CrasH Talk by ScHoolboy Q

3 years after his best album, Q releases his worst yet.
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After the breakthrough of Section.80, 2012 was definitely the year of the Black Hippy crew, with the excellent releases of Ab-Soul’s Control System, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and ScHoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions. Each rapper was so different in voice, flow and subject matter that it was fun for me to conceptualize them: Jay Rock as the gangsta, Ab-Soul as the intellectual, Kendrick Lamar as speaker for generation Y (or maybe just “human motherfucking being over dope-ass instrumentation”) and ScHoolboy Q as party animal. As the decade progressed, some of these have dropped off, especially in the case of Ab-Soul who failed to capitalize on the heady wordplay demonstrated on songs like “Terrorist Threats” or “ILLuminate” or even the (ahem) soulful “The Book of Soul.” Meanwhile, Jay Rock has yet to deliver a full-length that demands attention all the way through. ScHoolboy Q, who I would’ve argued was potentially the least interesting of these four from a rapping perspective back in 2014, has only proven himself again and again. 2014’s Oxymoron, his major record debut, had a lot of songs that were a (successful) bid to go big: “Collard Greens,” “What They Want,” “Hell of a Night,” “Man of the Year,” but it also had some of his most interesting beats (ie. “Studio,” the sex joint that’s way too dark to function as such) and rapping yet (ie. “Prescription / Oxymoron”).

Blank Face LP followed, and despite the popular and critical response, it still feels underrated. Like Habits & Contradictions, Blank Face was just an almost filler-free affair (impressive, since it ran 17 tracks) of varied nightmare grooves that effortlessly merged the west coast of the 1990s (features like E-40, Tha Dogg Pound and Jadakiss over beats that sounded like Dr. Dre circa The Chronic) and of the 2010s (features like Anderson .Paak and Vince Staples over a stacked production roster). For comparison, just the year before, the Game released a two-part project in The Documentary 2 and 2.5 that ran a combined 150 minutes that tried to do the same thing (ie. by featuring members of the Black Hippy crew as well as N.W.A. rappers) and failed in comparison.

At 14 songs clocking in at under 40 minutes, ScHoolboy Q’s latest album is notably more concise than his previous albums, and the nightmare grooves - what really attracted me to Q in the first place, as he rapped over ‘esoteric’ samples like Genesis or Portishead or a Kid Cudi cover performed live by Lissie - don’t come out to play given the short lengths (more than half of them don’t breach the 3-minute mark). From a structural standpoint, a lot of these songs are hook-verse-hook-end (“Gang Gang,” “Dangerous,” “Attention”), and given how annoying some of these hooks are, I wish he went for broke and just did a revolving door of quick verses over loose beats and let a groove build itself naturally from there. Madvillainy’s the gold standard, but I’m also thinking about albums like Mos Def’s The Ecstatic or ,more recently, Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs. It’s not like he really gave much thought into sequencing: “Gang Gang” just ends and “Tales” begins.

Production is handled mostly by the people responsible for helping Kendrick Lamar find a more mainstream-ready sound in both DAMN. and the Black Panther soundtrack: DJ Dahi, Sounwave and Cardo handle the bulk of beats here, with additional help from ScHoolboy staples Nez & Rio, plus the venerable Boi-1da and Jake One. Except the results are less DAMN. and more Redemption, the Jay Rock album from last year that everyone has already forgotten. Second single “Chopstix” is cut from the same clothe as that album’s “WIN,” which is to say a deadly-lazy hook (in this case, chopping up Travis Scott singing “chopsticks” over and over), and the comparison makes sense when you realize that Kendrick Lamar was involved with both, which you soon realize doesn’t make sense.

(Not helping is ScHoolboy insisting that he’ll “Beat the pussy up, stab at it” which gives me flashbacks to his unnecessary contribution on Tinashe’s “2 On.”)

Interestingly, Kendrick Lamar has his hand on a few writing credits here, but neglects to show up for a proper feature. Not necessarily a bad thing: sure, his feature on “Blessed” remains one of my favorite verses by him, and I found his verse on “Collard Greens” to be pure fun, but Blank Face LP managed fine without him, outsourcing instead to the contemporary Vince Staples and Anderson .Paak as well as Kanye West still in The Life of Pablo mode, in addition to the others that I’ve already talked to. On CrasH Talk? We get Travis Scott doing nothing interesting and 6LACK in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ feature on “Drunk.” Neither Ty Dolla Sign and Kid Cudi get to indulge in the autotuned soul that they’re renown for (you wouldn’t even know it was them on “Lies” and “Dangerous” as opposed to any random b-lister). Sure, 21 Savage and Lil Baby provide some of the best verses on the album, but it’s too little, too late (and not just because both “Floating” and “Water” have hooks almost as lazy as “CHopstix”); at this point, why not call on Kung Fu Kenny?

Some of the beats aren’t so easy to write off, and even “CHopstix,” which the world collectively decided was a brick, has DJ Dahi playing around with synths pretending to be a small string quartet that I wish was talked about more than the nonsense hook that feels like it was written in a cheap Chinese restaurant at 3 AM. Elsewhere, “Drunk” - produced by Dahi and Sounwave - features a ghostly piano figure that makes you worried about ScHoolboy Q trying to convince you that he “ain’t really drunk” (especially when the verse goes “Why my grandma couldn’t live? Gone way too fast / Cousin murdered in the field, gone way too fast”). But for the most part, they’re spare and simple to the point of genericism, and ScHoolboy Q, hardly a rapper’s rapper, doesn’t do enough heavy-lifting to detract, although there are obvious exceptions: “Your tax bracket ain’t impressive / You buy a chain, but won’t buy no land / That hashtag should say ‘desperate’” on “CrasH” had me do a double take, and lead single “Numb Numb Juice” crams multiple flow switches into a track that isn’t even two minutes in length.

I think back to Oxymoron, an album which I found hard to like at first but slowly got won over because Q managed to brighten up his dark hedonism enough for the mainstream without losing that darkness. CrasH Talk is the album that we could’ve gotten instead, an album with features that feel decreed by labelheads because they’re hot at the time (sure, Oxymoron had the 2 Chainz verse that all hip-hop releases in 2014 had, but it also had the Black Hippy members, Raekwon and Tyler, the Creator). Maybe it’s not unexpected: after working so hard for years, he’s made it to the point that he’s “getting praises from Jay (Z),” so he did what many, many musicians eventually do: he went on autopilot.

C PLUS