“Who's gonna save me when I need savin'?” —Drake (“Redemption”)
I have yet to meet or speak with GRAMMY-nominated rapper ScHoolboy Q. To date, our relationship has remained strictly creator and consumer.
Eight years ago, I purchased Setbacks—Q's 2011 debut and introductory release on independent label Top Dawg Entertainment—on iTunes for $7.99 after seeing the link in a 2DopeBoyz blog post. Three years later, after signing with Interscope Records, Q released his major label debut, Oxymoron, in March of 2014. Again, I went to the nearest Target and bought a physical copy. I remember my cashier staring at the album’s cover as if I purchased a how-to manual for breaking and entering.
While I have followed Q's career closely over the course of the current decade, he’s seldom an artist I find relatable. I know nothing of a Glock-toting grandmother, or of growing old in South Central L.A. as a Hoover crip, or of poverty and providing for a daughter who deserves the world, or of the transition that follows hardships inspiring rap songs that turn rags into Rolls-Royce Wraiths.
I don’t listen to Q's music with the expectation of looking into a mirror; the 32-year-old rapper is not my reflection. Or, so I thought.
During the recent press marathon for Q's newly-released fifth studio album, CrasH Talk, TDE’s outgoing recluse sat down with veteran music journalist Jeff Weiss for GQ. While explaining how golf became a diversionary tactic and taught him newfound patience, Q told Weiss, “Being in the house so damn much can drive you crazy.”
He continued, touching on depression and the perils of being stuck inside one’s head:
“I'd be in the house smoking weed, just waiting to go to the studio every day. That's not a good life. That brings on depression,” Q says. “You know how bad it is when you're going through all this shit in your head and all you're doing is going to the studio and back home?
For some, smoking weed, traveling to a studio, and then returning home is a pattern within Paradise. For millennials, it might even be a portrait of the modern American Dream; to live in a creative cycle without disruption from a traditional job or the worry of money.
But how can dreamers comprehend nightmares if they never have to wake up?
Before leaving Olive Garden to pursue writing full-time, no writer told me what happens after you land your first gig or after you experience moderate success. I heard the stories of glory, of prosperity, yet, somehow, months upon months of mental strain were exempt.
This strain feels like being locked in a room by yourself—God isn’t present, friends are absent, it's just you and an ugly, blank page. You sit at a desk knowing what’s expected; you know they are watching; you know the points must be put on the board. From desk to bed, bed to desk. Night and day, day and night. Facing the page; facing yourself.
My first few years as a full-time writer were enjoyable. I spent almost every hour of every day focused on pitching stories, listening to albums, and conducting research. After all, living on the merry-go-round demands a toll. Writing quickly became the best of times or the worst; Heaven or hell. And when it’s hell, the fire isn’t hot; it's cold—an unforgiving, uncaring, unloving cold.
Contrary to what he has said during his press run, ScHoolboy Q's CrasH Talk doesn’t sound like an album made in artistic heavens. Just as deadlines have no sympathy for writers, the industry has no compassion for rappers. Vince Staples said it best on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Burgundy”: “Don't nobody care about how you feel, we want raps, nigga."
Rappers are supposed to do one thing: rap. It’s their job, their duty. When I listen to CrasH Talk, that’s what I hear: An album meant to satisfy a service. For the first time in his career, the man born Quincy Hanley sounds like an artist clocking into work. His voice is more nimble, without the weighty bark; his ad-libs are a spark from a flickering lighter rather than an engulfing inferno. Only on album intro “Gang Gang” and the atomic “Numb Numb Juice” does Q rap with an exclamation point.
ScHoolboy Q's record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, understands the necessity of artistic identity. The label’s revered roster, which includes Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Jay Rock, and Isaiah Rashad, among others, has a personality for almost every kind of rap fan. From the very beginning of his career, Q has stood as their grooviest gangster—tough as shark skin and witty as a court jester, with a voice sharp as Valyrian steel.
So, what happens when ScHoolboy Q becomes someone else?
CrasH Talk has plenty of memorable moments, like the Sounwave and Illmind co-produced “5200” and the Lil Baby-featuring “Water.” Both songs could have been earth-moving bangers if this was the same Q from his 2012 classic Habits & Contradictions. Unfortunately, as I wrote in my 1-Listen review of the album, the house party anthems on CrasH Talk simply aren't as enticing as the slower, melancholy offerings.
Part of that critique stems from how Q's confessions spill out like a punctured blood vessel. When Q raps, "My baby mama paid the bills, I ain’t have shit on the smoke, the homies tell me I’m a burden, but never throw me a rope" on the excellent “Tales,” co-produced by DJ Dahi, Jake One, and G Koop, he delivers each word with a sense of comfort that is undeniably authentic. Unfortunately, traces of this approach are missing in action on single “CHopstix,” a hollow, microwave heated, Travis Scott-assisting play for radio.
There’s also “Drunk,” the 6LACK-featured ode to intoxication, which is unlike ScHoolboy’s previous bacchanal records. While the song's hook includes the line “I ain’t really drunk, just a lil buzz,” Q confusingly closes his first verse with the contradictory, “Hell yeah, nigga drunk, buzz if they ask.” This isn’t the same party animal who declared, “I love drunk driving, man I'm something else” on his belligerent 2012 single, “Hands on the Wheel.”
Q appears to be dishonest as a means of deflecting—and drunker than he cares to admit. This reminds me of how easy it is to tell people, “I’m fine,” knowing full well I’m really not.
Every record on CrasH Talk that was constructed to be a hit declares: “I’m rich”; “I’m famous”; “I’m fine.” But the bravado doesn't harmonize with Q's tone or his energy.
In several interviews, Q has stated CrasH Talk is his first album (of five) based around his life as a prosperous rapper and thriving parent. Lyrics like, “Front row at the Grammys, I'm getting praises from Jay, fuck about this award, I'm happy he knows my name, favorite rapper Nas been told me that I'm the best” or “Got my daughter that mansion (That mansion) Gave my mother that million (Million)” display how far he’s come since his daughter Joy said, “Fuck rap, my daddy a gangsta,” on Oxymoron intro "Gangsta."
Yet, as his comments to Weiss indicate, there’s more to rap success than praise from legends, mansions, and money; there’s devouring darkness, suffocating silence, and unbearable uncertainty. It also means coping with the untimely death of friends in the spotlight, constantly being asked "What’s next?" and navigating fluctuating temperaments for the world to dissect and discuss on the Timeline ©.
Drake said it best on “Survival,” the introductory track from his fifth studio album Scorpion: "Now I gotta deal with all this drama and deal with myself.”
Even though ScHoolboy Q is actively promoting his happiness, it's hard for me to believe happiness was present during the making of CrasH Talk. In fact, the project is a better reflection of what it means to be stuck in a scattered brain; the labels need an album, the fans need hits, critics want a classic, and friends think you should celebrate your success.
Is there also room for personal trauma and private affairs? Sounds exhausting.
Heavy is the head of a creator; heavier than consumers will ever know.
By Yoh, aka yoH crasHed, aka @Yoh31