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ScHoolboy Q, ‘Oxymoron’ [ALBUM REVIEW]

TDE/Interscope

Though it’s looking like his major label debut, ‘Oxymoron,’ is going to be a first week sales successScHoolboy Q has had his ups and downs creatively. His breakout project, ‘Habits and Contradictions,’ balanced different styles with ease: ‘Hands On the Wheel’ and ‘There He Go’ for the pop crowd, ‘Fantasy’ for the ladies, ‘Raymond 1969′ for the heat holders, ‘Blessed’ for the more introspective crowd. It laid the perfectly balanced blueprint for his major label debut without sacrificing any of his charming personality, yet ‘Oxymoron’ as a whole lacks the same focus.

It’s obvious that ScHoolboy Q had some mainstream leanings with this one, whether they’re of his own direction or that of higher-ups. He might have had projects for sale in the past, but this is his official coming out party, so let’s be clear — the label wants a crossover hit.

First people thought a snippet of ‘Man of the Year’ provided evidence that Q had one on his hands, but it seems to have only resonated with his core fans and TDE diehards. Then the NBA leaked ‘Up All Night,’ which fans once more thought would be a radio smash and ended up being the album’s most contrived moment. The song that has the most buzz also has the slimmest chance of taking over national airwaves — ‘Break The Bank,’ a six minute claustrophobic banger with midnight keys and a chorus that updates Snoop Dogg’s “money on my mind” hook. What ends up being the most commercially viable single is the unlikely ‘Collard Greens,’ with its nursery rhyme chorus, a pulsing backdrop and a bilingual Kendrick Lamar verse.

Watch Schoolboy Q’s ‘Collard Green’ Video Feat. Kendrick Lamar

Let’s not forget Kendrick had his commercial leanings, too. And if hopping on a recognizable Janet Jackson sample isn’t cheating, then getting a Drake feature certainly is. Schoolboy’s hooks aren’t as developed as Kendrick’s yet, though they seem to be on their way (‘Gangsta’ uses repetition to its advantage and ‘Break the Bank’ is insidiously catchy). The difference between the two TDE artists is that all of Kendrick’s songs are distinctly his. Think about it: three of the first six songs (‘Los Awesome,’ ‘What They Want’ and ‘Studio’) sound like somebody else could have made them. It doesn’t help solidify ScHoolboy Q as a unique individual.

You might be thinking it’s not fair to compare Q and K. Dot, and you’d be right if it hadn’t been Schoolboy himself (and Mac Miller) who claimed he’s better than Kendrick. Not only is it apples and oranges, but it’s also unnecessary. What seemed like a clever marketing move became a crippling shot in the foot, and one that could have easily been avoided.

Watch Schoolboy Q’s ‘Man of the Year’ Video

What ScHoolboy Q lacks in radio presence he makes up for with songs that reach depths heretofore unexplored in his music. Consider his last verse on ‘Hoover Street,’ arguably the album’s best moment. In one verse he takes us from grandma’s Christmas gifts to Rat Tone showing him his first gat. It’s a breathtaking journey from childhood innocence to  a criminal adolescence.

ScHoolboy’s drug-addicted uncle is paralleled in Q himself on ‘Prescription,’ where Schoolboy sinks into a Xanax-induced stupor that leaves him ignoring his daughter’s calls. She pleads for his attention from what sounds like another planet, and a crushing sadness rushes to the surface. We hear the palpable pain, yet it never shows up again (though he skims the surface of existential despair on ‘Blind Threats’). The second part of the song details his drug sales, but there’s little regret and zero insight into the harm those drugs cause. It comes off as one-dimensional.

Q actually has more personality bubbling behind the mic than he exhibits on it. He’s got a 4-year-old daughter, he’s a (former?) Hoover Crip, he’s fighting a lean addiction, but none of that is fleshed out beyond one or two songs. Hazy interludes with his daughter’s voice don’t serve to stitch together the loose ends, and many of the radio grabs end up confusing the listener instead of creating a coherent listening experience.

He’s ‘Man of the Year’ (what an empty signifier), he’s ‘Los Awesome’ (horrible name and even worse song), he’s ‘What They Want.’ What’s ironic is Schoolboy seems to be just that — pandering to everybody without focusing on his story — the struggle between growing up in South Central L.A., where few opportunities besides slinging and balling present themselves, and raising a daughter. Next to that kind of struggle, a lot of empty boasting (like on ‘The Purge’) doesn’t go very far. Danny Brown balanced fun and sorrow with dexterity on ‘Old.’ Schoolboy tries to put one foot in each and ends up doing an awkward split.

Watch Schoolboy Q’s ‘Break the Bank’ Video

‘Habits and Contradictions’ had a well-orchestrated tapestry of humanity — schizo, paranoid, somber, reflective. On ‘Oxymoron,’ you can’t really tell if the rapper is being himself. The album is disjointed, with each song causing more seasickness by rocking the boat without taking it in any one well-defined direction.

Maybe it’s a matter of sequencing. ‘Yay Yay’ would bust things wide open as the second track (Who f—ed up the chance to do that video with cocaine raining from the sky?),  ’Prescription/Oxymoron’ would fit perfectly after ‘Hoover Street,’ and even ‘Banger‘ might have been a more natural choice than any of the obvious radio attempts. Fans will probably rearrange the album to their liking, but there might not be enough pure product to overpower all the B.S. the dope is cut with.

Let this be a wake-up call for labels. The attempts at wider popularity are forced in broad daylight. His fans are not stupid. Don’t drag them to the clubs when they’re smoking blunts at the crib. When he’s in his lane, he puts the pedal to the floor, but crossing over means speed bumps on the major label road, and he’s going to have to retain his core audience to stay in charge on the next lap.

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