Schoolboy Q // Oxymoron
by Charles Dulik on March 3, 2014
Posted in: Hip Hop
In the first four minutes of Schoolboy Q’s new album, Oxymoron, he says the word “gangsta” 67 times. Actually, 66. His 4 year old daughter, Joy, kicks off the album with the line “Fuck rap, my daddy a gangsta,” cementing her place as the hardest 4 year old in the rap game.
Through the first four songs on Oxymoron, it seems Schoolboy Q wants nothing more than for you to grasp his gangster-ness. The aptly-titled opener “Gangsta,” has Q less than politely informing a woman of the night that she won’t get any time off for pneumonia, before revealing that his grandmother gave him his first gun. Q then takes us to the bouncy, Pharrell-produced, “Los Awesome,” about which he has stated, “This some gang bangin’ shit… I needed something that the gang bangers could identify with.”
After the popular, Kendrick Lamar-featuring lead single “Collard Greens” waxes a groovy ode to weed and women, “What They Want” finds Q and 2 Chainz teaming up to compare the quality of their music to the addictiveness of the drugs they sell. “What They Want” has some of the most cringe-inducing lines on Oxymoron, and not in the “SMH 2 Chainz…” way, but in the Q rapping, “push my penis in between her lap / put my semen all down her throat,” way.
To dismiss these songs as generic gangster rap would be simplifying the subject matter. Q’s versatile flow is showcased over four very different type of beats, and his lyrics paint a brutally honest portrait of his life as a Hoover St. Crip. Still, after four songs celebrating all things gangster, it’s easy to want to pigeonhole Oxymoron. That’s when Q completely changes the narrative.
Rife with regret, contradiction and painfully vivid specificity, “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” are easily the most impressive songs off the album. Q’s flow is elastic, making the transition from an off-kilter, reverb-y drum intro to the minimalistic yet hard-hitting main beat of “Hoover Street,” and from a lush, down-tempo instrumental to a bangin’ trap beat on the two sides of “Prescription/Oxymoron.” Q’s bars here are top notch. Top Dawg Entertainment (the label of Q, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Isaiah Rashad and SZA) fanboys who were hyping this album as a rival to Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City, get exactly what they were hoping for here.
On “Hoover Street,” Q takes us back to a youth filled with Crip activities. Lines like “gangbanging was a ritual and grandma would help / she should’ve never left her gun on the shelf” and the repeated “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy carry chrome,” carry serious emotional charge. He recounts his uncle slipping into drug addiction without ever explicitly saying so. Instead, Q tells how his uncle would trade him whiskey for clean urine to pass drug tests, and how his family slowly stopped trusting him. Q can drop “Had roaches in my cereal / My uncle stole my stereo, my grandma can’t control him” next to Jay-Z and Nas references without batting an eye.
“Prescription/Oxymoron” reveals Q’s titular contradiction: selling drugs and embracing the gangster lifestyle he knows is bad in order to provide a positive life for his daughter. “Prescription” recounts harrowing scenes from Q’s drug addiction, while “Oxymoron” goes wild with stories from Q’s dealing days. What these stories lack in wordplay they make up for in raw flow and ridiculously detailed narrative quality.
Sandwiched between these two stand-outs is the slinky “Studio,” which is interesting as a love song on such a hard album, but is lyrically and instrumentally generic. Following “Prescription/Oxymoron” are two tracks with killer features from 90s artists. On the Tyler, the Creator-produced (but disappointingly Tyler-rapping free) “the Purge,” Kurupt injects new life into the “talking about how much of a gangster I am” theme of the album. Following that, on “Blind Threats,” Q displays surprising lyrical dexterity to discuss his doubt in God and faith in his glock. Q’s verses are increasingly dark and desperate, and showcase more nuance than most of his other tracks. “Blind Threats” is capped off by a Raekwon feature that goes hard, but is flawed by its thematic inconsistency with the rest of the song.
Oxymoron finishes with its three most commercially friendly tracks, barring “Collard Greens.” “Hell of a Night” is a standard party track, made less impressive by its instrumental and lyrical similarity to the rising, synth-y and superior “Man of the Year.” Between these two bangers is “Break the Bank,” a very catchy, Alchemist-produced track about the less than novel idea that Q is about to blow up. Whereas “Collard Greens” balances commercial appeal with a unique, left-field beat, these tracks tend not to have as many distinctive aspects. All three feature standard rapping, and are impressive as widely-accessible hits, but not as the lyrically precise insights Q has earlier in the album.
Comparisons to Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City are as inevitable as they are pointless. Lamar’s carefully-constructed story is a completely different album than Oxymoron’s gruff throwback to West Coast 90s gangsta rap. Schoolboy Q is the good kid that got chewed up and spit out by the mad city. Q’s life is hazy, chaotic and vulgar, and ultimately, the greatest flaw of the album is that it stylistically portrays that truth. The gritty beats go hard, but lose impressiveness when paired with mediocre rhymes on songs like “Studio” and “What They Want.” However, what Q’s rapping lacks in witty wordplay or deep concepts, he makes up for in elastic flow and great imagery.
Oxymoron very much needs to be appreciated on its own terms. It’s got commercial appeal, can shift focus on a dime (thematically and instrumentally) and is an engrossing life story. The album’s mediocre points are especially disappointing when placed side by side with its most unique and stellar tracks. If you focus all on the celebration of gang life, you might miss Q’s regret while reminiscing about falling in with the Crips, and his fight to escape aspects of the lifestyle.
If one thing is certain after this album, it’s that you will never forget that Schoolboy Q is a gangsta.
Oxymoron is out now, via Top Dawg Entertainment and Interscope Records
Best Tracks: “Hoover Street,” “Prescription/Oxymoron,” “The Purge,” “Blind Threats”
RIYL: Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T