Review: ScHoolboy Q – Oxymoron

Schoolboy Q Oxymoron cover
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opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN

You may recall “PMW (All I Really Need),” from last year’s Long.Love.A$AP, which found A$AP Rocky smoothly extolling the respective virtues of pussy, money, and weed from deep within a bottomed-out cloud of sumptuous synth textures and pitch-shifted voices. As is typical with A$AP Rocky’s work, it’s an easy enough tune to like but leans on the toothless side. So it’s a welcome progression when ScHoolboy Q, on loan from Kendrick Lamar’s LA-based Black Hippy crew, cuts in two minutes through to pull a bull-in-china-shop on the whole affair. Q makes his single verse appear twice as verbose as all of A$AP’s time on the track combined, rattling off rhymes like “whoopsie daisy”/”new Mercedes” in an instantly distinctive staccato quack. “PMW” isn’t the finest moment from Q’s career to date by any means, but the contrast it offers between his vocal delivery and A$AP’s low-stakes, high thread count purr is telling.

Or listen to “Man Of The Year,” the gorgeous apex of ScHoolboy Q’s third LP Oxymoron, which is basically an A$AP Rocky song: heady atmosphere, repetitive structure, self-satisfied lyrics about getting a bunch of girls to “bounce,” a trendy Chromatics sample given an ample bass boost. On Long.Live.A$AP, this would have made perfect sense, but on Oxymoron, the silken melody stands slightly at odds with the magnetically off-kilter vocals powering the song. At the outset of Oxymoron, Q repeats the word “Gangsta” twenty-four times, leaning hard on those crass vowel sounds, effectively rubbing the listener’s face in the harsh, weird fact of his voice. It’s not the loveliest in the game, but depending on how frantic he allows himself to sound, he can sound variously cartoonish, hysterical, demented, livid, or strikingly candid. That’s a wide variety of cards to play on the basis of vocal quality alone, and if none of the options is especially approachable, well, at least none of them is boring.

On the oldest track from Oxymoron, “Break The Bank,” Q threatens that he’s coming for his pal Kendrick’s “throne” (sorry, Ye and Jay), but the latter needn’t worry – these two rappers appear to be working toward different goals at this point. Oxymoron does, at times, feint toward the autobiographical depth and literary sophistication of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – notably on “Hoover Street” – but this album’s agenda is entertainment above all else, so it only gets personal when that tactic works for the moment. The great thing about a voice like ScHoolboy Q’s is that his eccentric persona can withstand pretty much any change of context – he can be the life of the party or down and out, but he’s unmistakably himself regardless, and always a ton of fun to listen to – so Oxymoron gets most of its mileage from exploring that elasticity. On several tracks here, Q rattles off a hit parade of violence, intimidation, confrontation, and aggression, but it’s not really that different in effect from the Kendrick collaboration “Collard Greens,” whose bonkers chorus does, in fact, namedrop the titular vegetable. Q’s always fresh and wacky in outlook, always clever and witty, and always on the lookout for an interesting detail or bizarre non-sequitur – always, that is, playing to the strengths of his vocal delivery. Hence lyrics like “Streets held me down, got faith in a Pyrex, / Faith in a 4-5, call it the clarinet” (“Blind Threats”) or that recurring “this little piggy” thread running through “Hoover Street,” to cite a couple of the many head-turning lines on Oxymoron. This is a rapper keenly aware of the relationship between delivery, lyrics, and persona, and he exploits that relationship to keep us entertained.

It works. Oxymoron is not consistent in many ways, but it is consistently a blast. The producers assembled to assist Q on this album have at times divergent ideas about how to make the rapper sound his best, but none of them is exactly wrong. The five-alarm synth overload of Pharrell’s contribution “Los Awesome” is nearly as spastic as Q’s rapping, making it hard to concentrate and heightening an already exaggerated performance into an overwhelming spectacle. It’s successful, yes, but so is Sounwave’s relaxed take on “Hoover Street,” where a jazzy backdrop straight out of 1990s hip-hop allows the autobiographical tale to expand easily to seven minutes and acknowledges that with ScHoolboy Q at center stage, there’s no need of bells and whistles. There are some tracks here that are totally 2010s – “Man Of The Year,” the sinister atmospherics of the title track and closer “Fuck LA,” or suddenly-ubiquitous Mike Will Made It’s “What They Want” – but compared to Q’s last record, Habits & Contradictions, this one doesn’t cleave so close to what’s fashionable at the moment.

That’s a soft way, I suppose, of saying that Oxymoron is not particularly groundbreaking musically, but then, this isn’t an album about pushing the envelope (except maybe in the sheer amount of drug talk). This is functional, engaging music, even exceptionally so, but it never seems to have a real, vested interest in being anything beyond that. This is not the record that will allow its creator to usurp his fellow Black Hippy’s throne, but knowing Q, that threat on “Break The Bank” might just be rap theatrics anyway. The height at which Oxymoron’s target is set is not very impressive, but the precision and showmanship with which it’s hit deserves commendation. B

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