Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Schoolboy Q - Blank Face Review

Ever since Black Hippy rose to power in the early 2010's with a string of high-quality releases, the collective, and their record label TDE, has grown to become one of the foremost kingpins of Hip-Hop. After stellar breakout affairs from each member, the only emcee we've seen evolve is Kendrick Lamar, making critically-acclaimed works in good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp A Butterfly. The others, which include Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and our focus here, Schoolboy Q, have merely retained form of their niche appeal. The former represents Compton's pure streets, the Black Lipped Bastard has continued his quest for pseudo-enlightenment, and the latter pushes out grizzled bangers. That's been their role since day one, and ever since each palate has become more refined. The only one who's had to battle for street cred and the spotlight is the man repping the bucket hat. His latest endeavor, 2014's Oxymoron, a literal oxymoron, in that for the fans he gained with hits like 'Studio' and 'Collard Greens,' an equal amount vanished due to his commitment to reaching a wider audience. Blank Face, his long-awaited follow-up, seeks to appease both sides, resulting in a project that has its moments but is stifled by excessive bloating.

In the glam-filled roll-out for Blank Face, Schoolboy Q, amongst other things including album covers drenched in memes and gossip-worthy singles, released a three-part miniseries centered around the rise and fall of Q and his friends, culminating each part in an incorporative music video. The execution was great, acting surprisingly superb, production value high. What the series implied was a linear focus on storytelling to be found within the album, the entire lack of one throughout Blank Face a definite sore sight. There's times when Q seems to grasp the cinematic scope of Kendrick Lamar's releases, even sporting half a dozen beats here that wouldn't feel out of place on To Pimp A Butterfly, but he can never piece together the fabric enough to sacrifice individual tracks. In this sense, Blank Face feels ever so regressive. Without breaking any new ground, lyrically or conceptually, Q's left to explain the necessity of having 17 tracks that could largely be shuffled without a degradation of quality. Similar to Views or At.Long.Last.A$AP, Blank Face fails to restrain itself, resulting in filler that adds nothing of value to what's supposed to be a statement LP.

The question is, do the standout tracks outweigh the ones we could've lived without? Much like Oxymoron, the most enjoyable set pieces here are those we've previously heard. Despite debuting back in April, 'Groovy Tony' still holds up incredibly well, with an additional verse from Jadakiss, while initially hesitant towards 'THat Part' cause of Kanye West's poor appearance, I can't deny the catchiness of the hook and the griminess of the beat. Not just those two though, in the miniseries Schoolboy Q debuted 'By Any Means' and 'Tookie Knows II,' two absolutely stellar Gangsta Rap anthems. Both these, and a few others littered about, see Q change his direction with a decisively less mainstream appeal, focusing instead on bringing a sneering viciousness a la YG's latest Still Brazy. There's a few side-steps here and there that keep the LP afloat, like the Tyler, The Creator produced 'Big Body' or the goofy G-Funk of 'Dope Dealer,' while the burning groove of 'Kno Ya Wrong' is lovely and sorely missing elsewhere, something his best LP Habits & Contradictions featured in spades.

When Blank Face doesn't work the overall quality of the work dips quite drastically. As openers, 'TorcH' and 'Lord Have Mercy' are duds, giving no proper intro for the album, abruptly beginning without much of an exclamation. And while the bulk of the LP is rather safe, the risks Q takes are 50/50 in their effectiveness. 'WHateva U Want' tries to create worth out of a two-step ballad, stumbling through needless melodrama, while 'Neva CHange' sees Q at his worst, singing in a most unsavory taste, even bringing cohort SZA down with him. Without providing much fodder for thought-provoking or simply interesting lyrics, Blank Face and Schoolboy fail to gauge the audience beyond the basic necessities for making his music fun. Therefore the production and hooks are what need to thrive. The former does an above-average job, sometimes excelling with A-list producers running the gamut, like Sounwave's Trap bounce on 'Ride Out' or Nez & Rio's piano-led finale 'Tookie Knows II.' The latter sees great hooks from Q when he's flexing in the muck ('By Any Means,' 'Big Body'), despite faltering when fizzling or going overboard ('Overtime,' 'Str8 Ballin').

As a whole, much like Oxymoron, Blank Face is more concerned with all its individual identities than a single uniform vision. Really, the only thing separating this, or any other backlogged album, from being a mixtape is the high-quality production being found through its speakers. Schoolboy Q's not adding any new facets to his persona here, nor is he pushing the genre forward in any way. Everything you hear here, apart from the Kanye feature, could've easily been created and released in 2014 and no one would've known the difference. That being said, when artists partake in this insistence on reproduction it's usually used as a means to further advance one's concentrated strengths. At its peak, Blank Face is the best we've ever received from Q, with a handful of tracks easily competing for top spot amongst his discography. But the flipside shows a sad tale, following him down a road of needlessness, with some of his worst tracks dotted through an album lacking any unified theme besides the one we'd expect from him. The same one we've received twice already. It's spotty, but Blank Face works in parts, even if its end game is a little disappointing. 

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