ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP: 90’s Gangsta Rap and Its Contemporary Revival

ScHoolboy Q is not Kendrick Lamar. He isn’t Ab-Soul. He isn’t Jay Rock.

Plenty of people will denigrate Q because of his lack of heady lyricism, but most will misinterpret his place in his collective. He will never be a Kendrick, or an Ab-Soul, or a Jay Rock- Q is in his own lane as far as Hip-Hop goes, and going the length to perform as outstanding as he can in his category of Hip-Hop: Gangsta Rap (with hints of Jazz and R&B, too).

On this latest record, Blank Face LP, he proves yet again why he’s redefining Gangsta Rap with a combination of grit and unadulterated emotion on a number of the tracks on the listing. Instrumentally and lyrically, this is arguably his most adventurous effort to date.

The opening track, over everything, sets the tone for the murky and gritty 74 minutes which lie ahead. “TorcH” starts with a bass groove and some harmonizing by Anderson .Paak, and quickly evolves into a hellish, guitar riddled instrumental, sonically reminiscent of what Tyler, the Creator was experimenting with on the opening track of Cherry Bomb, but to a lesser extent. Interesting to see different artists (Kid Cudi, Beyonce, Tyler, The Creator) incorporating scents of rock-esque sounds in their music. Anderson .Paak sounds devilish and belligerent in his hook here; loud vocals which intimidate speakers as he says lines like “Vision impaired in my high/No one cares in my mind.” There’s an air of darkness and despondency surrounding everything about this track.

The next song, “Lord Have Mercy” reminds me of a more cognizant version of “Sacrilegious” from Q’s mixtape Habits and Contradictions. Whereas “Sacrilegious” was littered with voids of knowledge about whether he’ll ever be forgiven for his actions, “Lord Have Mercy” details Q’s moral about-face. “Guess I’m bein’ a real n***a like I’m ‘posed to be/But bein’ real never once bought the groceries.” Sonically, we hear a slow hi-hat and ominous harmonies being sung in the background. The instrumental is extremely murky to coincide with the subject matter of the song.

So far, Q’s aired out some troublesome feelings. “TorcH” has some gritty instrumentals with unapologetic lyrics that hint at an inner sadness/dissatisfaction, “Lord Have Mercy” is framed as a prayer to God, and begging for His mercy and forgiveness. We’re seeing the darker side of gangsta rap here; the part that often gets snubbed.

“THat Part” is one of the singles Q released, this time including a feature with Kanye West himself. It’s only appropriate that one of the most lyrically boastful tracks on the listing features a man so aggressive and dominant as Kanye. And this song is just that- a boastful track. I thought it was odd to juxtapose two sentimental tracks with an accessible song about your customary palate of rap song tropes. It, nevertheless, entertains and creates a break from the heavier subject matter Q likes to delve into during this album.

There’s also a remix out now, which features lyrics from the TDE collective “Black Hippy,” which includes Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Q himself- the lattermost of which actually drops an extra verse mentioned the death of Alton Sterling!

“When Alton Sterling gettin’ killed for nothin’/Two cowards in the car, they’re just there to film/

Sayin’ #BlacklivesMatter should’ve died with him”

“Tell me how they sent that footage off and slept that night.”

Q, possibly influenced by the heady Ab-Soul and the conscious Kendrick, incorporates a lot of sociopolitical statements into his verse on the remix; a very welcome shift in subject.

“Groovy Tony” was my first exposure to Blank Face LP. Someone remarked that Q’s rapping and cadence are very reminiscent of a younger Ice Cube (Kanye even dropped a reference to N.W.A. in his verse for “THat Part), and I can’t help but hearing out that sentiment wholeheartedly, albeit with some disagreement. There’s definitely a hint of Gangsta Rap revival in Q’s music, as well as TDE labelmate Jay Rock (who people also quote as a revival of Cube/N.W.A), but both artists add their own flair to their instrumentals and lyrics that distinguishes them from Gangsta Rap from before.

Groovy Tony is the “alter ego” of ScHoolboy Q, as he says in this interview, and the more violent rendition of his current persona. “Groovy Tony” is a bass heavy, tumultuous track with lyrics that detail the Crip lifestyle Q led at his peak of belligerence. Plenty of drug, sex, and gun references litter the lyrics of this track. As far as roleplaying goes, this song is as intense as it gets (so far).

References to the title of the album are made throughout the lyrics, with a lighthearted, euphemistic voice in the background repeating the words “Blank Face” throughout the entire song, and sometimes finishing off either Q’s or Jadakiss’ sentence with the two words. More on the meaning of the title of the album later on. One of the more memorable lines where the two words are said is: “F**k my image, I need to drop, I need to, Blank Face.”

“Eddie Kane” is a reference to the vivacious soul singer from the fictional band “The Five Heartbeats,” from the appropriately titled movie The Five Heartbeats. The band is said to be an amalgamation of Soul/R&B bands of the 70s through 90s, including acts like The Temptations, The Dells, Sam Cooke, and others, and encapsulates the groove and lifestyles that are knotted together with fame. Q likens himself to Eddie Kane by comparing their debaucherous lifestyles; Eddie Kane experimented with cocaine and alcohol during his stint of fame, Q was full-time crippin’.

A well made and original reference; despite his self-affiliation with a fictional singer, the hardships and demons that arise with fame are a very real issue across all genres.

Instrumental wise, in the latter half, the song gets drowned in a soothing “ooo” harmony in the background, and Q’s cadence gets more high pitched. The song halfway morphs from a gritty gangsta rap song to one with heavenly feel to it- a great way to possibly symbolize the epiphany which made him cognizant of how dangerous his lifestyle was. Although, the wrap-up is fairly open ended; the last words Q speaks, after rapping more about his egregious Uncle and life at the time,  are: “I’m his grandma’s baby, Eddie Kane.”

The lyrics and connection made to Eddie Kane were definitely the shining parts of the song. the instrumental flowed from “Groovy Tony” to “Eddie Kane” very seamlessly and smoothly.

There’s very To Pimp a Butterfly-esque vibes on the “Know Ya Wrong”  instrumental; a lot of jazzy piano pieces, little bits of brass combined with semi-free form writing. Of course, the instrumental still has that little Gangsta Rap twist to them. The lyrics are essentially a rant circling around the “If you weren’t with me when I was struggling, you won’t be with me at the top” mantra.

Part II of the track reminded me of a “what if Tame Impala made Hip-Hop instrumentals?” Maybe that’s just me. Perhaps I’m saying that because the vibe of this entire song is an extreme departure from the hard-hitting nature of most of the track listing so far. The track also features Lance Skiiwalker, newest signee of TDE, and the second non-rap signing for the label.

The next track on the listing is “Ride Out.”

Now this right here took me by surprise.

Coming off of Lance Skiiwalker’s voice, I wasn’t expecting to listen to possibly the most abrasive song on this entire album. If “Groovy Tony” was gritty, and if “TorcH” was a combination of that and hidden sadness, “Ride Out” is pure hell. Hi-Hats extremely reminiscent of trap/drill music, and the bass will shake your speaker while Q once again revisits his past, this time in the most violent way. Q delivers his lyrics in a raspy voice similar to how labelmates Kendrick & Isaiah Rashad pitch their voices in order to mimic the cacophonous feelings of anger and acrimony.

Vince Staples does his best (and succeeds) at matching Q’s energy level, opening up his verse with the line, “Yeah, cause at Ramona Park we beef with everybody/Light or dark I’ll spark, don’t f**k with narcs/So don’t be talkin’ bout me.” Both Vince and Q have had history with Crips before, so both their pasts are endowed with violence.

Additionally, Q’s reference to Dolemite is super appreciated. Even more interesting is the movie’s foothold in “Blaxploitation films”- movies which “exploited” or took advantage of perceived popular trends in Black culture.  That’s a topic for another time though.

Definitely one of my favorite cuts off the track listing so far, because of its almost exaggerating callback to the most extreme of Gangsta Rap interpretations.

“WHateva You Wantis a little love ballad about how Q’s gonna spoil the girl he’s with with anything she wants.

Super experimental for ScHoolboy here, and interesting to see how the vibe drastically shifts from the last song to this one. That said, coming off of “Ride Out” I would’ve loved hearing a song detailing the downfalls of living the violent lifestyle depicted in it. Going from a song about gangbanging to one about love threw me off quite a bit.

Nevertheless, interesting to see Q continuing to expand his horizons; his last love song (that I can recall) was “Studio,” which was also odd to here since it came directly after “Hoover Street” on Oxymoron. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning behind putting a song about a women directly after one about gangbanging that I’m not seeing. Nevertheless, both “Studio” and “WHateva U Want” are solid songs which steer away from the general feel of the albums they’re on.

Kendrick Lamar comes through doing his half-singing voice he employs to convey feeling on “By Any Means.” This song contains an introspective hook about the relentlessness someone will achieve in trying to accomplish their goals, whatever they may be. Apparently, the song is a reference to the “By Any Means Necessary” speech given by Malcolm X.  

We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.

The sentiment in place heightens my fondness of the track. This, just like “Lord Have Mercy”, shows a different side of the oftentimes romanticized trap lifestyle- there’s a despondency and desperation that comes along with living the life very vividly portrayed by Q in this album.

The instrumentation is slow and ominous, which is very fitting for a song where I feel like everything else takes a backseat in favor of lyrics.

E-40’s quirky flow on “Dope Dealer” never ceases to intrigue me. Talk about unorthodox rhyme schemes. I don’t see any deeper meaning besides Q talking about (once more) his gangbanging past. E-40s verse definitely added something different, and this song will definitely bang out during concerts- it’s very accessible and easy to grasp, as well as catchy.

On one of the more intriguing tracks on this listing, in “JoHn Muir” Q reminisces back to his younger days when his gangbanging days were just beginning. This is essentially a “prequel” track, with the title of the song referencing John Muir Middle School- Q’s old school in Los Angeles. What’s so troubling about the lyrics is the inference that Q began gangbanging at such an early age. During a listening party for his album, Q had this to say:

“The beginning of me f***ing with my homies from the hood. The beginning of me stealing, robbing, getting beat up, jackin’ n***as, getting jacked, the whole nine.”

In a different interview, Q mentions that his gangbanging days began as early as 12 years old. He says that while he wasn’t getting involved in too much, he was just “following the leader.”

While he’s previously mentioned it before, actually seeing Q’s imagery of his childhood focused in one song, and done over this somber instrumental with a preacher-esque chorus line is something surreal. This song essentially sets the background for the narrative for Q’s entire body of work.

In an interview, Q also mentions the influence that Ice Cube had on him, and the echoes of an aggressive Cube spitting can definitely be heard through this track. The instrumental does, generally speaking, have a very old school feel to it.

More of the oldies sound comes through on the “Big Body” track, which is unsurprising considering the producer, Tyler, the Creator, is a huge fan of old school musicians. Tha Dogg Pound is featured here, appropriately so, further illuminating the retro sound. The instrumental is equipped with a danceable bass in the background, a 90s-esque Hi-Hat, and a quirky synthesizer appearing every so often throughout the track.

Lyrically, it’s definitely one of the cuts where the words got a backseat in favor for making the vibe complete.

Drums get poured over the bassline in “Neva CHange” as Q goes on about the world’s stagnation and his coping/disappointment with it.

“N***as still killin’ n***as/Child support killin’ n***as/Cops enslavin’ us n***as/Little girls killin’ mothers/They treat their kid like a brotha/Fathers stuck with them lifers/Kept it real with his n***as/But left his kid for the sucks, s**t no wonder we bang/Damn shame, mane, some things will never change”

1 of the 2 non-rap artists signed to TDE steps up to handle the hook of the song; Lance Skiiiwalker got a feature, so why not give SZA one?

“Boy think you got this/No one here, on your own/Stuck in the same spot.”

SZA’s lyrics always touch upon the deeper and touchier subjects of life, so it’s fair that she wrote down some meaningful lyrics to further impact this groovy song.

“Str8 Ballin” is like the aftermath/result of “JoHn Muir,” “Neva CHange,” and “By Any Means,” with Q using process of elimination for the avenues he could take through life. He was too short for basketball, too poor to have access to luxury or establishments that could help him grow, and he was surrounded by peers who were doing nothing but gangbanging. My favorite quote from this song, and one of my favorites from the entire LP:

“The teachers ain’t teachin’, the judge taught us numbers.”

Cue the reference to Kendrick’s line in Section.80 about never making it to 21. From birth, Q and most of the people surrounding him were doomed to be statistics. No odds were in their favor. Their environment was criminogenic. “Str8 Ballin’” is a testament to why my previous statement did not apply to him, and a status update on how he’s doing now.

“Black THoughts” begins with this line:

“Pissy sofas, sharin’ food with roaches, uh”

Powerful opening lines, and also not the first time Q mentioned sharing food with roaches. On “Hoover Street” from Oxymoron:

So I guess it’s back to trapping eyes open night to morning/ Had roaches in my cereal….”

In a Twitter post, Q said that while he wrote “Black THoughts” and “Neva CHange” a year ago, the topics it touches upon are still very much relevant. This song, very appropriately titled, goes over the state of the hood, and the thoughts people have about the Blacks (amongst other minorities, presumably) who live in the hood. “Black THoughts” also references melancholic thoughts. As hinted by the hook (sung by an uncredited Kendrick Lamar): “Black THoughts and marijuana, s**t’s karma,” marijuana could be being used as a coping mechanism to get away from all the stress about a person or their family/friends still gutting it out in the hood.

As soon as the first hooks ceases, Q mentions a “New Slave” mindset, but instead of expensive brand names (as Kanye put it once), it’s gangbanging that has everyone on a noose. “The Blacker the Berry” by labelmate Kendrick Lamar touches upon this sentiment too.

The instrumental is a muddy drum pattern and freeformed clicking on a beat machine that create an airy instrumental. Sounds like an Isaiah Rashad beat.

All in all, definitely another one of my favorites from the track listing. Also interesting to see how time played out and the death of yet another unarmed Black man occurred just as this album was released.

There’s a GROOVY bassline all over “Blank Face,the title track. If it features Anderson .Paak there’s bound to be an old school feel to it. Blank Face LP is littered with them though.

Remember “Groovline Pt. I” from Habits and Contradictions? This song is like a Part III (Part II was on Oxymoron).  

Anderson .Paak and Q have both had their fair share of hardships before being successful. While Q was gangbanging, Anderson .Paak was homeless, waiting on everything until he got a big break.

ScHoolboy Q mentions his daughter on the track, saying: “Six years straight the valentine for my munchkin/I made a queen outta nothin,” further reinforcing this idea that when you’re raised in the gutter you’re prone to make mistakes and stay held down by vices and others.

Q incorporates a real loose, freeform rap scheme in this lyrics, once again. Interesting to see how “Ride Out” and the more Gangsta Rap joints, and  all the jazzy cuts coexist so seamlessly.

Another one of my favorites.

ScHoolboy Q says this about “Overtime, the penultimate track on the album”

“…label s**t. They made me put that on the album”

This very clearly is the most poppy song on the album, and it’s odd that it’s being juxtaposed with a repertoire of powerful Hip-Hop that goes over a plethora of issues plaguing Q’s mind and the hood. That said, it isn’t a bad song. Q, Miguel, and Justine Skye all pull through to create a very cohesive pop song.

We end the track listing with another one of my favorite tracks, “Tookie Knows (Pt. II),” and a very great bounce back into the Blank Face LP vibe that’s been haloing the album all along.

A somber yet fast paced piano looms over the instrumental, with some lethargic drums and hard hitting bass, as ScHoolboy Q wraps up the narrative he’s been telling for the past 70 or so minutes.

“We might die for this s**t n***a/Might go down for this s**t n***a/Gang, gang bangin’ that Crip s**t/We might die for this s**t n***a” are the last words spoken on the LP; a very cliffhanger and mellow note to leave the listener. Despite Q graphically and emotionally bantering about the hardships of the hood life, his sentiment at the end is almost like saying, “This is with me forever.”

Even though Q doesn’t actually gangbang anymore, his memory about the life still reverberates in the back of his mind, which brings me to the segue into the album title itself.

Having a “Blank Face” is a dose of apathy. When you’re expressionless, it’s an indication that you’re in a neutral state and that your surroundings, your mental, and your current situation does nothing to affect your stasis.

Despite the pervasive racism, the lack of education in the hood, the criminogenic environment inside many lower income neighborhoods, the disenfranchisement of the Black race, set tripping, drugs, troublesome parenting and more- ScHoolboy Q is not surprised. Having witnessed all the aforementioned things, and presumably a lot more, he’s become desensitized to it. That right there is the hardest hitting thing I realized halfway through listening to this album.

To put so much thought and effort recreating a scenario, writing out lyrics, applying raw emotion into songs, Q is blank faced about it. No emotion. No nothing. Anonymous.

Of course that’s my interpretation. As with any form of art, everything’s open to interpretation. The fact of the matter is, overall, despite the more unadventurous cuts which seemed to reinvent rap/pop tropes instead of refining and defying them, and the lack of powerful lyrics at some points in the record, I really enjoyed this. ScHoolboy Q is taking Gangsta Rap and reinvigorating it, but also adding his little twist to it. This was a solid record and definitely one that’s worth a good listen.

You can purchase Blank Face LP on iTunes now.

 

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