ScHoolboy Q Blank Face

[Top Dawg Entertainment; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: pop rap, Cali rap, gangsta rap
Others: Outkast, Vince Staples, YG

ScHoolboy Qs newest album, Blank Face, is a masterwork of ludonarrative dissonance. At a moment when the temperatures in our cultural climate are rising beyond a mere simmer, an album that not only celebrates wanton violence, but also, more provocatively, dresses its anti-social themes in gorgeous and sensuous musical textures, should feel irresponsible, the kind of music that justifies the existence of parental advisory warnings; but rather, the mismatch between subject and tone lends Blank Face the same hypnotic effect as a Kubrick (or more contemporarily, Refn Winding) film, where the grimness of the subject matter is matched equally by the refinement with which it is depicted.

Ironically, harmonious juxtapositions strike me as honest, or at least more honest, than most alternate depictions of violence. These kinds of techniques also, crucially, cast aspersions on the concept of respectability, which is often utilized as a camouflage for more polite and acceptable forms of violence; it also allows depictions of violence to impact audiences more through acknowledgement of the unconscious, animal-brained appeal of such disreputable behavior than through ineffective appeals to the kinds of conventional mores (violence=bad) that society applies arbitrarily — depending on the context and particularities of those persons committing violence. Therefore, the pristine nature of Blank Face’s aesthetics weigh heavily in my assessment. Were the music less pleasurable or less classically crafted, I would likely take its glorification of violence very differently.

The album eschews most current rap memes, and it’s one of the only rap releases that I’ve heard within the past few years to be influenced in almost no way by Future or Young Thug — although Future’s frequent collaborator Metro Boomin does the production on “Ride Out,” one of Blank Face’s unequivocal standouts — with no overtures toward subgenres like drill or bop. Instead, it offers up a 200-level overview of the post-Y2K rap landscape, exploring third-wave So-Cal gangsta rap through a range of historical lenses, including but not limited to street-level NYC skullduggery (complete with Jadakiss guest verse), electric Dungeon Family funk (the guitar that starts off the record and then reappears throughout is distinctly “Gasoline Dreams”), Yeezy-style pop operatics (in terms of emotional/sensory maximalism and also the literal presence of Kanye on “THat Part”), trunk-rattling Texas horrorcore textures (“Dope Dealer” is, to me, a perfect distillation of shock rap, practically begging for a Juciy J cameo), and most importantly Black Hippy’s unwieldy postmodernist song structure (if I need to explain this last one, Blank Face probably isn’t the record for you).

In case all of that read to you like soup, let me not mince words here: Blank Face is the kind of music that makes gang violence sound like the most pleasurable activity one could undertake rather than something one does for physical security and economic mobility. Our contemporary culture of shame and victimhood dictates a narrow, convoluted set of acceptable responses to inconvenient truths; it tolerates gang activity as a symptom of society’s rot, but exhorts those within its gravitational orbit to reject it, without offering a means to address the cause. Many critically-acclaimed rappers follow suit, painting for us vivid depictions of violence, followed closely by conciliatory sermons to reassure us that they too find such behavior to be distasteful. ScHoolboy Q, who self-deprecates early on the album about political incorrectness being a stumbling block to success, falls into this trap briefly, in an interconnected three-song suite toward Blank Face’s end. “Str8 Ballin,” “Black Thoughts,” and “Blank Face” address violence in terms of both causes and effects; here, Q chastises gang members for focusing more on hurting one’s enemies than on loving one’s own kin. This kind of “All Lives Matters” equivalency bring to mind an ignominious quote attributed to Golda Meir, that Palestinians would find peace as soon as they loved their children more than they hated their enemies. That kind of moral logic, both on this album and in real life, historical terms, happens to be neither moral nor logical. On the other hand, these songs are, as strong as those which comprise the rest of the album, at least judged on musical grounds; lyrically, they might be among the most meticulously-drafted songs on Blank Face. That said, these three songs are the only ones that disappoint with gestures toward a fallacious middle-class morality that is easily broken by the inhumane conditions under which many people live.

Aside from that brief, moralizing blip on the album’s radar, Blank Face is otherwise anarchic in spirit and tone, focused on the pride, the thrill, and the glee of the illicit, rather than on the ethically-compromised defenses or self-conscious excoriations. Whereas most rap music tiptoes along the edges of respectability — which, admittedly, Blank Face does as well, in certain small, but significant ways, such as the deemphasized misogyny and complete lack of homophobic language — pays little mind to bourgeois mores. Its ethos is summed up by the chorus of “By Any Means” — “You can fuck my bitch/ You can have my ho/ Get yours, get yours, get yours/ By any means” — which to my ears sounds like a clever, nihilistic parody of the kinds of empowerment anthems found on watered-down pop crossover records, like T.I.’s Paper Trail, for example.

And Blank Face is almost certainly an attempt at a pop crossover. But whereas most of those type of records sacrifice specificity in the pursuit of commercial success, Q’s lyrics are packed full of autobiographical details, to the point that it’s clear that he’s baiting his audience. “I was out here sellin’ dope at 14/ What it do?/ I was out here fuckin’ hoes at 14/ What it do?,” he boasts on the Morricone-y sounding “John Muir,” complicating conventional wisdom about childhood with unapologetic deviations from the norm. Time and time again, Blank Face shifts the axis of morality; to ScHoolboy Q, creative cripping is the norm, it’s the world’s values that are out of whack. He has neither inclination nor need for apologies, and that lack of contrition is at least as refreshing as it is alarming. And unlike other similar records, Blank Face feels relatively light — like a kilo of feathers — unburdened by the real-life violence that imbues albums like YG’s Still Brazy with a potent, discomforting sense of paranoia. To ScHoolboy Q, thug life is a safe space; there’s no need for fear, hate, or judgement, at least not right here, not right now.

Though quintessentially 2016 it might be, is Blank Face also an important record? I dunno. I’m hesitant to ascribe that much meaning to it so early on. But as far as major label rap albums are concerned, Blank Face is one of the strongest, most consistently enjoyable in years, even if its glossy and misanthropic merits falls just shy of GOAT status. In terms of ScHoolboy Q’s discography, there’s little question that this is his best work yet. Lacking the conceptual pretensions of TDE top dog Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q can focus on ensuring that the album works, not just from song to song, but also from minute to minute. So maybe instead of thinkpiecing this vibrant record half to death, the smarter, less pompous thing to do would be to try to not overthink while listening, to revel instead in the exquisite, intricate, and ornate construction of this music, to feel meaning rather than impose it, to embrace dissonance and irony and contradiction, and most importantly to stop giving so many fucks. Blank Face is a testament to the fact that the world isn’t all rotten, but if it was, all the more reason to ride out.

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