First, lest you read the title of this post and dismiss it as trolling: this is not trolling. The term “troll” connotes dishonesty: the misrepresentation of one’s true beliefs in order to provoke a reaction. I honestly think ScHoolboy Q makes better rap music than Kendrick Lamar.
Second, before anyone gets upset on Kendrick Lamar’s behalf: I think Kendrick is terrific, an extremely talented rapper who made a real masterpiece-type album with good kid, m.A.A.d city. An album that certainly deserved to win the Grammy award for best rap album over Macklemore’s The Heist last month. That a lyricist of Kendrick’s acumen has achieved national pop stardom (good kid has sold over a million copies) is a very good sign for the health of rap music as a genre.
But I prefer ScHoolboy. I like his last album Habits & Contradictions more than good kid. I like the one before that, Setbacks, more than Kendrick’s Section.80. I’m psyched for his new album, Oxymoron, in a way that I doubt that I will be for Kendrick’s next album—as intriguing as it might be to imagine how Kendrick will follow such a highly acclaimed work as good kid.
My preference for ScHoolboy says something about what I find most exciting about rap—or at least, what I find most exciting about rap right now.
This preference has to do with the wide range of ways rap music can be effective. There are a variety of skills that rappers use to draw us in, to turn us on, and make us feel and think a little differently about the world, in the best cases, than we did before we heard their music. While they share a hometown, L.A., and a record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, and a place in the quartet known as Black Hippy, and what seems to be a solid friendship and productive artistic relationship, in many regards, ScHoolboy and Kendrick are diametrically opposed in style and tone. My preference for ScHoolboy says something about what I find most exciting about rap—or at least, what I find most exciting about rap right now.
Think of what distinguishes these two, stylistically. Kendrick is a teetotaler, a careful craftsman who writes complex, intricate story rhymes and arranges them into grand concept art. good kid m.A.A.d city is the rare rap album that plays like a novel on wax. His voice, pinched, affected, sounds like it’s struggling to contain all the ideas surging in his head. It's like his words are the last valve in a electro-hydraulic canal system, or one of those Play-Doh Fun Factory machines where you press the clay through screens with different-shaped holes to make different-shaped columns: pentagram, square, cross, spaghetti, whatever. It’s pressure that gives the product its form, a large mass forced through a small opening. It’s tight. Kendrick is tight.
ScHoolboy, on the other hand, is—well, have you ever met ScHoolboy Q? I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do so a couple of month ago. He came through Complex’s office to film some stuff with the TV department. ScHoolboy is about as far from tight as a human being can get himself. He seems, as the lyrics to songs like "Oxy Music" or "Yay Yay" or "Druggy Wit Hoes" might suggest, like he’s extremely intoxicated, like he stays that way a lot of the time. Slumped down, shades on, hat brim low, he mumbles his words in a slurred, southern-California drawl. He’s not unpleasant, he can flash charming when he wants, but you get the sense that he’s only vaguely aware that there’s anyone else in the room with him. And that he doesn’t much care.
Q is like Keith Richards. There’s a famous quote, often attributed to Mott the Hoople singer Ian Hunter, that says, "A photograph of Keith Richards at his most wasted says more than anything just exactly what rock n’ roll is all about." In the tradition of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Juicy J, and Lil Wayne, ScHoolboy Q represents the Dionysian tradition in rap. Expanding one’s consciousness, through chemicals, to the point where you’re floating on whatever the universe sends into your mind. Letting it all hang out, going with the flow to the greatest extent possible. There’s not a lot of struggling to contain anything. The valve stays wide open. The Play-Doh comes out in shapes like amoebas.
(This idea, based on clumsy, face-value aesthetic impression, is surely oversimplifying the artistic process. In Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, the world-famous wastrel writes amazingly coherent descriptions about the thought, the real methodology, that goes into his making his music. Before reading it, I always imagined these sorts of artists acted as a sort of a vessel, emptying their minds of strategy and, again, just letting whatever flows in flow in unimpeded—an undirected act of “magic,” unintelligible to those of us less musically gifted. But reading Life made me think that there’s more to it. And it made me think that my assumption was even a little insulting to the Dionysians. The magic is in the artifice, the making of music that sounds so casual, impromptu and tossed-off, when in reality it’s been systematically constructed. But then, I still don’t understand it fully, of course. If I did, I guess, maybe I’d be a world-famous musician.)
I’ve compared them before to Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in The Odd Couple. Kendrick is Felix, the neatnik photographer, a high-strung classicist, lover of fine foods and opera. ScHoolboy Q is Oscar, slovenly sportswriter, smoking cigars, playing poker, spilling beer on his bathrobe.
The stylistic difference between Kendrick and ScHoolboy Q plays into their successful teamwork. They balance each other out in Black Hippy, opposites coming together to make something that works through contrast. I’ve compared them before to Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in The Odd Couple. Kendrick is Felix, the neatnik photographer, a high-strung classicist, lover of fine foods and opera. ScHoolboyQ is Oscar, slovenly sportswriter, smoking cigars, playing poker, spilling beer on his bathrobe.
Again: this essay is not intended as a diss to Kendrick. The Felix Ungers of the world have a lot to offer, a lot to teach us. (They are the ants, In terms of Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper.) Rakim is a Felix Unger, as is Andre from OutKast—two names on my top-five-dead-or-alive list. (Andre is the artist that Kendrick sounds most like, too. Both in terms of his rhyme style and the musical arrangements he chooses to rap over.) But ScHoolboy’s records—all gritty and dark and ugly and beautiful at the same time, sounding like someone looped up some gnarly chunk of psychedelic rock, pointed the stumbling rapper in the direction of the vocal booth, and recorded him spitting the same greasy talk he was just spitting a minute ago in a blunt cipher on the corner—these are the records that I want to be hearing in 2014. Listen to him grunt his voice into melody over the eerie bells and steady thump of the recently released, “Blind Threats.” “Life on the edge, hell a block away/Pretty snow white turned eight today/Sellin’ that base, No Dr. Dre…” That’s what I want to hear!
Kendrick is a more accomplished lyricist than ScHoolboy, a “better” lyricist, if I was forced to use such a word. And his music is thrilling in its literary brilliance and its acutely structured perfection. ScHoolboy’s music is thrilling in a different way, though. More in a way that you can lose yourself in, more in a way that you can turn up loud and bounce around your apartment in your socks too. More in a way you can get loose too.
It’s more fun, is I guess is what I’m saying. They're both great, these two artists. Hedonism and headiness. I choose hedonism—I find myself playing ScHoolboy Q’s record far more frequently than I do Kendrick’s. Honestly.
Dave Bry is a writer living in Brooklyn. His memoir, Public Apology, came out last year through Grand Central Publishing.