[Top Dawg Entertainment; 2012]

MP3: Schoolboy Q – “Blessed” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)

You could say Schoolboy Q has something of an itchy trigger finger. Labelmate to rapper of the moment, Kendrick Lamar, Q has been eagerly building his own name, not least of which through a timely, scene-stealing performance on A$AP Rocky’s “Brand New Guy.” Now he’s released Habits & Contradictions, almost exactly a year removed from his last full length, Setbacks, which was notable in its own right. Yet, while that album was a pleasant buzz-builder, playing to standards and expectations, Habits is an insistent, vital full frontal assault. Whereas Q was learning, biting at the heels of his figurative big brother, he’s now picked what tricks he could from Lamar, and grown beyond his input.

If anything, Q is quick to establish himself as the antithesis of Lamar’s music, right down to flipping K.Dot’s meaningful “A.D.H.D.” into a one line gag about crack. Yep, he’s a clever guy. While opener “Sacrilegious” certainly displays Lamar’s fingerprints in its wispy guitar and lush musical backing, many of the tracks more fully represent what Q brings to the table. “2 Raw” is sloppily combative, Q and labelmate Jay Rock sporadically flowing over a revolving door of a Cali-beat, while the likes of “Oxy Music” and “Nightmare on Figg St.” offer the sort of delirious aggression one would expect from their titles. In these two statements, and many others, Q makes it clear that while Kendrick may worship at the temple of Makaveli, he’s more akin to Eazy-E or early Dre. The bouncing, jovial arrogance of “There He Go” (and much of the album) bring to mind that confidence once so representative of California, too long gone following Game’s relative downfall.

In fact, while it’s certainly a bold statement, the gradually rising collective soul of Top Dawg Entertainment – Black Hippy – four young friends against the music business, recalls the genesis of N.W.A. True, they had a Prince and Yella, but the relevance can’t be denied; TDE are, collectively, the most exciting thing to hit hip hop since Kanye decided to step from behind the boards. Due to that very man’s influence, the division of hipster influence and “real” rap has all but disappeared, blurred to the point of nonexistence. Bearing this in mind, Habits is everything a gangsta rap album should be in 2012. From the ballsy Genesis sample on “Gangsta in Designer” right down to Portishead’s “Cowboys” serving as the backing for “Raymond 1969,” the record is steeped in intriguing musical decisions. Party anthem “Hands on the Wheel,” boasting A$AP Rocky and a live sample of Lissie’s much buzzed about “Pursuit of Happiness” cover from last year, cannot be ignored, already becoming the album’s most commonly discussed track. Even Lex Luger gets in the spirit of the occasion: no record from an up-and-comer these days is complete without a Curren$y inspired stoner joint, and Luger provides the backdrop to “Grooveline Pt. 1,” with Dom Kennedy and Spitta himself coming in with the assist.

The album hits what may be its pinnacle in its final moments, with the emotional, dream pop influenced “Blessed” softly wailing while Q unravels some of his best verses to date, finally lowering the guise of an amused baller to reveal a tired, tried young man. Kendrick also finally pops in, silencing the ‘overhyped’ naysayers with an absurdly focused flow, following the drums with his every word. It’s quite impressive to hear, and in one moment Lamar’s reabsorbed the buzz that had begun to wander in the time since Section.80. The focus returns to Q for the final burst of “niggaHs.already.know.davers.flow,” over blaring synth, the MC takes one final pop shot for any and all comers.

With each song, Q perfectly outlines his fascinations: drugs, fashion (at least in so much as it helps him get laid), money, bitches, and a nagging concern that he’d rather have a real woman in his life. Perhaps these aren’t particularly original concerns, but they are Schoolboy Q’s concerns. In an industry over saturated with performers the last thing Q seems to be doing is playing a role. Rather, he seems to having all the fun playing himself, deciding how much of it is the character. Like the best rap lying in the specific niche Q has chosen, the fun doesn’t always come from what’s being said, the pillars of gangsta rap have long been in place, but from the way its said. Schoolboy Q certainly has a way of it.