Schoolboy Q is the court jester of LA’s resurgent rap scene. An exuberant presence frequently seen joking around (and getting high) with fellow rappers, his easy going persona disguises a past caught up in South Central gang violence and drug addiction. His label debut, Oxymoron told the story of his journey from aimless gang banger to member of modern hip hop’s most celebrated crew, the Kendrick Lamar led Black Hippy. With his second album now seemingly finished, we can look forward to seeing how Schoolboy’s sound has developed.
There are few rappers as grateful for their success as Schoolboy Q. In interviews the Los Angeles’ native and former Hoover Street Gangster Crip often reflects on his unexpected road to success. Born Quincy Matthew Hanley, Schoolboy grew up on 51st Street in the heart of the notorious South Central area. A promising high school American football player, Schoolboy eventually found himself drawn into the cycle of crime that plagues the poor districts of LA’s inner city.
Making a living by selling the prescription drug Oxycontin (a synthetic opiate) on the street, Hanley found himself addicted to the drug, something he addressed poignantly on Oxymoron on the track “Prescription.”
In 2007, Hanley found himself in prison. He has never been keen to disclose exact details about the conviction, but suggested on a Reddit Q&A that it was related to a burglary. Placed on three months house arrest after his release from prison, it was around this time Hanley started to seriously get into music, adopting the stage name Schoolboy Q.
Releasing his first mixtape in 2008 under local label Top Dawg Entertainment, Schoolboy formed a close relationship with three other up and coming local rappers, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. The four would later form the collective Black Hippy.
Initially a self-described hype man for Kendrick, Schoolboy quickly began to build up his own following with critically acclaimed mixtapes Setbacks and Habits and Contradictions. His music combined brutally honest autobiographical material with a laid back Californian party vibe. Schoolboy’s skill is in seamlessly switching between dark street tales and humour, mirroring the contradictions of Los Angeles ghetto life. Fellow Los Angeles MC Vince Staples has expressed admiration for this ability to portray both sides of growing up in an environment where tragedy and comedy so frequently co-exist.
Perhaps the best example of these contradictory aspects in Schoolboy’s early work can be seen on Habits and Contradictions in two songs that remain highlights in his output. “Blessed” is a heartfelt look at the trials and tribulations of daily life. Containing some of Schoolboy’s best lines to date, the song is a tribute to family and friends struggling to find their way passed various obstacles thrown their way. Ultimately the message is hopeful, a rallying cry to keep going through the worst circumstances.
Considering his background, it’s easy to see why Schoolboy is able to appreciate there can be light at the end of the tunnel. As much as he is insightful when discussing past issues, he is unapologetically celebratory about his current circumstances. This is a rapper determined to enjoy his success. “There He Go” showcases the other side of Schoolboy’s character in all its brash, jovial glory.
Having watched his friends and label mates Kendrick and Jay Rock achieve commercial success, Schoolboy had big ambitions for his studio debut, Oxymoron. He spoke publicly of wanting to top Kendrick’s much heralded first album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Although it didn’t quite match those heights, the album was generally well received critically, producing a number of breakout hits for Schoolboy in “Studio” and “Man of the Year.”
As so often in hip hop, some critics claimed the album was inferior to Q’s mixtape offerings. Studio albums often take a more chart friendly approach and Oxymoron was no exception. While mixtapes are intended only to build buzz, the stakes on full releases are higher, with rapper’s sales figures being carefully scrutinised by the industry and rival MCs alike.
However, while Oxymoron may have included some songs that seemed unashamedly aimed at the chart, none of them felt so out of character as to betray Schoolboy’s sound. He’s never been afraid to make party songs and Oxymoron still managed to squeeze enough serious content in to balance out the more lightweight tracks. Schoolboy possesses the energy and charisma to give him widespread appeal while being able to marry it to material with something to say, a combination too often lacking in today’s hip hop.
With Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly enjoying unrivalled acclaim since its release, the rest of the TDE line up are due a genuine landmark album to prove they are more than just a reasonably talented backing cast for the front man. The member with the best chance is Schoolboy. Oxymoron’s best moments marked its creator out as more than just a good time rapper leaning on well trodden women and weed ground. If Schoolboy can take the best aspects from his début and build on them we could be looking at one of the highlights of this year.
Those unconvinced by the frothier parts of Oxymoron will be encouraged by the early signs from his forthcoming follow up. “Groovy Tony” dropped at the start of April, the only song yet released from the album. The tone of the track and video is decidedly grim with Schoolboy adopting a psychopathic alter-ego nicknamed blank face. His flow throughout the tracks pounding beat is a relentless tornado of menace; “robbing your kids too/my heart a igloo/the devil in all blue.”
Schoolboy has been hinting on social media that the new album’s release is imminent and could appear unexpectedly. At the moment, with only one track to guess from it’s hard to know what to expect. “Groovy Tony” suggests that Schoolboy’s energy remains frenetic. Word coming out from TDE is that the album will be more lyrical than Oxymoron. The expectation is definitely ramping up with hip hop fans craving a stand out album for the summer. Currently, Schoolboy Q looks a good bet to deliver it.