Schoolboy Q’s major-label debut juggles big ideas and raw menace
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Schoolboy Q’s major-label debut juggles big ideas and raw menace

Bad kid, madder city

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Schoolboy Q

Album: Oxymoron
Label: Interscope

Midway through Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar tests his audience’s sympathy: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me, or see me to be innocent Kendrick that you seen in the street?” The answer to that hypothetical, of course, is no. Innocence is Lamar’s defining trait, and undoubtedly his album would have been received far differently if little Kendrick had been the man behind the gun, not a bystander caught in the crossfire. Lamar’s Compton cohort Schoolboy Q, on the other hand, is the walking embodiment of that hypothetical. Like Lamar, he’s a big-ideas rapper with an ear for immaculate production and a rare sense of artistry, but unlike his prestigious pal, he’s an unrepentant deviant, a former Crip who plays the bad guy all too convincingly. What might Lamar sound like if he really had killed a kid at age 16? This, quite possibly.

Schoolboy Q’s violent temperament lent an uneasy edge to his 2012 release Habits & Contradictions, a cloud-rap album anchored by one of the last guys you’d expect to make a cloud-rap album. The clash between the gruff rapper and his cerebral production could be exhilarating in spurts, but Schoolboy generally sounds much more in his element on his harder, tougher follow-up, Oxymoron. Like ASAP Ferg’s commanding Trap Lord, Schoolboy Q’s Interscope debut updates stone-cold ’90s gangsta rap with the weirder sensibilities of Internet-age hip-hop, and while more than a dozen producers contribute, including major-label usual suspects Pharrell and Mike Will Made It, they all play into the same stern vision. That tight focus is Oxymoron’s greatest asset, though its hour runtime might have benefited from a few more verses from lighter presences like Lamar, if only because it’s refreshing to hear from somebody who doesn’t rap like he’s robbing you at knifepoint from time to time.

Schoolboy Q cribs a few thematic tricks from M.A.A.D. City, most prominently on the album’s two-part midway suite, “Prescription-Oxymoron,” an autobiographical account of pill addiction. The track should land like a gut punch, especially when Schoolboy’s tiny daughter begs her non-responsive father to wake up. “What’s wrong?” she asks. “Are you tired? Are you mad? I love you, daddy.” Yet despite the stakes, the moment falls oddly flat. Would it be more poignant if it were innocent young Kendrick on the floor instead of his bruiser friend? Schoolboy Q elicits a lot of emotions throughout Oxymoron, but sympathy isn’t one of them.

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