By the time Kendrick Lamar had finally eased into the melting pot of American consciousness, he already had five mixtapes under his belt, an EP and a studio album to boot. Kendrick’s steady accumulation of releases helped him to slowly gain traction alongside his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates as they honed their craft and began to strategically position themselves within the music industry.
Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock signed to TDE in 2005, a year after its inception by founder Anthony Tiffith. Ab-Soul followed suit in 2007, and ScHoolboy Q inked in 2009. But even with their core roster formed (which would later be filled out further by Isaiah Rashad, SZA and recent signee Lance Skiiiwalker) TDE had yet to fully explode as one of the most powerful independent record labels in the world of Hip Hop.
The album, Good Kid M.A.A.D City would change everything. While the single, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” climbed the charts across Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, the UK and the United States, the true genius of Kendrick was creeping into mass culture in ways that wouldn’t be fully understood until years later.
With “Swimming Pools,” we had a pop song describing the detrimental effects of alcohol dependence, being played regularly at clubs, while legions of fans belted out the phrase, “Pour up!” with adulation. Kendrick’s varied, narrative-driven flow coupled with perfectly succinct and bassy calls to action created one of Hip Hop’s most powerful, truly self-referential anthems in history.
Looking behind the lyrics confirmed that Kendrick had achieved something that only a small percentage of artists can accomplish in real time: he had allowed his audience to enjoy ear-candy hooks that would chart across the globe, while still imbuing them with inescapable meaning. It’s like being hypnotized by the impeccable symmetry in a Shepard Fairey print and saying, “Ooh, I want that in my living room,” only to gobble up a piece of artwork that hints at the spiritual limitations of capitalism.
Nearly a decade after TDE’s inception, Kendrick was ascending as the world’s leading conscious rapper, a status that would only be further cemented by his 2015 follow-up To Pimp a Butterfly. As Kendrick hit the limelight with relentless candor (his song “Alright” would go on to accompany protests across the country as racial tensions over police brutality compounded) he was also paving the way for his team to make a mark with contributions of their own.
Ab-Soul would go on to release the conspiracy-riddled Control System, containing songs like “SOPA,” and “Pineal Gland,” which would bring futurism and psychedelia to gangster rap in an indelible way.
Jay Rock would springboard off of TDE’s mainstream success to achieve top Billboard rankings on 2015’s 90059, including a stint as Top Rap Album. But arguably, none of Top Dawg’s roster can compete with Kendrick Lamar quite like ScHoolboy Q. And on Schoolboy’s latest effort, Blank Face LP, he’s made a play for the best Hip Hop release of the year, alongside The Life of Pablo, Views and Coloring Book.
On Blank Face LP, Schoolboy brings in a roster of talent ranging from Anderson .Paak to Kanye West, Miguel, Vince Staples and beyond. Production highlights come courtesy of Swizz Beatz, Metro Boomin, The Alchemist and plenty of others, but the star-studded lineup isn’t to compensate for a lack of direction or subject matter.
Instead, it creates a release that’s equal parts ferocious and riveting, synthesizing traditional Hip Hop elements with eclectic styles of funk, bass, electronica and soul.
This contributes to Blank Face LP’s standing as one of Top Dawg Entertainment’s most comprehensive and ambitious releases to date. Schoolboy launches unapologetically on the very first track “Torch,” pivoting off of Anderson .Paak’s preface with the declaration, “This that f*ck the blogs!”
Q wastes no time steamrolling expectations and letting us know that the album will deliver exactly what is necessary; save your song requests and expect no pandering here.
The tone at large is dark and brooding; the same frequency you might find from Q if you woke him up in the middle of the night after an all night bender. But his afflictions with drugs and sedatives, combined with incredibly melodic flows that switch pace across verses, arch through seamless hooks and then echo back to the listener, showcases a Schoolboy Q that has never been as impassioned as he is right now.
Early release, “That Part” was an easy lead single for the album. A wry, every-rap-song hook of “that part” combined with a bombastic Kanye feature ensured that the track would perform well…and it did. The music video, released just last month, perfectly synthesizes Q’s matter of fact lyricism with an imbibed, party-anyway attitude.
The track “Groovy Tony” that would later be extended and renamed “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane” features a remarkable Jadakiss feature that leverages the dark, dreamy abyss that the album’s cover art alludes to.
Thematically, the track touches on anonymity, murder and police violence so aptly that it’s the album’s darkest moment and high-water mark all at the same time. But perhaps the listener can delight most with standout “Whateva U Want,” a gravity defying dance track featuring angelic vocals by South African artist, Candice Pillay.
Over a beat that’s inspired more by the growling undulations of hazy electronica than boom-bap production, Schoolboy raps lazily but with a perfectly embellished cool:
“Every dollar dollar bill caught wheels,
Crib in the hills if you call us, Net, Chill
Fly around the world, girl you livin’ or not?
We used to run from the cops, now we buyin’ the blocks
Started ballin’ like I said I would
Came up in the game I love…”
Schoolboy can transition from somber to celebratory in the blink of an eye and never forgets to make sure we’re enamored while he does it. If Kendrick Lamar is the most capable rapper working today, Schoolboy Q can’t be that far behind.