I'm not exactly sure when ScHoolboy Q became one of my favorite rappers, it was probably somewhere between my 97th and 146th listen to Oxymoron. From Ghostface Killah to Tech N9ne, my favorite rappers tend to be aggressively strange, hilarious yet also not to be trifled with, and young Quincy was a rare breed within that rare breed. Capable of being intensely emotional ("Prescription/Oxymoron"), funny ("Collard Greens") and lethal ("Fuck LA"), ScHoolboy has become the holy ghost of the new school gangster rap spirit, and Oxy was his Old Testament.
Perhaps TDE has trained us well to not expect albums more than once every couple years, but it hasn't seemed like that long since Oxymoron. No "where's the new album though?!?!" fervor had set in, no "what happened to?" questions asked. Now, today, as his new album Blank Face arrives, it doesn't feel either anxiously awaited or too late, it feels like exactly the right time. My hopes for this album are higher than Q's uncle the night before a drug test, but I also feel oddly Zen about it. It will be an incredible album, or it will fall short of mind-blowing, either way the world will likely be just a slightly better place for having a new Q album in it.
As always, this 1 Listen review will be a gut reaction, stream of consciousness account of my first listen to the album with no pausing, rewinding or editing. Then I'll be back later, weeks or months from now, with a follow-up review that attempts to break down the meaning and importance of the album once I've had time to marinate on it. For a deeper explanation of 1 Listen reviews, click here.
And with that, let's do this damn thing. YAWK YAWK YAWK!
Idea: A ScHoolboy Q app that automatically capitalizes every "H" you type. Get Top on the phone.
Anyway....a schizophrenic opening, voices, bass lines, feels almost To Pimp a Butterfly-esque, a snippet of Anderson .Paak's voice, a heavy metal guitar right out of a Slayer song. First words are "fuck the blogs" - fair enough Q, fair enough. Definitely not the usual production for Q, some real storytelling - oh shit, now the beat's starting to become clear. One song in and it's obvious he's got some grander ambitions for this album than in the past. Who needs a motherfucking friend? Pretty sure that's Paak with the background vocals, shout out to Sega Genesis, grandmas with plastic-covered couches and the L.A. Rams.
Well damn then. I wasn't sure what I was expecting from an opening track, but that wasn't it. I'm now ready for anything.
2. "Lord Have Mercy"
Goddamn, you don't hear a soul sample like this often on a Q album. He's almost singing, already I feel like there's a narrative here that's going to take me a few listens to piece together. Q is really coming into his own as an emcee, I'm so impressed by those verses I don't even (completely) mind Swizz Beatz once again inserting his vocals into a song for no apparent reason.
At first I actively didn't like "THat Part," but it's really grown on me - it helps that the radio version I've been hearing completely cuts out that superfluous last section. (Shout out to me for using superfluous in a rap review.) That beat is undeniable, Cardo continues his winning streak on the beat, the hook is an anthem waiting to happen and I've come around on Kanye's verse - that Chipotle reference is stellar. Unfortunately though, the album version has that ending section:
Kanye: Bruh, you know what this song needs? More me.
Kanye: I'm just gonna ramble at the end for like a minute, people will love it. I'M A GENIUS!!!
ScHoolboy: Uh....I can't say no, can I?
Kanye: YOU DON'T SAY NO TO KANYE WEST!!!
ScHoolboy: Sure then, minute long ramble at the end it is.
Hearing this song in the context of the album doesn't help me understand it any better, but overall I dig it. Moving on...
Like "THat Part," "Groovy Tony" has been in my ears for a minute now, that bass line alone is a felony waiting to happen. This is audio menace, not a banger necessarily, it's too mellow and haunting for that, but it's still vicious. Q is on his cracked aggression flow, the Jekyll to the Hyde we hear on lighter tracks. And here comes the Jada verse...that man's voice sounds like he had his vocal cords surgically replaced with gravel, one of rap's all-time greatest voices. Oh shit, and here comes the beat switch, we must be in the "Eddie Kane" portion of the program.
It's a little jarring, this percussion is intentionally off, and now the vocals are this odd blues-country-insanity thing. What is happening in my ear drums right now? This might be genius or a well-intentioned mess, it's going to take more than one listen to figure it out. Musically this album is already exponentially more complex than any Q album before it - sounds like they packed up the TPAB recording sessions and went straight to Q's.
5. "Kno Ya Wrong" ft. Lance Skiiiwalker
Shades of ODB with that shaky singing in the beginning. Much more relaxed, feels like a deep breath after almost drowning in the layers of that last track. Q would always switch his voice and his flow up, but on this album it's hitting another level - and another beat change. If the last album was Oxy, this one is psychedelics. I assume the source of this singing is Skiiwalker, I don't know if I've heard why TDE signed him yet, talent wise, but it's early yet. Man, this is far more jazz-influenced than I ever expected from the man who made "Druggies & Hoes."
6. "Ride Out" ft. Vince Staples
VINCE AND Q. I repeat, VINCE AND Q!!! I haven't been this excited since my Mom actually got me that pair of rollerblades I begged for in middle school. The beat's a lowkey banger, it feels almost reptilian, slinking but venomous. Q sliding into the track like that Uncle you love but wouldn't trust to babysit your kids, WHEW, this is dirtier than a pig in a construction site. And here comes Vince, the Ramona Park legend. Right on time, they're trading off verses. I know it's a hope beyond hope, but an EP from Q and Vince? I'd be able to die a happy man. This one's going to stay on repeat for an hour once I'm done with this review.
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A lot of electric guitar on this album. Like, a lot. Q must have been listening to a lot of Appetite for Destruction over the last two years.
7. "WHateva U Want" ft. Candice Pillay
Seems like this one is obviously going to be the proverbial song for the ladies - word to T.E. on the song title - but the album's been sonically really cohesive. It may be the most "dance-able" song on the album yet, but it's my no means bright and happy. The breakdown on the chorus is a little too EDM-y for my tastes, but it's still sonically cohesive with the rest of the album so far, grumbling bass and an overwhelming number of layers. It may be an obvious "single," but this is exactly the kind of song radio's going to play. Candice Pillay's vocals are almost...creepy, in a romantic way, if that makes any sense.
Just caught that Q's idea of giving her whatever she wants is "splitting a meal." God bless that man.
Um...shout out to Lil B on the first coupe lines, and that's definitely Kendrick with the background vocals. And now Q's quasi-singing, even now that he's back to rapping his voice sounds different. Eight songs into this album and I'm thoroughly confused, which I consider a good thing. I don't want to over do it, but once again I feel compelled to a make a TPAB comparison. Every song feels like it's more of a piece of a larger picture and less of a song that could easily exist in isolation (with the exception of "THat Part").
9. "Dope Dealer" ft. E-40
Oh shit, the transition there was so quick and clean I almost didn't notice it was a new song, thought it was a beat switch coming off "By Any Means." This beat sounds like toys melting in a fire - trust me that will make sense when you hear it. So happy to hear 40 on this, Q always makes sure to bring in some west coast legends. Great verse, but the song's still profoundly strange - the hook almost drops in energy, the opposite of what you'd expect. So far everything about this album so far has been made to defy easy expectations.
10. "JoHn Muir"
For those of you not from California, John Muir...excuse me, JoHn Muir...was a famous nature conservationist who founded a number of state parks. What that has to do with a rap album I have no idea. Onto the song itself. Once again it's far more complicated than I expected, although easier to just nod your head to. No, wait, that chorus is unexpected, it almost transitions to this '70s R&B jam on the chorus. This shit is really hitting its stride in the second verse, Q's flow is stellar. JoHn Muir would be proud to have his name associated with such dopeness...maybe. That dude died like a century ago.
11. "Big Body" ft. Tha Dogg Pound
I think Tyler the Creator produced this, if so that makes sense, you'd almost think it was a Pharrell beat. Really west coast, but also oddly modern. There's live instrumentation all over this album, I'm curious how The Dogg Pound is going to sound, not necessarily the typical beat they'd go over. I don't want to keep writing that I'm not quite sure how to feel about these songs, but sorry, it's the truth. It feels like Q slipped into another dimension between this album and Oxymoron, one similar to his old world but also profoundly different.
12. "Neva CHange" ft. SZA
A more mellow switch-up, I feel like I could use something easier to digest. GOD DAMN, when those drums kick in? Sounds like Jesus himself is manning the kick snare. This is smoother than some freshly Zambonied ice, and SZA just came through and absolutely crushed that hook in the sweetest way possible. I'm loving this, you might think it's a love song but there's all sorts of police brutality and political talk weaved in here. Very fitting for what happened last night - peace be to everyone in Dallas. This and "Ride Out" are my two favorites so far. (Although, granted, that's only after one listen.)
13. "Str8 Ballin'"
Some chopped orchestration, this is the most Oxy-sounding beat on the album so far. Definitely breaking out the screw face to this one, I need to see Q perform this one live. Snoop's not the only Crip who made it rich. Who's that singing on the verse? I can't place him at all. Feeling hypnotized by this one - also just realized we're 13 songs in. These 1 Listens can be exhausting, but the album doesn't feel like it's dragging at all, I have to assume that's because the sonics keep switching up. If this album is a movie, this is the car ride scene at night where the bank robbers just realize they'd gotten away clean, happy but still jacked up on adrenaline.
14. "Black THougHts"
Have to assume this is a prison phone call with one of the homies. More jazz vibes on the keys, some real storytelling on the verse. I swear, this voice over kind of voice is the same one that kicks in occasionally on TPAB, who is it? It might be too obvious, but yes, Black Thought should have been on this track. I'm going to need to listen to this one more closely, but truth be told, it's getting late and I'm starting to space out a bit. Blame it on the mellow vibes.
15. "Blank Face" ft. Anderson .Paak
Have to assume this was a trade for .Paak getting that verse from Q on Malibu. Anderson's simply better than everyone else right now, he somehow manages to drop iller bars than most rappers while singing them, over a minute in and we still haven't heard Q's voice yet, I'm not complaining. Just realized this is the title track and I don't get the Blank Face concept yet, that's a good thing. It means the concept's too well thought out to catch on just one listen (hopefully). The last three songs have all really slowed down the tempo of the album. Feels like we're 100 miles away from "THat Part," but it's all been part of the same journey.
16. "Overtime" ft. Miguel & Justine Skye
If Q hadn't come out and said he doesn't really like this song, that the label made him include it for the radio - which makes more sense hearing the entire album, there's really nothing else the radio's going to easily gravitate towards - I might be more inclined to like it, but now I'm biased. It does sound simple compared to what's come before. For the first time in the album I'm vaguely bored. (Has enough time passed for me to ask what happened to Miguel?) I might just end up deleting this from my copy of the album, doesn't "Blank Face" serve as a much better way to end the album?
Except there's one last song...
The latest in a song series that goes back two albums now, goddamn, I take it back. I'd still cut "Overtime," but the album should definitely end here. A much more straightforward song than the rest of the album, which isn't the same thing as simple. The bass on this beat is earthquake worthy, this is some of that real gangster music. Amen.
If it wasn't clear from 17 tracks worth of writing, Blank Face caught me off guard. Q was always far from basic, but among TDE he was traditionally less experimental and more straight ahead than Kendrick and Ab-Soul. I don't know if that's true anymore. This album is absolutely packed with live instrumentals, beat switches, concepts that demand more than one listen and audio stacked more complexly than a Jenga tour. It's not the album I was expecting, it's the album I couldn't have possibly expected, and that's always a better thing. Now it's time to listen again...
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.