ScHoolboy Q, "Oxymoron" (Top Dawg/Interscope)
ScHoolboy Q's major label debut plays out like an unsettling 21st-century film noir.
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"Oxymoron" is all vice and poor decisions, filled with classic noir elements like unredeemable characters in desperate circumstances, an anti-hero whose compass never quite finds true north and a pervasive sense of menace. Lots and lots of menace.
Q, a member of the Black Hippy and Top Dawg Entertainment collectives with Kendrick Lamar, weaves a lived-in story of his history with gangs and crime, the sometimes inseparable horror and euphoria of prescription drug abuse, and the mindless pursuit of the various highs that life has to offer. It's a harrowing vision that plays out in a bleak dystopian Los Angeles.
Album-opening "Gangsta" features Q's adorable daughter Joy disturbingly declaring "My daddy a gansta" before he establishes the mood with his always aggressive delivery. The claustrophobic "Hoover Street" describes his uncle's rapid descent into drug addiction, with a brooding baritone saxophone presiding. He declares war with the help of Tyler, the Creator and Kurupt on "The Purge," plays the grim reaper on the Pharrell-produced "Los Awesome" and pimps out his woman in "Grooveline Pt. 2."
Joy returns in "Prescription/Oxymoron," the album's sprawling, visceral centerpiece that clocks in at more than 7 minutes. Q describes waking up after an Oxy bender: "My daughter calls, I press ignore/My chin press on my chest, my knees press the floor/Dinner on my shirt, my stomach hurts." A few lines later, Joy pleads: "What's wrong, daddy? Wake up. Wake up!"
The Oxy takes over in the second half of the song, which Q opens by declaring, "I just stopped selling crack today." By the end of the song he's asking, "How could they say feeling good is an addiction?/But the world is full of (expletive), so I don't listen."
Comparisons with Lamar's epic, Grammy album of the year-nominated "good kid, m.A.A.d. city" will be inescapable because of their close association, and in many ways it holds up to this examination.
Like "good kid," "Oxymoron" offers a cinematic vision, is absurdly ambitious and announces an artist of consequence who bears watching. But Lamar's protagonist is good at heart and manages to find his way out. The vibe for Q is all paranoia, a hand wrapped around the heart. Squeezing slowly.
Sure, there are moments when the scene is too much for Q. On "Blind Threats," he asks for spiritual forgiveness. Like all great noir characters, though, he's not willing to bank on redemption: "But if God won't help me, this gun will/I swear I'm going to find my way."