Folks who’ve been following the Top Dawg camp for a few years now have likely settled into what’s become a pretty familiar catalog: Jay Rock plays the straight-faced gangster rapper and spiritual leader, Kendrick Lamar plays the prodigy, Ab-Soul plays the introspective lost soul and ScHoolboy Q… ScHoolboy Q does drugs and listens to Portishead records. But his career has always been more interesting than that, with the other members of the crew often regaling the media with tales of the potential they saw in a younger Quincy Hanley who spent his days the same as most other young Californians: looking for hip-hop glory atop classic mid-’90s East Coast boom bap and Dr. Dre knockoff beats. A look back at 2009 mixtape Gangsta & Soul reveals an artist not too far removed from a Ca$his or Bishop Lamont of that era, a far cry from the manic firebrand set before us today.
The appeal of ScHoolboy Q has been his ability to keep listeners guessing, sonically if not lyrically. 2012’s Habits & Contradictions saw ScHoolboy Q coming fully into his own over samples as esoteric as Menomena’s “Wet and Rusting” and Portishead’s “Cowboys”, not to mention the smoothest beats in Lex Luger and Mike Will’s short careers and “Nightmare on Figg St.”‘s transformation of “Niggas in Paris” to a house of horrors. I think this is what makes Oxymoron a bit of an oddly disconnected listen the first few times you fix yourself to approach it. For the first time, ScHoolboy Q’s dropped a full-length that trades in subtlety rather than obtuse shock value.
There is a consistency to the sound here — lethargic, dusky — that would appear in short bursts like “Blessed” before, but takes center stage now, allowing the listener to slowly acclimate themselves to what ultimately reveals itself as ScHoolboy Q’s most soul-baring effort yet. Initially, I was a bit put off by the front-loading of the high energy tracks folks likely came for. “Collard Greens” is still a fantastic single, blending the irreverent wordplay of the Pharcyde or Camp Lo with the reggae-tinged g-funk of DJ Quik or Warren G. “Los Awesome” might not be far off, a Pharrell track that’s immediately clever for all the ways Pharrell tries to obfuscate his involvement with new tricks, immediately intoxicating for his and Jay Rock’s repetitive, call-and-response chorus.
But the album opens with “Gangsta”, an audible representation of walking with a gangsta lean if ever there was one. On it, ScHoolboy saunters around in his trademark fisherman’s hat and skater shoes delivering all the tales of Figueroa Street, weed and women we’ve come to expect, but the track really serves as a tease of what follows the opening four-track appetizer with lines like, “my grandma showed me my first strap.” Later tracks like “Hoover Street”, “Prescription / Oxymoron”, “Blind Threats” and “Break the Bank” offer an unprecedented look into the inner workings of the Hanley family, and the joy of listening to Oxymoron quickly becomes discovering how ScHoolboy hopes to make such dreary imagery work with his energetic, party boy persona at large.
What’s there is as ripe for material as anything coming from the Duckworth and Stevens households. While he’s admitted to including lines like the aforementioned from “Gangsta” as much because it sounds cool to him as it is an artistic step forward, it becomes clear over the album’s meaty middle half that this album was clearly intended to exorcise some long-held demons. “What They Want”, featuring 2 Chainz, is more indicative of what an Oxymoron party would be like than its most single-worthy cuts. Everything about the track’s DNA screams fiesta right until the point it stumbles out of the speakers, all “this that car that won’t park, pedal to the floor, it won’t stop” and “push my penis in between her lap” in a striped sweater and Jason mask.
Pulling quotes from ScHoolboy Q tracks is as fun as it ever was. He’s taken another step forward in his use of imagery as a cipher for absurdism, and where he so often sounded in awe of his peers during the early days of his career Oxymoron is very clearly his show. It’s not the guests, not the producers, not the samples, just the dude who’s finally safe enough in his own skin to deliver the second verse of “Hoover Street”, a sublimely bleak tale of drinking whiskey as a pre-teen to spur urine into a cup for his probationary uncle (who was in the other room stealing from grandma) and a family circle almost stubbornly insistent on introducing a young Quincy Hanley to firearms. Q delivers these bits of his life in such animated, somewhat gleeful fashion it’s hard to find the pathos in it that folks draw so effortlessly from his Black Hippy cohorts but it’s clearly there.
Even when ScHoolboy gets into hitting for the cycle mode with a little black dress cut like “Studio” or “Hell of a Night”, he manages to keep them rapt with a sense of looming dread. The groovy as hell “Studio” in particular sees BJ the Chicago Kid and Swiff D reminding everyone that these diversions can add something to a rap album as long as the rapper on the spine doesn’t dive head first into corny sex metaphors. “The Purge” likewise satisfies every artist living or doing a work study in Los Angeles’ urge to fill an Odd Future quotient and seems a little cushioned between the soul baring (“My mommy call, I hit ignore / My daughter call, I hit ignore”) “Prescription / Oxymoron” and throwback to his east coast dreams (“Blind Threats”) with Raekwon, but taken on its own merits is likely the most easily digestible Wolf Gang tribute in a minute thanks to ScHoolboy and the legendary Kurupt.
Oxymoron is not an album that goes down easy, mostly because from “What You Want” on forward the record remains mired in a low end deluge without any intention of coming up for air. It can become remarkably easy to miss just how sudden and detailed ScHoolboy’s decision to let his listeners into his childhood is, a truth that speaks as much to his growth as a craftsman as the homogeny of the album here. Unlike his previous efforts Oxymoron picks a brand of momentum and sticks to it, avoiding the peaks and surprises that have so often signified a ScHoolboy Q project. But once the songs open up, once the mind begins latching onto whatever phrases happen to stand out from track to track alongside the larger personal narrative and getting lost in the blunted haze provided by Mike Will, Sounwave, Alchemist and Nez & Rio among others, it’s hard to remain as aloof as initial impressions might feel.