Available on: Top Dawg Entertainment LP
Schoolboy Q doesn’t come straight outta Compton, but 51st street Los Angeles is close enough, bordering Figuoara and Hoover streets; gangland territory. Q joined up with local outfit, the notorious Hoover Crips at the age of 12, and prior to becoming a rapper claims to have dealt drugs, primarily Oxcontin (“heroine’s cousin” as he describes it on this album). So far, so Snoop Dogg.
However, while he has the gang-banger credentials that so often accompany L.A rappers (and the facial tats to match), Q is far from a conventional gangsta rapper. Like Black Hippy crew-mate and actual Compton native Kendrick Lamar, Q represents L.A. and its infamous gangsta-rap traditions with pride, certainly (“Coast ain’t been this hard since Pac, Death Row, and Dr. Dre…”), but without slavish devotion. He knows where he’s from, but he doesn’t intend to rest on his geographical laurels. When it comes to gangsta rapping, and gangsta living, he’s been there, done that: and now he wants to do something else.
Breaking free of musical convention seems to be one of Q’s aims, and so it is completely fitting that Habits & Contradictions, an album so heavy on concept that one track is entitled ‘Gangster In Designer (No Concept)’, is about a person trying to break free of the conventions strangling their own life. On tracks like ‘Sacriligious’ and ‘Raymond 1969’ Q looks back to his former gang-banging, Oxycontin-pushing self, pre-musical success, trapped in an array of violent, self-destructive but enjoyable habits, and inwardly raging with moral and emotional contradictions that occasionally threaten to kick the cane from his cool Crip Walk.
It’s difficult, admittedly, to draw the line between recollection and celebration here – there are, as is standard for any rap album, plenty of boasts and threats on Habits, usually concerning precisely the same subjects Dre, Snoop and countless others have rapped about. There’s women: “Still on the scene with a bunch of bitches / Too many on my team need extra benches” (‘Sexting’). There’s weed: “Let’s get stupid high, to where I can’t reply, Love smokin’ dope, I won’t compromise” (‘Hands On The Wheel’). And there’s guns: “Drive to pussy more than I do to church/ No A.C, but the heater work, murk!” (‘Nightmare on Figg Street’).
There are witty lines, too, but it isn’t Q’s rather conventional lyrical content which distinguishes him. The technical ‘Contradiction’ to what is habitual in his lyrics comes from the way he delivers them, in a voice that hair-pin turns from calm to furious in a heart-beat, and structures them, racking up an array of complex vocally accentuated rhyme-schemes that switch as rapidly and regularly as his voice. He has the imperious raspy confidence of yer Kurupt’s and Snoop’s, but none of their smoothness: he’s a volatile presence, barely holding himself back. He often seems to be wrestling against the rhythmic boundaries of a beat like a convict bucking in a straitjacket.
Q’s spasmodic switching of flow and vocal register inevitably calls to mind Detroit’s manic rap-dynamo Danny Brown, and vocal acrobatics isn’t all that the two share in common. Both rappers have a taste for – by hip-hop standards – unconventional production, music which varies as schizophrenically as their rapping, but which tends to evoke a dark, grungy and druggy mood. Indeed, the music on Habits at times veers into the actively psychedelic: interlude ‘Tookie Knows’ features echo-scattered effects and looping voices commanding the listener to “Snort it, sniff it…”. We’re not in Dre’s G-Funk pumped Compton anymore: drug-use here goes far beyond the merely “Chronic”.
Like Brown’s XXX, Habits & Contradictions is an album that strives to be as “out there” (and out of it) as possible. But many of its strongest tracks are those that see Q take his foot off the gas, playing to more traditional communicative strengths in hip-hop. On these tracks, Q adopts a loose, conversational style which is only quite subtly structured, and seems more determined to connect with the listener than to dazzle them. He can seduce (‘My Hatin’ Joint’), confide (‘My Homie’), commiserate and encourage (‘Blessed’) with this voice, and seems to get closer to reality the more down to Earth his technique becomes. And hip-hop can always use a reality check, as Q amusingly reminds us when he nicks one of Watch The Throne’s most iconic boasts and sticks a pin – or switchblade – in it: “What’s 50 grand to a muh fucka like me, can you please remind me? … Shit, I’ll remind ya! Put that steel behind ya…”