Wearing a pair of gold-rimmed, perfect-circle glasses, and a top hat to rival an Amish man, ScHoolboy Q rubs his scruffy struggle beard and grumbles to half asleep, “I’m a gangster rapper, that’s who I am.” On the press run for his third studio LP, Oxymoron, Q has made it very clear how squarely he thinks he fits into the “gangster rap” category. The rap world’s collective agreement with his claim speaks to how far modern hip-hop is willing to let its normally icy machismo wander. To a larger and more abstract extent, Q’s challenging of the Gangster role shows how the world’s shifting perception of gender and masculinity is seeping into all areas of life.
ScHoolboy Q, the squawking goofball who hangs out with Mac Miller and calls himself “chubby” on records and “whack” in interviews is the Gangster Rapper of the moment. The genre has been home to rappers both self-deprecatingly funny (The Notorious B.I.G. called himself fat and ugly) and eccentric (Cam’ron and his affinity for pink) in the past, but no one has ever been as sloppy or self-deprecating as Q.
The hook to “Gangsta,” track one on Oxymoron and a vicious ode to the Crip life that Q was long a part of, is a brute, uninhibited force. “Gangsta, gangsta, gangsta” he chants, with frightening venom. While certainly hyper-masculine, there is a vulnerable tinge to Q’s unhinged, mad-eyed performance. Cave-mannish lyrics aside, “Gangsta” remains important because of how far it lands Q from the forced composure of his Gangster Rap predecessors. ScHoolboy himself has often pointed, in interviews, to the dead-eyed 50 Cent as a defining beacon of the genre. Q has referred to himself as the hollow money machine Puffy countless times on Twitter. Absent from Q’s persona is the steely reserve of 50 and Diddy before him; it is replaced with tangible, approachable emotion.
The content of Q’s lyrics, given the context of recent interviews, further challenges the typical notion of masculinity. On “Gangsta,” he chants, “They say they want that gangsta shit,” Track four, “What They Want,” echoes the sentiment: “This that shit that they want…This that shit they gon’ buy.” In claiming that he is only responding to a demand, Q ceases to endorse these individual representations of gang life as being the whole story.
“It’s embarrassing for me to even really be talking about it in detail. …Why would I go and do all that type of stuff, and take time away from my daughter,” Q asked recently, on Hot 97. The ex-gangbanger is more than aware of how sinful his past life was. While he regrets it, he remains thankfully far from parodying gang culture. Instead, he is helping to portray it in a more honest, grim manner.
Oxymoron reaches its ugly, cautionary peak on the semi-title track, “Prescription/Oxymoron.” In the opening half, Q details his addiction to Oxycontin pills in painful detail: “Dinner on my shirt, my stomach hurts / I had a ball sellin’ 80s but yo, the karma’s worse / I cry when nothing’s wrong.” To add to the lyrics’ wrenching effect, Q’s own daughter is featured on the track, crying out to her father, “What’s wrong, daddy? Wake up!” It is hard to imagine anything further from the polished cool of 50 Cent’s “What Up Gangsta,” a song that begins with the image of Superman’s S on his chest. ScHoolboy is so much more flawed, damaged, and passionate than 50 Cent. ScHoolboy is concerned with consequences—on Oxymoron, no deed, good or “gangsta,” goes unpunished.
Once the sad, clicking beat of “Prescription” slips us into Q’s coma along with him, the eager menace of “Oxymoron” slaps to life. Q becomes a cocky dealer, selling the very same pills that nearly took his life in the song’s first half. Astute listeners will note that “Oxymoron” actually covers events that took place before “Prescription.” Q calls our attention to the consequences of a reckless, unsympathetic way of life by first wrenching us with an addict’s tale, and then showing us the dealer gloating about his sales.
ScHoolboy Q’s gangsta world is a distinctly human, unpolished mess in progress. The efforts on the part of the Black Hippy spitter to produce valuable tales of street life that are musically enjoyable and realistic are valiant, and, further, his very existence is important. As one of the year’s headlines and the culture’s tastemakers-to-be, Q’s authentic, well-rounded, challenging version of the “gangsta” persona is not only a solid step for hip-hop culture but for gender politics. If artists as stereotyped as Gangster Rappers can continue to push their boundaries, we move toward a world where the definition of masculinity more comfortably accepts reflection, vulnerability, passion, pain, and, ultimately, well-rounded people and honest success.