Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
The realization that there are greater things in life than money is an epiphany often afforded only to those who already have money. This is the difficult revelation that ScHoolboy Q — LA rapper, one-quarter of Black Hippy, and one of the flat-out best MCs around right now — wrestles with through much of his second major label release, Blank Face LP.
That he endeavors to tackle such a nuanced subject here isn’t surprising, as each of his past efforts have dealt with some contradictory facet of human nature. His two indie releases, Setbacks and Habits & Contradictions, see him trying to reconcile his come-up as an MC and his responsibilities as a father with his love of partying and his connections to gang life. Meanwhile his first major label record, the brilliantly titled Oxymoron, largely found Q rewinding his narrative back to his adolescent days selling oxycontin while getting high on his own supply.
The study of contrasts has always been Q’s bread-and-butter, and his ability to weave together seemingly oppositional narratives is stronger than ever on Blank Face.
Take the clever back-to-back pairing of mid-album cuts “Whateva U Want” and “By Any Means” for instance. On the former, Groovy Q goes over a propulsive beat to reflect on how he and a love interest were able to make it out of “Broke times in a broke place.” In celebration, Q wants to spoil her with new cars and shopping sprees; peppered throughout the track however, are interludes from Candace Pillay, assuming the role of his girlfriend and insisting “I don’t want your money darling / I just want your love.” It’s both a genuinely sweet track (the only moment on Blank Face that could be described as such) and an incredibly sly subversion of stereotypical hip-hop materialism.
Charm turns into desperation, however, as ScHoolboy descends from his “Cribbo in the hills” back down to the streets of South Central on “By Any Means.” The beat is driven by defeated background vocals and muddy bass notes that seem to periodically detonate rather than form a steady groove, giving Q a suitably bleak soundscape for his take on Malcom X’s famous phrase. He puts into focus the brutal practical reality of gang activity as a means of staying afloat where options for a more honest living are scarce. “I come from pimpin’, bangin’, baby momma rockin’ yayo,” he declares, so it only makes sense that he empathizes with people locked in the same cycle despite eventually deciding “N**** fuck all that, I’m tryna go my road.”
Reflections on money — and whether or not there are truly responsible ways to make and spend it — have become one of Black Hippy’s chief collective projects since they first broke into the mainstream, from Ab-Soul’s Control System to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Until now, ScHoolboy Q hasn’t touched on the subject to nearly the same degree, but the mindboggling thematic complexity found just between these two tracks (songs that aren’t even my favorites on Blank Face, mind you) demonstrates the quantum leaps forward he’s taken as a songwriter.
The strong kinship between the pair of tracks featuring Anderson Paak is another fantastic display of ScHoolboy’s amped-up artistic ambition. “TorcH” (the album’s opener) and the title track (which arrives near Blank Face LP’s conclusion) are pieces of jagged psychedelic funk. There’s a nice tension-and-release relationship between the two songs. “TorcH” is longer and more chaotic. Its thumping bassline recalls early Eminem while Q and Paak’s already impassioned vocal performances are chopped up, distorted, and pitch-shifted by producers Nez & Rio. There’s an eerie quality to it all, especially as Q’s voice starts skittering while leering “Who needs a motherfuckin’ friend? / You see these motherfuckin’ rims?” and as Anderson Paak comes through with an otherworldly outro, shouting “I had no one to lean on / That’s why the chip is so cold / Kinda like the cocaine on my fallen bros, oh Lord!”
“Blank Face,” meanwhile, is more calm and confident. Over a winding bass groove and some barely-there drums, Groovy Q trades in cars and money for quality time with his daughter, rapping “Playin’ the tooth fairy, Santa before I’m buried / Easter egg huntin’, pickin’ seeds out the pumpkin.” Paak, for his part, sums up this shift in priorities rather beautifully: “I’ll trade the noise for a piece of divine.”
For as conceptual as Blank Face LP is, decoding and dissection aren’t even really necessary to enjoy it since each song simply stands on its own as an exceptional piece of work. ScHoolboy Q’s heightened songwriting ambition is perfectly matched by a wrecking crew of great features and producers that all lend to the record’s epic, tripped-out darkness.
Kendrick Lamar’s right-hand-man Sounwave lays down a sprawling beat on “JoHn Muir,” switching between a filthy synth lead and breathtaking backing vocals on a dime. Meanwhile, the instrumental Nez & Rio cook up on “Str8 Ballin” — an impenetrable thicket of synthesized strings — is unlike anything I’ve heard before; Q uses the drama of it all wisely, spitting disquieting bars like “Stomach get to mumblin’ at night / Watchin’ every car that drive by, lookin’ every driver in the eye.”
And “Dope Dealer” is an absolute banger. Q and E-40 seem to float over the colorful beat courtesy of Southern phenoms Metro Boomin and Southside, rapping about everything from the Ten Commandments to eating Dominos pizza in the middle of a gang war.
Blank Face’s crown jewel is “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane,” which is about as perfect as hip-hop songs get. The track first surfaced as a ferocious three-minute chin check signalling the LP’s imminent arrival. I loved the song in its initial form, but the album version doubles the running time, taking the original’s savagery and expanding it to cinematic proportions. ScHoolboy’s bonkers flow — perfectly syncopated with the clamoring beat and continually escalating in volume and aggression until a sample uttering “blank face” hits — is still intact, but things get thrown for a loop once the track arrives where its final chorus used to be. In place of the hook, Jadakiss appears out of nowhere to spit a monster verse with ice cold bars like “Running with the rebels / It’s a three man weave with the Lord and the Devil.”
From there, producers Tae Beast and Dem Jointz have the song’s instrumental doing backflips, as the same synths and drum samples are restructured to sublime effect. Dem Jointz belts out a pair of wild, Five Heartbeats-referencing vocal interludes, and Candace Pillay provides a haunting outro while ScHoolboy lays down two stellar verses with some bars that cut to the bone: “Thank you Mr. Reagan, you helped the dollars rake in / And to my uncle that fucked up the family / The shit you was smokin’ I was pushin’ / Residue lies on the cushion / I’ma blame it on your ass ‘cause I ain’t gettin’ whoopings.”
As a sidenote before I start wrapping up my review, a whopping six music videos have been released in support of Blank Face LP, and each is a stunner. “Groovy Tony” and “JoHn Muir” are impressive displays of point-of-view cinematography heavy with long takes, “THat Part” is a potent dose of gritty psychedelia, and the videos for “By Any Means,” “Black ThougHts,” and “Tookie Knows Pt. II” are interconnected pieces of series that comes to a powerful conclusion. I don’t normally write about music videos in the context of an album review, but these visuals are truly great, adding an even greater sense of scale to an already gargantuan project.
In an incredibly ballsy move, Q closes out this seventeen-song monster of an album with a posse cut featuring TF and Traffic — two guys that don’t have a single other widely released song to their name. Despite their lack of output, however, these dudes spit hard as concrete, each using Q’s fatalistic hook (“We might die for this shit, n**** / Might go down for this shit, n****”) as their grim prompt. The beat here is also stellar, with piano loops that sound like pure evil, a subterranean bassline, and a hi-hat pattern that sounds more like jangling shackles than anything on a drum kit. Between verses, audio snippets play of guns rattling off dozens of shots while sirens blare and helicopters buzz overhead, making the streets of South Central sound like Fallujah. But in the last few weeks, urban America has seemed just as dangerous as Q’s twisted vision.
A couple hours before Blank Face LP dropped, ScHoolboy Q released a remix to one of the album’s lead-in singles, the catchy-as-hell “THat Part,” with added verses from his Black Hippy cohorts — Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Kendrick Lamar. Q took the opportunity to record a new verse that captured his reactions to the (thoroughly filmed) murder of Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers, rapping “Two cowards in the car, they’re just there to film / Saying Black Lives Matter, should’ve died with him / …I feel bad that my daughter gotta live this life / I’ll die for my daughter gotta fight this fight.”
Due to having likely recorded their verses weeks prior to the remix’s release, the rest of the Black Hippy crew flexes their lyrical muscle rather than say anything as poignant. But simply hearing these guys come together sends a bold message on its own. As a bunch of young black men who grew up in rough areas, endured socioeconomic hardships, and were affiliated with (or part of) gangs, these four steadfastly represent the talent, the potential, the uniqueness, the humanity in a group of people that far too many — through ignorance and hatred — view simply as blank faces.