Well, we certainly didn't have to wait long for the Best Rap Album of the Year conversation to get started.
If you were a hip-hop fan in the Southern California region, 2011 proved to be a very exciting year. After an entire decade spent being held at arm's length by most major outlets, the ever-increasing influence of bloggers, mixtape aggregators, and Tumblr obsessives finally broke open the gates for the West's newest crop of rappers to get on the field with everyone else. Odd Future and Lil' B became the zeitgeists through which Los Angeles and its neighboring cities both became rather weird and rather relaxed, offering us vaudeville performances from Kreayshawn and her White Girl Mob, stoned beach-jams from Dom Kennedy and El Prez, and the ever-challenging roster of instrumental artists drifting through the Low End Theory.
But Odd Future was the collective that achieved an abundance of media attention largely through their antics, tweets, shockingly quick ascension to something like mainstream acceptance, and the resultant backlash post-Goblin. Meanwhile, it was another California crew, the long-gestating Top Dawg Entertainment, that really seemed to capture the longing for something that meant something felt by 20-something hip-hop listeners across the country. While all four of the rappers under their umbrella released full-length iTunes-only projects last year, it was really only the Dr. Dre-cosigned Kendrick Lamar who earned a spotlight though anyone who heard Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and ScHoolboy Q's offerings would tell you those guys really weren't that far behind Lamar.
But 2012 looks to be the year in which those guys prove it's not "Kendrick Lamar's crew", and ScHoolboy Q is first out the gates with an album that quite honestly, despite its release date, might be starting the conversation for hip-hop album of the year. His 2011 debut, Setbacks, was certainly a confident mixtape/street album, but it felt mostly like a collection of decent-to-great songs, not necessarily a statement of character. Habits & Contradictions certainly isn't that, as everything from the way ScHoolboy Q raps to the beats he selects to the subject matter he tackles comes from a much more conflicted place than he was a year ago. The roles at Top Dawg had always been pretty clearly defined coming into 2012: Kendrick and Ab-Soul addressed the issues of the street from the stoop, while ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock would stop by to share a blunt and long for the stoop from the street.
But Habits & Contradictions is the inevitable result of the label's artists coming into their own as both people and performers; it's an album about grey areas and, well, contradictions, rather than clearly drawn white lines and transparent motives. As a character, Q feels like someone who was in the audience of Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 narrator and is now aware of the many mistakes he makes each day. He has sex with women and deals drugs with a sort of vitriolic anger and righteous indignation that's intensely unsettling. At his best, such as the certifiably creepy "My Hatin' Joint" and acidic "Nightmare on Figg St.", he's as disturbing as vintage Eminem or Three 6 Mafia, all psychotic id and impulsive self-destruction.
But as ScHoolboy Q has found ways to expand his in-studio character, and he's also expanded himself as a performer. There is a lot of Kendrick's abstract, awkwardly creative deliveries in ScHoolboy's performance here, and his balancing of a religiously conflicted, socially conscious gangster with his surprising growth as a rapper has challenged the TDE production roster to brew up some of their most inspired production yet. "My Homie" sits comfortably in the jazzy, laid back vibe they established for most of Lamar's Section.80, but "There He Go"'s sampling of Menomena's "Wet and Rusting" is intoxicatingly creative, while Mike Will's "My Hatin' Joint" finds the Atlanta producer going drastically left of his center to craft a sort of evil twin to Young Jeezy's "Way Too Gone".
"Hands on the Wheel" twists a sampling of Lissie's live "Pursuit of Happyness" cover into a sort of sanity-retention anthem, while "Blessed" uses Main Attrakionz-style repetitious moans to refer back to "Sacrilegious"' opening brooding. Two of the album's most divergent tracks are also its most daring: "Grooveline", featuring one of Curren$y's most minutely detailed and lethargic verses yet ("Too high to find the remote, fell asleep to a infomercial / Woke up in her mouth, reruns of Full House, followed by some Urkel"), is so lurching its almost not there, an odd mist of relaxation drifting over a sea of despair. The curiously stylized and titled "NiggaHs.Already.Know.Davers.Flow" juxtaposes later on with a menacingly simple joint that, like Rick Ross' "Fuck 'Em", teeters on the edge of engaging hip-hop's curious prodding of the dubstep beast without outright embracing it.
Habits & Contradictions looks like a bit of an endurance run on paper, and it might be that kind of experience initially. ScHoolboy Q isn't the most easily approachable rapper in the crew anymore, and his angry inversion of Kendrick Lamar's style makes for a guy who's initially very hard to sympathize with. But as repeated listens begin to reveal the ways he constantly plays his spiritual beliefs and positive habits against the contradiction of his anarchic environment and negative reactions, and as the lush, downright gorgeous production begins to familiarize itself and reveal how creatively ScHoolboy Q plays off of it, Habits & Contradictions becomes 2012's first great surprise of the year.
Saying the guy's put out an album that's in many ways Section.80's sinister equal wouldn't be much of a stretch -- some might even consider it slightly better, or at least more assured. How much of a dent the Top Dawg camp can make on the world of sales and marketing this year remains to be seen, but if their rate of growth as artists is any indication...well, it's only February, and it's already hard to imagine that anyone, California or otherwise, is going to be messing with these young men from an artistic perspective. Habits & Contradictions is a total must-listen.