Wednesday, May 1, 2019

album review: 'crasH talk' by scHoolboy q

I had a bad feeling about this.

And oh dear god, that sinking feeling of dread in your gut when you have every expectation the album you're about to hear is going to be nowhere close to as good as it should be is among the worst possible experiences you can have as a critic. Don't get me wrong, there were albums that dropped on April 26th that were bad, no way around it, but it's not like I expected quality out of AJR - hell, for them, if they somehow got worse, that'd at least be fascinating in an excruciating sort of way.

But with ScHoolboy Q... look, I know it's been years since Habits & Contradictions, which I still hold is a fantastic album. I know he's in a different place as an MC than when he made Oxymoron or even Blank Face LP, an album so many folks loved and that I like despite its messiness. I know that he was shaken badly by the deaths of Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle and I was expecting that to creep into his work. I know that for as much as critics like to place TDE on a pedestal that it's shakier in 2019 across the board than it was even three or four years ago, even if nobody wants to admit it. And with the singles rolled out for CrasH Talk and the features list... look, I was worried, I'm not going to dance around this, even with the acknowledgement that of the crew, ScHoolboy Q has always been willing to dive into flashier, mainstream-accessible tendencies. And hey, if your expectations are in free fall, maybe it can only go up from there, so screw it: what did we get from CrasH Talk?

So I can see CrasH Talk as being a divisive project - and I'll be honest, across my first two or three listens, I was convinced that it was a messy, disjointed, frequently underwhelming project and easily the worst album ScHoolboy Q has ever released. And a half dozen listens later... I'm not about to retract many of my criticisms, but I will say that I understand what ScHoolboy Q was attempting with CrasH Talk a little better. And that understanding of his mindset - a comfort and stability in his lane juxtaposed with an unanswered feeling of depression, survivor's guilt, and a desperate desire to project and prevent from anyone else from seeing any of that vulnerability - does make this project make sense. I can certainly respect what ScHoolboy Q was looking to do with this - I just wish I liked it.

Granted, some of that might be rooted in how much ScHoolboy Q sounds outside of the West Coast groovy tones and slick melodic vibes in his production that made him so distinctive, both within TDE and outside of it. That's not saying he can't do this leaden, actively discordant trap sound justice - you know that every badly tuned piano and guitar chord was picked to sound as sickly and fractured as possible, it's intentionally designed to feel uncomfortable... and thus I'm torn on whether it's a indictment of how much of mainstream trap could fall in this lane for this type of subversion too easily, or if I'm just giving ScHoolboy too much credit and he just picked a bunch of bad melodies that just happen to be big right now. And what's exasperating is that when you look at some of his guest appearances, it's clear they're not on his wavelength to get introspective or provide much worth caring about; they could well represent the shallow commercial pivot. Travis Scott's already been lambasted for 'CHopstix', which isn't good but isn't a total failure either, but it's not like 'Water' by Lil Baby doesn't fall in that territory, and I'd even be inclined to put 'Lies' with Ty Dolla $ign and YG and 'Floating' with 21 Savage there too. And it's not even so much the content as it is the lack of groove or flow that makes this album discomforting - ScHoolboy Q's production team has always given him some weird, swampy melodies that might not always be on key, especially in recent years, but when the bass beats are these overweight trap clunkers and the hooks have stripped away the melody in favor of blunt repetition, it's obvious they don't play to his strengths, especially if you're familiar with his back catalog. And the only reason I'm inclined to give him a pass is that I can tell it's intentional and trying to throw his audience off-balance - it's one reason why so many of the songs feel abortive, fragments that flow into the next before he can truly hit rock bottom - but if his version of deflection and coping is just making the same mind-numbing bangers as everyone else just with worse sequencing - and the sequencing of this album when the songs are not designed to flow into each other directly is pretty bad... look, just because I understand it doesn't mean I have to like it.

And there are three big reasons why I'm not entirely on-board with how the bangers might mean more than they do, the first being that the larger commercial audience won't give a shit one way or the other, because they sure aren't looking for that deeper album context. And why would they, because in my second point, it's rare that the content of these songs highlights there would be greater connective tissue - when Kendrick leaned into his commercial side with DAMN., many individual cuts implied more going on in a way that CrasH Talk just doesn't, especially when the guests chime in. And to the third point, even within the album I'd struggle to say the album keeps a consistent tone in its discordance - this isn't Danny Brown pulling us into a kaleidoscopic nightmare of all shapes and sizes, a song like 'CHopstix' with its cheap watery layering or that fragmented attempt at elegance on 'Water' or the brighter West Coast bounce of 'Lies' with a big hook from Ty Dolla $ign doesn't seem like it'd fit within the more fragmented, discordant vibe, which every 'crash talk take' seeming to imply that ScHoolboy is struggling to assemble a cohesive statement before everything crashes into the wall again - or in a case like 'Floating', the lack of any deeper lyrical subversion doesn't really match the ugly piano line. But if I'm being brutally honest, there's not many tunes that were chosen I think work well at all even in context - 'Numb Numb Juice' might go hard as hell and I think works better in the context of the album, but it's still way too short to hit as hard as it could - similar case for the off-key choppy guitars of 'Dangerous' with Kid Cudi - and the wheedling keyboard tones cutting through 'Black Folk' leave me feeling there should be more to the mix, not the first time I'm left feeling a few of these songs are underproduced or a bit undercooked. Hell, for as hard as '5200' goes, between its cadence, beeping melody, and wiry vocal layering, it's hard not to see this as coming from the cutting room floor of the Black Panther soundtrack of last year.

And yet here's the thing: I get why these moments of relative 'normalcy' are here, and the sharp juxtaposition between them and the moments where ScHoolboy Q has to take a breath and snatch a moment of vulnerability does give this project potent moments. I appreciate how the oily keys of 'Gang Gang' collides with the west coast boom-bap of 'Tales' where he reminisces how he could have taken a less criminal path, but didn't and now sees the depths to which he's been pulled and the death around him. It's one reason why the shattered pianos and attempted hookup to mutually ease each other's pain with 6LACK works on 'Drunk', or how 'Black Folk' tries to center the chase for money but shows the monotony in trying to sustain it, which forces him to dumb down his content and distrust his relationships. Hell, it's very possible to see 'Dangerous' as an overdose moment where in seeing friends fly away to either greater success or whatever's next, leaving him stuck floating in a forgotten cloud of weed smoke and pills - it's not surprise we get 'Crash Talk, take three' right after that. But it's in that final third that ScHoolboy is probably most consistent, first with 'CrasH' as he broods on being left behind and seeing too many around him shorten their time on earth, whereas given how he has a daughter, the responsibility forces him to find some form of peace of mind and stability. And with 'Attention'... well, it's not exactly a safe note to end things on, as it shows both the acclaim he's received now but just how easily he could have been taken by the trap and how that legacy of trauma could have lingered. Not so much coping but soldiering on, a grim note but one that shows him steering through the skid, with no need for a final take. again, I said near the beginning this album will be divisive, but it's one I get why he made, and if there's a project that illustrates the muddy stop-and-start nature of coping with trauma while still wringing out some measure of success, it would be this. This has prompted some critics to draw a parallel with Snoop Dogg settling into his underwhelming comfort zone, but I'd argue it's inexact and doesn't quite give this enough credit - in its fragmented, emotionally scattered approach to reconciling grief I'm reminded a bit more of Earl Sweatshirt's Some Rap Songs, although this replaces jazz rap abstraction with trap bangers, and I'm not sure it's better for it. Because again, while I think I grasp this album, I'm not sure I precisely like it - individual songs feel undercooked, ScHoolboy Q always seems on the cusp of really showing something revealing and truly heartfelt, and while he's competent outside of his comfort zone, there are more flubbed rhymes and flows than I can truly excuse here either. And given I have very little desire to revisit it... yeah, strong 5/10, and I think if you're coming as a fan of his more lyrical material as I am, you're going to wind up disappointed., it's not precisely bad, but he's absolutely done better, but I hope if this is something ScHoolboy Q needed to get out of his system, it's truly out for the better, and I'm hoping he's in a better place for what might be next.

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