It took me a while to get ScHoolboy Q.
While everyone else will claim to have known Q was a rap star in the making since before he was a zygote, I can pretty accurately and honestly track my trajectory into the world of Quincy Matthew Hanley. When I first heard him—probably somewhere around 2011’s Hell Yeah with Ab-Soul—I dismissed him as the least lyrical member of TDE, and in an era when 87 new rappers hit my headphones every day, that was enough to place him on the backburner.
Then, about a year later, I heard enough people talking about the new ScHoolboy sh*t that I started paying attention again, and I really listened to Habits & Contradictions when it dropped. But even then I didn’t really get it. It wasn’t until months later, when I had frankly forgotten about the album and stumbled across it again on iTunes, that it started to sink in. "Nightmare on Figg St" became one of my go-to bangers, and that led to a deeper (re)listen of the album, which led to a lot of late night drives with Q yak-yak-yak-ing through my speakers, and that led to almost crying to "Blessed," and by that time I was hooked.
So, with Oxymoron’s release date finally drawing near, I was starting to get nervous. This would be Q’s first album with the full major-label weight of Interscope behind him, and the first time hip-hop’s national spotlight would truly be on him. Would those added resources and the increased pressure and influence that comes with it take his music to the proverbial next level, like it did with Kendrick Lamar and GKMC? Or would it water down his music, diffuse what it was that made him unique in the first place like it has with so many other emcees before him?
Ten seconds into Oxy’s first track, "Gangsta," and those questions are answered. The debates around this album should be centered around how good it is, and we’ll get there, but when Q choose to lead his album off with a cut like "Gangsta," he immediately placed himself among elite company. While so many bangers in 2014 attempt to intimidate with shock and awe—huge bass, even bigger drums and larger-than-life hooks—"Gangsta" hits even harder because it’s so relatively subtle. This song doesn’t pull a gun on you in the club, it jumps you in an dark alley with a baseball bat and steals your socks just because.
For example, just contrast "Gangsta" with "What They Want," produced by Mike WiLL and featuring 2 Chainz, who together have done more to popularize that “shock and awe” banger style than almost anyone. Chainz is at his best when he’s at his most outrageous and borderline absurd, the exact opposite of Q, and the fact that the song still works is a testament to ScHoolboy’s versatility, but it’s also one of the album’s least compelling tracks. I’ll take a cut like "Hoover Street" over "What They Want" any day; I can name 1,000 tracks about stacking money, only a small handful about growing up with a fiend uncle who would steal your cereal. And if we’re talking high profile guest verses, Tyler The Creator’s disturbingly raspy hook on "The Purge," and Raekwon’s excellent work on the captivating "Blind Threats," work much better. He might be breaking the bank now, but on Oxymoron the shadows of Q’s dark life still loom as large as ever.
Q has always had a knack for a catchy hook—ScHoolboy there he go!—but while his darker material seems unchanged by fame, it’s really his lighter, more radio-friendly material that gets taken to the next level on Oxymoron. Two songs that have already been released as singles, "Collard Greens" and "Man of the Year," are as good of a blend between a rapper’s more street and party sides as you’re going to hear. The same guy whose grandma showed him his first strap on "Gangsta" is obviously the same guy who wants to see your hands (and ass, and titties) in the air on "Man of the Year." If you’re really going to be “I’m always hard, anti-radio guy,” I assume you’ll levy some criticism at "Hell of a Night," although there’s some real grit in the verses surrounding that club anthem hook and bridge, and really lay into "Los Awesome." I get why, the beat Pharrell put together for "Los Awesome" is as uptempo and bouncing as anything Q’s ever rhymed over, but while it’s one of my least favorite songs on the album, I still don’t have anything approaching a problem with it, maybe because as a Clipse fan "Awesome" sounds like a 2014 version of "Wamp Wamp." Regardless, while it’s songs like "Prescription-Oxymoron" that truly make Q an emcee worth listening to, I’m willing to give Q full “successfully made some party jams without losing touch with his base” credit of Oxymoron.
Let’s close by addressing the real issue here, at least among hip-hop heads. It’s inevitable that Oxymoron will get compared to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Q hasn’t avoided the comparisons. If anything he’s rushed at them head-on, because what else would a football player turned prescription pill pusher do? A “classic” album is one you listen to, and enjoy, as much years later as the day it dropped (if not more), but even then there are different grades of a classic. Some albums, like GKMC, you know are classics from the first listen; those are the rarest albums. On the flipside, some sneak up on you; one day you suddenly realize, “I’ve been going back to this album for years now, I guess it’s a classic.” Right now Oxymoron is somewhere between those two extremes.
It doesn’t have the complexity and cinematic scale that made GKMC so obviously powerful, but while there’s some obvious overlap, we don’t listen to Oxymoron for the same reasons we first listened to Kendrick’s major-label debut. If Kendrick was the good kid in a maad city, the genius with a pure soul thrust into hell, ScHoolboy is a mad kid in a mad city: a drug dealer, a drug addict, a self-proclaimed moron prone to intense mood swings. It’s that person we want to hear when we listen to ScHoolboy, not the guy with crazy lyricism or clever punchlines, and that’s the person we get on Oxymoron.
So while only time will tell if Oxymoron truly becomes a classic, I’d be surprised if I wasn’t going back to this album by the time 2014 comes to a close. That kind of growing appreciation for a Q album happened once for me, it will likely happen again. I’ve put in my time, I get it now.