Author: Ben Farrell
It’s been three years since the world last heard from TDE signee and LA Rap icon Schoolboy Q. Over the course of those three years it seems that the rapper has to a certain extent re-jiggered his creative philosophy, which he discussed in a sit down with New York Magazine’s Vulture. In his classic eff-you cadence, Q explained that his biggest regret with his critically-acclaimed 2016 LP Blank Face was that the album was just “besides from a couple of songs, pretty dark.”
As a long time Q listener, I was frankly a little surprised. That darkness had been to me the LA emcee’s musical X factor. The carefully controlled aggression of his cruelly true-to-life bars were a stark reminder of what rap had been in years past, paired with modern, boundary shifting instrumentals. Though undeniably a student of the West Coast school of rap, his raspy voice and choppy delivery were reminiscent of New York legends like Mobb Deep and The Wu Tang Clan.
That’s not the Q we got on his most recent release, Crash Talk. This record is by far his poppiest release to date. Its cast of features stands as good indicator of Q’s contemporary focal shift. Lil Baby, 21 Savage, Ty Dolla Sign, YG, Kid Cudi, and most notably Travis Scott assist in his transition to a new sonic profile. Shorter songs, harder hitting 808s, and a less introspective force this album out of line with Q’s prior work.
On “Floating”, the album’s 9th track, Q brings his trademark sinister rhymes to a beat that in reality seems to be tailored to the strengths 21 Savage, who is featured on the song. Q’s bars don’t necessarily feel out of place here, but the craft of this song is straight out of Savage’s trap oeuvre. Q’s use of words like “splash” and “sauce” reference to his clothing once again points us toward the rap of 21 Savage.
Chopstix, which features Travis Scott, is another pop-rap anthem. Scott’s auto-tuned hook is deeply reminiscent of his 2018 release astroworld, one of last year’s most popular records. Q uses this to his advantage, spitting venomously over a murkily produced club rocker of a beat. To call this a banger would be an understatement. Q has no problem flexing, creeping, and flowing over this trackt, his dark humor perfectly tailored to this somehow-sinister anthem.
After listening to this song in particular, I was left conflicted. On the one hand, this song’s existence is clearly a net positive, even for a jaded listener such as myself. I will listen to it for a long time, and enjoy it thoroughly. On the other hand, part of me wishes that this track in particular had been on, for example, a Travis Scott record, and not a Q release. The particular subgenre of rap that Chopstix embodies isn’t what I’m expecting when listening to a Schoolboy Q release, no matter the quality of the track itself.
My critique thus far, especially in light of the fact that I am a hipster white dude, is in a lot of ways trite and played-out. In the same Vulture interview, Q directly addressed “internet dweebs” such as myself, whose musical sensibilities are too anti-commercial (and prejudiced) to give his new approach the respect it deserves. As I sat in my apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, his grievances with my archetype forced me to in this instance question the merit of my own opinion. As Q so bitingly put it, “It’ll be some white guy from Idaho trying to tell you about your culture.”
This inclination of mine is essentially to label what I see as conformity as a desire to sell out. Why else would someone with such a gritty and unique artistic oeuvre take a journey into the mainstream? The answer is not a simple one. In multiple sit-downs, Q has discussed the 3 full length LPs he wrote, recorded and produced before he reached this final product. This final iteration of the record, which resulted in his decision to record an LP with a sonic profile different than his past releases is undoubtedly an act of conformity, but not a bad one. It is Q’s desire to throw his own hat in the ring of pop-rap, a new and extremely important cultural movement.
It’s also important to think about Q the person when listening to Crash Talk. “I’m having too much fun to just be [making] down music and keeping kids depressed” Q said, “’cause depressed kids nowadays love to listen to depressed music.” Q himself has had widely publicized struggles with depression, and was close friends with the late rapper Mac Miller, who died of an overdose in September of 2018, which many believe was related to his storied struggles with mental health and substance reviews. In order to grieve Miller’s death, Q pushed the release of his album back months. This new, light approach to music can perhaps be viewed as a departure from Q’s own demons and dark places, or as a vehicle through which he can revisit the wonderful things in life. Happiness can be serious to, after all.
As consumers, we must consciously and holistically approach art. American culture-vultures are adept at dehumanizing artists, especially when the art they produce isn’t exactly what critics expected. In the case of Q, a black man, many idaho-dwelling bloggers turn to this genre of music for a taste of a life they never lead, and that’s not what Crash Talk is. So, internet dweebs such as myself should either shut up and get smart. We’ve learned to appreciate the pop songwriting of Carly Rae-Jepsen and Casey Musgraves, so why can’t we do that with Q’s music too.