, the dry delivery in his desire for success was underscored by the depravity of falling back into the streets– because there’s only so far you can go as Kendrick Lamar’s hypeman. 

While The Weeknd was subtly unveiling his face with the release of his flawless Trilogy, ScHoolboy Q was also forming his three-piece. It began with the release of 2011’s Setbacks before Habits & Contradictions arrived in January 2012. Unlike Setbacks, H&C is far grimmer – an album that captures the fogginess of addiction, the volatility of gangbanging, the desperation to be removed from that environment, all while raising a daughter. It’s a lucid memoir depicting Q’s survival instincts in South Central, including the coping mechanisms he used to numb the pain.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

Though serving as his second project, following Setbacks, Q described H&C as its prequel. His debut album offered insight into the roadblocks that prevented him from veering on the right path. The accomplishments he strived towards, and the decisions that deterred them from happening. Habits & Contradictions dove deeper into the cause-and-effect of his intentions and the spiritual awakening behind his actions. He weaves through the dark alleyways of Figueroa Street with vivid imagery of armed robberies over haunting synths on “NigHtmare In Figg St.” A companion piece to Setback’s “Figg Get THe Money,” Q’s interpolation of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “N***as In Paris” reminds The Throne of the true value of $50K in South Central. “Put the steel behind ya, put five inside ya/ Better chill out with all that flossin’ patna,” he screeches with urgency. 

Then, he leaps into complacency when the money’s slow on the melancholic “How I’m Feeling” – a contrast to the Kid Cudi-sampled “Hands On The WHeel” ft. A$AP Rocky which frat boys commandeered as an anthem to keg stands by the end of 2012. He divulges his drug-fueled sexcapades with Ab-Soul on the frenetic cult classic, “Druggys Wit Hoes Again,” and then teams up with Curren$y and West Coast staple Dom Kennedy to describe a gangsta’s romance on “Groovline Pt. 1” over a sample of Marlena Shaw’s “Feel Like Making Love.” H&C gives listeners an expansive range of emotions and experiences, adding depth through sonic textures. Sprinkles of Hieroglyphics and Suga Free’s eccentricities fueled the groovy swag while the aggression of East Coast rap, a la 50 Cent, brought animation to each bar. 

Each song on H&C contextualizes Q's stages of redemption, beginning with “Sacrilegious” and ending with “Blessed.” The former opens the project from the perspective of a gang member seeking redemption yet continuously spiraling downwards. Q paints a portrait of a desolate Los Angeles that bears similarities to purgatory, detailing unheeded prayers by a church pew. “Marinating in Satan’s sweat, take a sip of this holy water/ Hope God still keep me blessed, with a dark shield for my armor,” he raps in the first verse. On “Blessed,” Q rummages through memories of betrayal, violence, and gangbanging. However, there’s solace in knowing there are better days ahead. On the Setbacks cut, “Birdz & The Beez”, Q and Kendrick Lamar reflect on the volatile environments they grew up in. “Blessed,” then, is its counterpart – where ScHoolboy Q, who was once desensitized to the burdens and violence of the streets, becomes all too aware of the repercussions. 

All of the emotions he captures are strung together through the realism in his penmanship, and his ability to contort his voice. Thanks to the wonders of MixedByAli, the deranged, and often distorted layering on the ad-libs (Q’s artistic trademark) accentuate the paranoia, anxieties, and most importantly, the aggression behind each bar, each cadence, and each flow. 

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images 

“Tookie Knows” puts this on a display for a minute-and-a-half hallucinatory whirlwind of a PCP trip before leading into the origin story of the Crips on “Raymond 1969” – both songs in reference to the founder of the street organization. However, not all songs are necessarily connected. 

Unlike Section.80, ScHoolboy’s 2012 album doesn’t blatantly tell a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead, it’s a sonic journey, one where textures and feelings are at the fore, as he intertwines vivid storytelling, unexpected pockets of flow, animated cadences, hilarious non-sequiturs, and murky production. Mike Will-Made It, The Alchemist, and of course, TDE’s in-house team – Sounwave, Dave Free, Tae Beast, THC, etc – each brings unique sounds that fit like puzzle pieces in the often complex world of ScHoolboy Q. 

Habits & Contradictions doesn’t necessarily play into what one would expect of a West Coast album, especially one with a focus on Los Angeles’ history of gangbanging, and that worked in Q’s favor. The heavy elements of trip-hop, often coming from Portishead samples, meet the ethos of New York’s golden age. There are few rules in this ruthless world Q created on this project, yet his riveting sense of storytelling and lyricism was a breath of fresh air to traditionalists. And perhaps, that’s why Habits & Contradictions remains ScHoolboy Q’s most compelling project to date. Setbacks became the learning curve for Q’s evolution to H&C, where Q can confidently claim, “Coast ain’t been this hard since ‘Pac, Death Row, and Dr. Dre.” The stakes were admittedly high – a make-or-break moment that ultimately propelled ScHoolboy Q into the Freshman class two years later. And while Oxymoron closed out the trilogy that Setbacks started, Habits & Contradictions became the thesis statement to that three-piece.