Gangster Music: ScHoolboy Q's "Oxymoron" and the state of L.A. Hip-Hop

What ScHoolboy Q's "Oxymoron" says about Los Angeles rap, and vice versa.

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Complex Original

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There’s something like a renaissance, we’ve been told, in Los Angeles hip-hop right now. The success of good kid, m.A.A.d. city sparked renewed interest in hip-hop’s second-oldest metropolis. ScHoolboy Q is its most evident benefactor. He's racked up enough praise (and pre-sales) to suggest he’s the lunar counterpart to Lamar’s red-hot sun, refracting the light of his friend and labelmate, the beaming light of success illuminating all the cracks and crevices in Q's gruff persona.

Q’s major label debut album Oxymoron—really, his third major project since TDE began to gather national attention—comes out today. It’s a good record, closer in approach to the song-oriented Setbacks than the abstract, jam-packed Habits & Contradictions. Oxymoron shows flashes of brilliance, and the best overall songwriting of ScHoolboy’s career. The elusiveness of style that makes Q an intriguing character is also ultimately a limitation, and one that he shares with his city, as it attempts to shrug off the weight of three decades of hip-hop history. Unlike so many other Angelenos, though, Q seems completely unconcerned.

Q has renounced banging in favor of the music industry, but still roots his worldview and music in that milieu. So where does ScHoolboy Q fit in? What does it mean to be a gangster rapper in Los Angeles in 2014?

Q has renounced gang banging in favor of music, but still roots his worldview and music in that milieu. So where does ScHoolboy Q fit in? What does it mean to be a gangster rapper in Los Angeles in 2014? 

With Game, we’d already experienced gangster rap as a museum piece, a formal exercise to be executed according to its various rules and restrictions. (What else was Doctor’s Advocate but a tribute to 2001?) Los Angeles didn’t disappear in the era leading up to good kid, of course. Nipsey Hussle arrived, the visual mold of Snoop Dogg reborn over “Funky Worm” synthesizers and impeccable street credibility—Los Angeles personified, history’s echo. Meanwhile, outside of gangster rap, Dom Kennedy eased onto the scene with a distinctive flow and humble ambitions. History lessons had no place at his barbecue.

The latter two are key figures in L.A.’s current revival—certainly, Nipsey’s drawn more attention on a national level in the last six months than he had in the previous two years. But the artist who had the biggest impact addressed that history while neatly avoided being boxed in by archetype. Because in L.A., it’s not just gangs, but gangster rap itself, that has a long history in the popular imagination. 

Kendrick's approach, for example, kept the setting and inspirations—his story is steeped in references to Tupac, while his music samples Ice Cube's "Bird in the Hand," features MC Eiht—but his style draws on gangster rap while ignoring its template. He zoomed in on a specific point of view, grounded it in autobiography, and told a story that wrestled with that legacy. Part of his approach suggests Kendrick was "of" but "apart from" street rap; his music channels the gut-wrenching immediacy of Lex Luger on “m.A.A.d. City” but only for a moment—as a tonal reference. Kendrick doesn’t follow street rap’s rules; he isn’t ignorant of them, but he critiques their implications, looks at the same subjects from a different angle. In contrast, Q, a former Crip leader and Oxycontin dealer, has a more traditional street-rap narrative style.

In L.A., that's a lot of history to have to shrug off. Q's fellow Compton rapper YG—whose Def Jam debut drops next month—averts history with production from L.A.-based DJ Mustard, who has managed to commandeer strip clubs and dance floors with a set rhythmic framework. But TDE's world is still Kendrick's, and being the crew's gangster rap scion sets Q slightly adrift. Musically, he's not aiming at the clubs. And while his music is of the streets, it doesn't seek the visceral adrenaline rush of street rap's vanguard. His grizzled bars are full of references to violence and hedonism, but presented in a left-of-center manner, a growling, evasive delivery from a guy who is less of a gangster superhero and more of a gangster eccentric, hidden behind circular shades, a trench coat, and a floppy hat.

From a creative point of view, Oxymoron is a slimmer record than 2012’s Habits & Contradictions. That album was packed with ideas—each track its own universe, wordy and skeletal. This was a place of disjointed atmosphere, of abstracted moods, of unpredictability and shadow. In contrast, Setbacks had capital "S" Songs—the sexual bump of "Fantasy," the regal banger "Kamikaze," the West Coast throwback "WHat's THa Word." It was, in parts, pretty—"LigHt Years AHead (Sky HigH)" had a comforting immediacy. Habits & Contradictions was more about the twisting wordplay, intricacy, a lack of resolution, dissonance.

Much like SetbacksOxymoron trades density for songfulness. First were the lead singles, album highlights like "Collard Greens" and "Man of the Year." One would hesitate to call them "hits," at least off the bat; rather than taking a more direct route, their catchiness sidles up to remind you of their presence when you least expect it. And these are the most straightforward cuts on the album. ScHoolboy is a gangster who avoids easy pigeon-holing. When you think you've got him pegged, he evades your definition with a puckish growl. The album's best beat is perhaps ScHoolboy's most enveloping song to date: "Studio," a BJ the Chicago Kid-assisted cut that should do as much for BJ as TDE has already done for Jhene Aiko. Like a sequel to "Fantasy," the song has a sensuality that's all the more unexpected coming from a gruff gangster like Q.

ScHoolboy is a gangster who avoids easy pigeon-holing. When you think you've got him pegged, he evades your definition with a puckish growl.

While there was nothing so evidently pop on Habits & Contradictions, the trade-off is one of content. Lyrically, ScHoolboy often goes through what is expected, often walking a fine line between creativity and cliche. Quotables don't exactly abound on this record; instead, he fills in the lines on many tracks, including some of the cuts with strong songwriting. Have you ever wondered what a rapper does at the club? "Hell Of A Night" will fill you in. It does so with an especially moving beat, one that captures the emotional importance we tend to place on weekend escapism, and incorporates an EDM-style kickdrum build-up that shouldn't work. Q and Dahi pull it off; but if you're hoping to hear a revelation about who ScHoolboy is, or what a gangster eccentric might do differently at the club, you'll end up disappointed.

On "What They Want," the way his lines can wash over a listener is especially striking when contrasted with a punchline-laden guest verse from 2 Chainz. In fairness, it's one of Chainz's stronger verses, full of memorable imagery. But an emptiness haunts parts of the album. Other tracks don't seem to suffer quite as much; "Gangsta" and "Blind Threats" have the kind of mystique-generating space between meaning and sound that energizes the bulk of Habits & Contradictions. "Break the Bank," meanwhile, is the best conflation of song and aesthetic on the record, balanced in harmony.

The album's apex, lyrically, is "Hoover Street," a career highlight. Autobiographical, a narrative about the roots of addiction (he watches his uncle's addictive behaviour, a few tracks before wrestling with his own), it is clear that he's got something to say, something he communicates in a subtly artful manner. It's no genre exercise, nor is it a decorative expression of "style." Instead, it uses the concrete to address the abstract. ScHoolboy might not be a good kid, but he can tell a story with just as much power as Kendrick. He does something similar on "Prescription," a numbing descent into the cotton-y listlessness of addiction. Its emotional punch is rooted in the addict's withdrawal from society, the depletion of motivation in the face of the overwhelming need for a fix.

"The Purge" is one of the album's more striking moments, for also drawing attention to what the real sound of Los Angeles has been in recent years. Gangsters are now living in a world diverse enough to include Odd Future's scab-picking version of reality rap. Kurupt—already a rapper who bridged lyrical abstraction and hypermasculine gangster shit, appears on a familiarly foreboding moment of Tyler, The Creator bleakness. The song's lineup says something about Los Angeles, about history, and about what it's like to really rap your ass off. Like ScHoolboy's personality and his art, it ducks being pinned down and grins.

David Drake is a Staff Writer at Complex. He had his picture taken with Mya today.

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