Wednesday, July 13, 2016

album review: 'blank face lp' by schoolboy q

Man, Schoolboy Q is a frustrating artist for me.

See, I covered him back in 2014 with Oxymoron and while I found that record a slight step away from the genuinely excellent Habits And Contradictions, I still liked Schoolboy Q as an artist. On the tracks where his lyrics can feel stale or formulaic he brings a lot of personality, and when he wants to he can definitely bring a smarter brand of writing to his material, with subtext and insight. He definitely has a place in the Top Dawg stable of MCs, more cutting than Jay Rock's bruising style and grittier than someone like Ab-Soul or Kendrick. In other words, when we consider West Coast gangsta rap, he's probably one of the more accessible artists coming from TDE, and between his collaborations and charting singles, there's proof of that. My problem with Schoolboy Q has always been consistency, balancing out that mainstream appeal with stronger content or production that doesn't drag back his impressive personality.

And yet in the lead-up to this release, I haven't received many requests to cover this album, and I have no idea why. Granted, there hasn't been the huge single like 'Studio' to push this record, and I've already mentioned that I wasn't wild about his collaboration with Kanye West 'That Part', but he's never had great luck with singles anyway and from all accounts this record to be his longest and more elaborate to date. And his list of guest stars was pretty impressive - forget Kanye, when you get Kurrupt, Vince Staples, E-40, Jadakiss, Anderson .Paak, Miguel, and Kendrick contributing hooks, you've got a pretty impressive lineup of quality behind you, most of which deserve to be a lot more famous than they are - which would probably be one of the best ways to describe Schoolboy Q, come to think of it. So I decided to dig into Blank Face LP - how did it turn out?

I'm of a few minds when it comes to this record, and I think how many people will fall on it depends on what they were expecting. If you're looking for some of Schoolboy Q's most lavish and eclectic production to date with solid guest performances all around that for the most bangs hard, you're going to love this record. But if you're looking for Schoolboy Q to evolve as a rapper in terms of his content, or even match the level of deeper introspection he brought on Habits & Contradictions or Oxymoron... I'm not sure he delivers here as well, at least not consistently. 

So let's start with Schoolboy Q himself - and look, I've always liked his flow and delivery. His rhymes might feel basic but they're consistently well-constructed and delivered with real emotive presence, whether it be on the more raw gangbanging tracks or the more quiet, contemplative moments, of which you could definitely make the argument there's a lot less of on this album. Much of this record is aiming to go louder and rougher, with the moments of introspection fewer and further between - and here's where expectations come into play. If you like the heavier gangbanging tracks like the ultraviolent 'Ride Out' with fellow Crip-affilated rapper Vince Staples, or the braggidocious drug dealing of 'Dope Dealer' with E-40, or the more implied violence of 'Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane' where Jadakiss brings an impressively intimidating verse and sounds distractingly like Schoolboy Q, you're going to appreciate it. Hell, solo ventures like 'JoHn Muir' or 'Str8 Ballin' prove that he's plenty capable of bringing his own raw intensity, to the point that the verses from TF and Traffic on the closer 'Tookie Knows II' almost feel redundant in addition to being slightly less complex. But put him opposite Kanye West on 'THat Part' where Kanye further sabotages his marriage or against Tha Dog Pound on 'Big Body' dropping into what you could argue are some painfully dated and basic flows and even he sounds less interested, the most obvious example being on what even he described as a 'bootleg 'Studio'' with 'Overtime'. Sure, Miguel and especially Justine Skye put in good work, but beyond that, it doesn't belong on this album, especially right before the end and after Anderson .Paak delivers a killer performance on the title track.

And that's part of the frustrating thing: as much as I like it when Schoolboy Q drops hard-edged gangsta rap, as there are very few who can sound as visceral as he does, he actually makes more lasting impact when he gets serious and more introspective, like on 'Lord Have Mercy' where even he is sick and tired of having to keep his guard up when he goes back to his home, or on the first half of his bluesy vocals on 'Kno Ya Wrong', where his contempt for a leech is later expanded on 'Neva CHange', where it later expands to encompass the environment that would feed such systemic rot and how people can't get free. It goes further still on 'Black THoughts' where he speaks against the gangs to lay down their colours and how there should be more of a focus on just living, subverting the 'AllLivesMatter' slogan into referring to both Bloods and Crips, broader themes that carry over into the title track. And I'll say right out of the gate I really do love the thematic idea behind Blank Face LP, not just the hardened emotionless demeanor that comes with protecting one's emotions, but also the possibility of being seen as faceless to the outside world and especially cops so prone to dismiss them all, even though he repeatedly says he's out of that world. That dichotomy has always been at the root of his hip-hop persona... and man, I wish he went deeper here. That's arguably my biggest issue with this record, how close it is to really tapping into some powerful commentary but missing the mark with some really questionable lines, specifically when he gets political. For one, even though it probably made him money it rings as painfully shallow to say 'Thank you Mr. Reagan' on 'Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane', or to pair Malcolm X's famous phrase 'By any means' with a hook driving for gangsta hustle. And then there are the points where I'm just left exasperated, where Schoolboy Q calls himself the 'pussy Rambo' on 'Big Body, or when Lance Skiiiwalker continues to not impress me on the second half of 'Kno Ya Wrong' where calls for the girl to 'jump into his bank account so he can deposit her' - you know, treat her like currency, which I wouldn't exactly call romantic or workable with the rest of the track.

But okay, while those are some significant gripes, does the music at least deliver? Well, for the most part it really does, featuring some of Schoolboy Q's most varied and weird production to date. The one thing you'll notice as early as 'TorcH' are a lot more guitars and live basslines, and while I feel the hook on that song can feel a tad cluttered thanks to the heavier vocal overlays, other songs connect far better. The piano, waves of chimes and horn touches from Terrace Martin on 'Kno Yo Wrong' that transition to a sound that's very close to what Jay Rock had on 90059, the guitar solo that creeps through the back of the crushing bass and drill-like snares on 'Ride Out', the funk against the dustier groove of 'JoHn Muir', and the richer elements coming against the strings on the title track. And that's not counting more of the g-funk elements that creep in through the thicker basslines and synths, especially on tracks like 'Neva CHange', with a really solid hook from SZA.  And hell, there are songs like 'Lord Have Mercy' that pull on a darker and yet more soulful foundation that really come through well. But Schoolboy Q has also had a reputation for pulling from some more offkilter melodies, and that can be a mixed blessing - I liked the atonal dank production on 'Dope Dealer' courtesy of Metro Boomin which Schoolboy Q could handle well, but as I've already said on Billboard BREAKDOWN, with the exception of the much deeper final third with the echoing booms, I did not really like the melodies on 'THat Part'. And it gets even worse on 'Big Body' - the production that Tyler The Creator gives Schoolboy Q, with the beeping and tinkling sound effects against a flat synth line, it just feels chintzy and not bringing nearly the same atmosphere. Of course, then you have the flipside where the bass is so thick and heavy that it swamps out the entire song like on the otherwise surprisingly agreeable 'WHateva You Want' with the bouncy yet jagged synths, or on the closer 'Tookie Knows II' that was grimy enough on its own. Finally, a few hooks just didn't quite connect - I've never been wild about what Kendrick calls his 'Lord Of The Rings' voice on 'Black THoughts', or whatever the hell Lance Skiiiwalker keeps doing, but a few hooks here felt a tad too broad, not quite meshing with the atmosphere.

But to summarize... again, I'm conflicted about this album, and I've got the frustrating feeling that for as good as this record is, it could have been one of the best of the year if it pushed harder. For as much as Schoolboy Q could crank out bangers that I'd inevitably enjoy, I have to wonder if they have a shelf life - especially lyrically - in comparison with the more soulful and introspective cuts. Now thankfully Schoolboy Q has so much personality and knack for descriptive language that it almost doesn't matter, but considering how long this record was, already some cuts started to feel redundant, which I didn't really have to say with either of his last two albums. That said, strong production and great guest performances - for the most part - can redeem a lot, so I'm going to give this record a strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, but with a tighter focus, I'm convinced Schoolboy Q could make that killer record that could surpass Habits & Contradictions and really connect as a classic. He's shown the potential - now all he has to do is do it.

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