ScHoolboy Q sold his soul.
That’s a harsh way to put it. But there’s no other way to say it and no better explanation for OXYmoron, the third album on Q’s resume but his official “debut” to the general public. TDE heads and Q’s most loyal fans, those who remember his freshman LP Setbacks and solid yet slept-on 2012 sophomore release Habits & Contradictions will know that the emcee’s old Habits died hard in the creation of this new LP. The only things on H&C that were radio-friendly were the A$AP Rocky-featured “Hands on the Wheel” and the Kendrick Lamar collab “Blessed.” OXYmoron, on the other hand, is far more commercial than its predecessor. The only sign that even suggests this is the same man who made H&C, lies in the final 20-second breakdown of “Los Awesome.” “Oxy Music” from H&C was just a taste of what was to come.
And I’m not condemning Q for that. In fact, I’m commending him. 2012 was Top Dawg Entertainment’s coming out year – when Q and fellow cohort Ab-Soul dropped projects to follow Kendrick Lamar’s #Section.80 in 2011 – and from then on through 2013, Q went from the solid number two in line behind K. Dot, to finding his number two spot threatened and ultimately all but taken away by Ab-Soul with Control System’s release and Soul-O’s penchant to do damage with “thinking man’s raps” on everything and anything he featured on. It’s all friendly competition in the TDE camp, but ScHoolboy Q understood he had to do something to separate himself from the pack – that he had to distinguish himself from the group and be able to stand out on his own.
So he adapted. He stepped up his game.
It started in his instrumentals. Piano keys that echoed in pregnant, contemplative silences on Habits, tiptoe along Marvin Gaye-esque soul sounds before spilling into thundering drums, crashing cymbals, and Q aping the “hi-de-hi-de-ho” of Cab Calloway (“Break tHe Bank”). Matter of fact, fuck contemplative silences when you’ve got hard-driving drums and hand claps (“Collard Greens”), and horns that rival those on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras (“Los Awesome”). He summons the 46 Chambers of the Wu via a xylophone and inspiration from Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” (“Blind THreats”). Where Kendrick flirted with EDM on “HiiiPower,” Q engages in a full-blown romance with it: rapping and chanting “Go! Go! Go!” over a sound that the Jersey Shore cast would have gladly pounded the beat to, creating a concert favorite in the making and a soundtrack for poor decisions that you’ll savor in the moment but regret in the morning (“Hell of A Night”). And he crafts a monster with a monster that’s bass-heavy and sinister enough to strike fear into the heart of conservative white America (the Tyler the Creator-featured “THe Purge”).
But OXYmoron also presents us with Quincy Hanley at his most transparent. Q’s daughter Joy serves as a narrator at certain points on the album, prefacing songs with statements about her father that sound more like proud playground proclamations (“My daddy a gangsta!” she beams on album opener “Gangsta”) and creating drama on “Prescription/Oxymoron,” seemingly stumbling onto her father succumbing to his drug addiction (something Q has battled in real life). On “Gangsta,” he provides a crash course in pushing product and street credibility that’s determined by what you live, not what you wear. “Real gangsta niggas don’t have no fear,” Q raps. “Real gangsta niggas don’t tattoo their tears.” Perhaps in homage to his album title, he follows up “Gangsta” by calling himself a “groovy nigga” on “Los Awesome,” redefining what that means as well.
“Hoover Street” is a nostalgic chronicle of a young boy who was initially mischievous and reckless but was soon groomed into gang life, influenced in part by his uncle. But then the gangster softens up on “Studio,” crafting a slow jam of sorts with help from BJ the Chicago Kid on the hook, because well, thugs need love, too. And the anthemic “Break tHe Bank” slides in a subtle reference to his daughter amidst its proclamations of success at any cost. For those who opt for the album’s Deluxe Edition, you simply can’t go wrong with adding the A$AP Rocky-featured “Californication” and “Fuck LA” to your regular rotations.
It’s fitting that ScHoolboy Q closes his album with “Man of the Year,” a “mama I made it, now watch me celebrate it” type affair that symbolizes Q’s ascension up from street life and also his newfound belief in himself and the music. OXYmoron may alienate some diehards of TDE for being the label’s most mainstream release to date, but it’s not about the listeners. It’s about the therapy session Q conducts in twelve tracks, and we should be thankful he trusts us with his story.