Schoolboy Q often comes off as the Hyde to Kendrick Lamar’s Jekyll, a defiantly self-destructive native of South Central, Los Angeles, whose self-awareness is shadowed by a charismatic nihilism. “I’m apocalypse to your politics,” he raps on “What They Want” one of the many dyed-in-the-wool gangster rap tracks on his major-label debut Oxymoron, and it’s fitting: Quincy Hanley has never seemed willing to play games or to pretty up his image. In a recent interview with Hot 97′s Angie Martinez, he spoke candidly about his addiction to lean (a potent mix of promethazine and cough syrup) and the way it has affected both his music and his personal life.
Q’s various drug problems (he also once sold OxyContin) give you one half of the pun in the album’s title, and it’d be easy to skim through Oxymoron and come away thinking of the rapper as nothing more than a pill-head degenerate. But digging deeper into the record shows Q to be just as nuanced, difficult and compelling a character as he was on his last full-length outing, 2012′s Habits and Contradictions.
Preceding that depth, however, is the gangster shit, and there are some doozies here. Q’s sound with Top Dawg Entertainment often dulled the edge on regional production cues, but the opening third of Oxymoron shows comfort with classic West Coast signifiers. “Gangsta” is classic riding music, minor key menace and bass thump. “Los Awesome,” featuring TDE compatriot Jay Rock, rides the dirty gearshift-synth that Dr. Dre used to such effect on The Game’s The Documentary. Kendrick shows up on “Collard Greens” with some helium-voiced Spanish, over the eerie whines that have defined G-funk since The Chronic.
The two longest songs at the center of the album give Oxymoron its soul. “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” trace the maternal line of Q’s family to astonishing effect, placing him in a tradition of men failing the women around them. On “Hoover Street,” it’s Q’s grandma, trying to stop his uncle from stealing the stereo and spoiling Q with clothes and her love, only to see him join the family business. It’s here where Q’s ironies emerge. He calls himself “the bad guy, never once been a ho’s hero.” But if that’s true, it’s not for lack of awareness of who he’s letting down. “Prescription/Oxymoron” finds him “falling off, can’t hold a thought/ My mommy call/ I hit ignore/ My daughter call/ I press ignore.”
Unfortunately, that’s where the majority of the album’s intrigue ends. Having confronted both past and present, Q is left with more filler than future, just generic gangsterisms without the edge that characterizes the earlier tracks. “The Purge,” which features the intriguing combination of Tyler, The Creator and Kurupt, is a letdown, with only Tyler’s snarling voice making an impression. “Grooveline, Pt 2,” another collaboration with Compton’s Suga Free, comes off asa half-hearted Too $hort tribute. It’s as if grappling his addiction has left Schoolboy Q spent. But despite, and partly because of its incomplete state, Oxymoron remains a potent testament to the dangers of drug abuse and a forceful portrait of a rapper, one who often portrays himself as larger than life, struggling with human weakness.