TDE’s Blank Face killer arrives witH His next HigHly-anticipated album
It was always going to be a daunting task being the next guy to push out a release on the Top Dawg Entertainment label following the (not one, but two) Kendrick Lamar projects dropped both last and this year. Fans waited patiently to see who step up to the plate to continue the legacy that this California-based record company is laying down as we speak, and it turns out it was none other than ScHoolboy Q. With it being 2 years since his last project, it seemed only fitting that Q was to finally grace us with his follow-up in the form of this new ‘Blank Face LP‘, a 17-track experience that centers on the erratic life and personality of the LA-raised MC. The question of course is; does it live up to TDE’s string of stellar releases or end up being a disappointment that’ll fall victim to the strength of what it’s trying to compete with?
I imagine ScHoolboy Q had to take all this pressure into account when recording this record, but being one of the more consistently-active members of the label (through feature verses and tours) and already having an established fan base, I imagine he was also quietly confident he could live up to the standard of both his label associates and his well-received previous album; ‘Oxymoron‘. However in the run up to the release date it was unclear how he was going to approach this project, with the first single ‘Groovy Tony‘ painting a picture of a psychopathic killer with no face that many thought Q would embody in a more conceptual LP. Then came the weaker second single ‘THat Part‘, featuring Kanye West, one less lyrically exciting that its predecessor, littered with the usual braggadocio over a pretty bland trap-flavoured instrumental. Not to mention Kanye’s verse is a cringe-worthy attempt at sounding overly energetic; with his opening line being “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay“. It was confusing and kind of disappointing to see this, as the initial single was so promising in its proposition of us maybe getting some sort of narrative with this new album. Still, I went into ‘Blank Face LP‘ with the hopes that Q could muster up a modern classic.
With the huge success of Kendrick’s socially aware ‘To Pimp A Butterfly‘ last year, it was clear that Q would have to step up is game in the writing department, especially since one of the most criticized aspects of ‘Oxymoron‘ was its overuse of dumbed-down lyrics. To match this, the beats had to avoid reeking of commercial appeal and had to fit Q’s unstable gangster persona that he portrays so frequently. The opening track of ‘Blank Face’ certainly sets the tone that this will be the case, as ‘TorcH‘ has a slow, crawling bass and a guitar melody pulled from a heavy metal track . It’s a surprisingly lethargic opener, considering his last LP opened with ‘Gangsta‘ (go listen), but Q himself is the driving force of the song here, as he reminisces about how growing up in the harsh streets of LA has shaped him. He embodies the greedy mindset of gangster only out for monetary gain and doesn’t care for human relationships; “Who needs a mothafuckin’ friend? / You see them mothafuckin’ rims / Met the devil in disguise / Look through my mothafuckin’ eyes“. He’s viscous in his delivery and the track is an excellent opener (although being a little too long and having the opening line “fuck the blogs” 😦 ).
Across the album, while complete verses are a little too sparse for my liking, it’s clear that the MC has indeed stepped up his lyrical game and has moved away from the generic bragging that found itself becoming a little to familiar across his last LP. Tracks like the gangster banger ‘Ride Out‘ (featuring a stellar verse from Vince Staples) feature some of Q’s most hard-hitting threats and accounts for himself he’s ever put out over some ear-shattering bass and quick hi-hats: “I’m ridin’ cycs through Hoover Street, my knuckles full of teeth / Try to creep on me, you’re dyin’ in your homie’s seat“. Another lyrically impressive cut is the conscious ‘Black THought‘, a song aimed to tackle the issue of the relationship between cops and gangs in LA. While the instrumental is a little simple with a heavy, screwed drumline, Q shines as he passes criticism onto the stereotypes that are forcefully ingrained into the minds of the black community, holding them back: “Ain’t nothin’ changed but the change / Let’s put our brains away from gangs / Crips and Bloods the old and new slaves / Shit we even changed our names“.
On the other side of things, there are times where the production takes the cake and trumps the rapper it’s supposed to be backing up. Like I said before, full, complete and solid verses are lacking here, especially when the instrumentals really stand out. A good example of this is the track ‘Kno Ya Wrong‘, which includes two well-crafted instrumentals blending piano loops and horns with guitar solos and some authentic West Coast synth-bass, but the Black Hippy member doesn’t deliver anything really that special here. Half-mumbling/half-singing over the first half and only laying down a short, forgettable verse on the second. I’ve yet to find something that bugs me more than wasted potential over good production. A similar case is the achingly short ‘Lord Have Mercy‘, standing at less than 2 minutes long. The Swizz Beatz production that pairs hummed vocals and chain-like drum kicks and snares is the most powerful, impassioned beat on the entire album, and Q questions whether his life of sin will be forgiven: “Runnin’ from God’s creation / Shakin’ these broken hands and meetin’ with blank faces / Snake eyes keepin’ my back achin’“.
‘Blank Face LP‘ does manage to find the perfect balance between rapper and beat enough times to convince me that Q has the prowess to incorporate enjoyability into gangster rap. The track ‘JoHn Muir‘ is one of the best on the record, integrating a boom bap-like drum loop into these smooth, wavy guitar melodies that the LA rapper fits right into. The hook is one of my favourite pieces from 2016 so far too, the introduction of a sleek, compelling sax complimenting the vocals so well. Tracks like ‘Neva CHange‘; a low-key, introspective piece about the MC’s faults and fears, and ‘Blank Face‘; a jazz-inspired track that sounds like a cut from Anderson .Paak’s album ‘Malibu‘ (who is in fact featured here) also wonderfully highlight both Q’s ability alongside his producer’s, with enough variety to not make the record feel stale as it goes on.
While the TDE signee seems to battle with this balance, there are times where he just makes some flat out poor choices. ‘Big Body‘ (produced by Tyler, The Creator) is just… bad. While Q’s charisma and energy is likeable and the feature verse from Tha Dogg Pound is great, the instrumental has this horn melody that sounds like it was pulled straight from a Lego Racers video game, merged with some weak, funk-like percussion. Not to mention the weakest hook on the LP. Then there’s ‘Overtime‘, a track Q himself admitted is only on there to satisfy the requests of Interscope, and it’s clear to see why. The rather tame beat with its trap percussion and glistening synths is far from anything interesting, and the hook: “I wanna fuck right now, I wanna fuck right now” (repeated 4 more times if you weren’t sick of it by the first) is painfully generic when compared to some great moments on this LP. Thankfully the album doesn’t end on this pile of stink as we get the finale track ‘Tookie Knows II‘, and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking he saved the best until last. A true Crip anthem, the production is haunting and gritty, a dark piano loop and some enticing sub-bass create this really murky, tense atmosphere. ScHoolboy Q outlines the good, the bad and the ugly of street life and the consequences of being tied to a gang: “It was cool ’til that gang sweep / Now I’m in back of a van / And my wrists got a band / Got a number for a name“. He knows his former life as a gang banger came with many risks, but he acknowledges these brilliantly by embodying a dazzling-yet-hardened persona.
‘Blank Face LP‘ is an interesting case for me. At times it basks in the creative genius of the both the rapper that drives it and the producers that molded it, yet at another it seems at war with itself over which direction it wants to take. There are moments are here that’ll have you crying “album of the year” but there are others that will make you question whether this is really a TDE; the same label responsible for the modern-day masterpiece ‘To Pimp a Butterfly‘. It’s ScHoolboy Q’s most interesting, thought-provoking and personal project yet, and while the good points do overwhelm the weaker ones, I’m still left with this sinking feeling that it could have been so much more. Trim off a few of the unnecessaries and implement a few more verses from the man himself and you’d have a great record here, but overall it’s a constant game of hit or miss from Hoover Street’s anti-hero.
Highlights: JoHn Muir, Lord Have Mercy, Tookie Knows II, Neva CHange, Ride Out