I’ve made no secret of my TDE fandom. I write about them more than any other group and constantly profess my admiration for the quality and impact of their work. In the last five years, Top Dawg Entertainment has gone from being a regional curiosity to an independent critical darling to a full fledged major player in the rap game. They have played everything to perfection, building off of each success and positioning themselves for the inevitable industry takeover. After using Kendrick’s coronation to expand their empire, 2014 finds them in full on attack mode. Thus Oxymoron, Schoolboy Q’s first major label album, represents the most important moment for the young label. It’s a chance to prove that Kendrick’s commercial success was more than just a fluke, that the label is more than just a one trick pony. And if you don’t know, now you know: TDE runs deep. Oxymoron debuted as the label’s first album to hit number one on the charts. But even with it’s commercial impact secure, is Oxymoron up to the task of stepping out of the gigantic shadow of Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? Will Q be able to make the same cultural waves that K. Dot did?
It’s important to note that Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar are wildly different artists. What makes Black Hippy such a great group is that all of the MC’s are very distinct, but Q and K. Dot are on the opposite poles. Kendrick is fluid like water, his flow filling every crack in the beat. Every verse, every bridge, ever hook is methodical and perfectly placed. He’s a technician first and foremost. But Quincy is fire. He raps with a chaotic, scorched earth flow, decimating the beat and reshaping it into his image. There’s an improvisational quality to his rhymes, bars that seem to come from him from the ether straight onto the track. Q is one of the best rappers right now, but he specializes in flow and energy rather than the lyricism that Kendrick has helped make popular last year. He’s the Charlie Parker to Kendrick’s Miles Davis, his verses are furious drug induced supernova’s over Kendrick’s perfectly calm and collected rapping clinics. But it was Kendrick’s level headed brilliance that was needed for the unbelievable critical and commercials success of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. A concept album tailored for critical adoration and grammy nominations, Kendrick warped major label demands into his vision, not the other way around. Each single felt like part of the album without losing any radio play, with Drake a supporting character, Lady Gaga a disembodied robot voice, and Mary J. Blige a bonus feature. With every single young talented rapper of the last decade instantly promoted as a “savior” or the genre and faced with the task of creating the perfect major label album, it is hard to underestimate how impressive it is that Kendrick actually did it.
The biggest fault of Oxymoron is that Schoolboy Q tried to create a Kendrick record. It aims for the major label grandeur without hitting the sublime cinematic vision of his cohort’s debut. There’s no concept tying it all together. The sequencing is shoddy and the singles have no relationship to some of the album cuts. But Q’s best qualities aren’t well suited for the formal structure of that kind of album. Habits & Contradictions thrived because of it’s madcap pace, with Quincy ricocheting from hook to bridge to verse to ad-lib with no warning, creating a musical tapestry that rivals anything Kendrick has done. Some of that improvisation is lost in the major label transition. This is partially due to the tone, Oxymoron is much slower and darker than it’s predecessor, but it’s also due to the more standard arrangement of the songs. This doesn’t mean that Oxymoron is bad though; it’s a fantastic album that’s loaded front to back. It’s not the “GKMC 2: From Tha Streetz” that a lot of critics were hoping for and it’s clear that Schoolboy Q had no interest in creating something like that to begin with (more than likely that’ll be Jay Rock’s next project and it will blow our minds). Instead, Oxymoron is a snarling slice of glimmering darkness, a disconcerting trip into Q’s gangsta past.
The obvious highlights of the album are where Q succeeds in reaching his ambitious peaks. “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” are both epic songs; two part suites that refract the tape’s main themes. “Hoover Street” starts with Q lobbing off nightmares over Thundercat’s bass licks before the beat changes and he details his introduction into the Crips. With frightening clarity, Schoolboy brings to life the roaches in his cereal, his backwards hoodie with the eyes cut out, his uncle trading him whiskey for clean piss, and his grandma spoiling him with video games and new clothes. But when he recounts his first meeting with the Crips, the story takes on an incredible meta-quality. “Rat-Tone my nigga’s brother showed me my first K, I was amazed, me and Floyd was in the back, he called us over like ‘hey, YAWK YAWK YAWK YAWK!’ We was like ‘Damn nigga…’ the way he said cuz turned us to a fan nigga.” That story is interchangeable with the way many of Q’s fan’s heard of his music, how the ad libs and the slang are appealing. In illuminating his own past, he sheds light on rap’s transcendent connection to drug and street life. It’s a brilliant piece of story telling from a rapper who doesn’t usually dabble in that area. “Prescription/Oxymoron” showcases the same skill set, this time focuses on his own addiction to both selling and consuming Oxycontin pills. These are the artistic, ambitious, focused songs that everyone wanted out of Oxymoron and they are just as good and maybe better than anything that Kendrick or any other peer has done.
The album runs real dark. This is LA Gangsta rap reincarnated, filled with pimps and hos, addicts and dealers, gunshots and gangbangers. It’s almost jarring to hear an actual gangsta rap album in 2014 considering how it has been commercial cyanide for nearly a decade. But just because there’s no radical reinvention here does not mean it isn’t successful. TDE created a new language using the vernacular of their youth (doo doo! yawk yawk! bluh bluh!) and where Kendrick used it as a thematic diving board for GKMC, Schoolboy Q uses it aesthetically. Gun shots that have become inside jokes are restored with their original menace, so completely that it almost loses the fun. But Quincy pulls it off, snarling throughout the album, slowing down his hedonistic flow while sharpening his bars. He reminds you he’s eating now because he used to be starving. He reminds you that being groovy means being a crip from Hoover and black hippy takes on a whole new meaning.
This album has some extraordinary rapping that takes a while to sink in because Q’s delivery is the first thing that pops out on you. Musical chaos abounds here, buzzing walls of sounds that Q carves into song. There’s a gritty beauty in the songwriting, jagged hooks that manage to stick with you. It’s reminiscent of a rap game Velvet Underground, creating a magnetic pull through some off putting sounds. Check out “Los Awesome,” a march of buzzing synths that Q not only manages to rap over, but actually creates a party track. Or “His And Her Friend,” all layered voices over clicks and whirrs before SZA adds in some jazzy singing. The production is pretty astonishing all over the album. Producing duo Nez & Rio showcase their chemistry with Schoolboy Q, creating menacing beds for Q to fall into on “Gangsta,” “Fuck LA,” and “Californication.” The star producers manage to fit the style as well. Tyler, The Creator laces “The Purge” with something absolutely sinister, with just a slow synth whine accompanying Q and Death Row legend Kurupt as they go so hard they might hurt themselves. Mike Will Made It forgoes the usual bombast of his radio jams as Q sounds downright evil on “What They Want.” The real highlight however is Alchemist. The L.A. producer is in the midst of one of the greatest runs in history, fusing Venice Beach psychedelia with New York boom bap and displaying almost perfect taste in collaborators. “Break The Bank” is a momentous achievement with Quincy summarizing all of Oxymoron into three breathtaking verses, switching up his flow every other bar. It’s the best song on the album and will probably be the best of the year.
This is all to say that Oxymoron is a dense piece of work, a kinetic, confrontational album that takes time to unravel. The hooks take time to connect and Schoolboy Q remains on the All-Rap first team this year, hiding incredible detail and clever wordplay in the cracks. The sound is much different than the warm, jazzy soundtracks that TDE is known for, but the original architects are all over the album. The Digi-Phonics have all done some great work in the past, but it’s Sounwave who has distinguished himself as the one to watch. Not only was he behind the most ambitious songs of the set, “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron,” but his touches are all over the album, adding dramatic string arrangements to “Gangsta” and “Blind Threats.” But these are all subtleties and not the first thing that springs out at you. What does is the dissonance between the dark themes and the light radio singles and the lack of focus on the journey. Quincy has spoke on the major label insistence on some radio singles while he wanted to make a purely gangsta album. He wrote “Collard Greens” and “Man Of The Year” at the same time, and you can tell it wasn’t in the spirit of the rest of the album. But they’re not necessarily bad in of themselves, in fact they’re quite good songs. It’s fun to watch Q just do his thing over a good beat, and his effortlessness is much more suited to the radio than Kendrick is. And even among the awkward sequencing, there are great moments that show that Q can find the radio without any other meddling. “Man Of The Year” is a dark party track, with DJ Dahi’s beat building to an EDM drop that never comes. And “Studio” is a fantastic ladies jam, with Q singing and singing well, creating a song that Kendrick could never make.
Is this album better than Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? I suppose not. GKMC was hailed as a classic instantly, and even though it wasn’t a number one album it still sold more than Oxymoron in it’s first week. Oxymoron matches the amount of raw talent but doesn’t have the ambition or construction that a classic needs. But it’s unfair to judge it strictly in the shadow of the most influential album of the young decade. Schoolboy Q has created a deep, impressive major label album that showcases his uniqueness as a solo artist, and allows the larger themes inflect his album rather than be the showcase. Oxymoron takes time to grow, and it has become my favorite album of the year and that was after listening to it for a while. Hopefully by the end of the year, music critics will realize Oxymoron for the great work it is. But it doesn’t matter, Top Dawg Entertainment has never played by the rules. They’ll keep winning. Q will keep knocking down the doors.