Written by Matthew Ramirez (@theredbackpack)
Recently I had a friend tell me she spent a part of her evening staring at herself in the mirror, playing with her belly fat. She said, “moving my tummy in different directions…that is your privilege as a fat person, the ability to be like, what if my stomach was up here? What if it was over there? What if it wasn’t there at all?” I nodded at my keyboard because I knew what she was talking about, the ability to see yourself transform in your own reflection.
I read negative-to-middling reviews of Schoolboy Q’s music waiting for the innocent-seeming euphemism for “fat” or “chubby” or “conventionally unattractive” stand in as a comment on his music. A lot of rappers get by on charisma and looks which alleviate some of their more suspect artistic choices; Schoolboy Q might be one of a few non-fake rappers left, because, via his embrace of bucket hats and a willingness to wear tank tops it’s clear he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I thought the title of the album—Oxymoron—was redundant at first (his previous full-length is Habits & Contradictions), but once I began to read everything Q does through a lens of 100% not giving-a-fuck-ness the title is brilliant. He’s a moron addicted to oxycontin. He’s as self-deprecating as any rapper which is something he doesn’t get credit for.
Q is at his best when he’s grooving for four minutes, not really giving a fuck about what he’s rapping but letting his delivery and the vibe sell the emotion. Dressed in some kind of cape/cloak performing the uncharacteristically subdued “Studio” on Conan the week of release was a great moment, because it was him at his most laidback and confident, doing his thing for a national TV audience, the casually sweet “sitting in the studio trying to get to you” hook sinking in and opening itself up to a variety of interpretations.
The highs, like mid-‘00s Neptunes throwback “Los Awesome,” remind me of a time when rappers were really good at stringing together words and syllables for a pleasant dance through the ear, even if I can’t tell you anything Q is saying on the track (Jay Rock kills it, though). And “Man of the Year” rides its Chromatics sample as far as it can go, transforming their aimless disco into the trunk-rattling bounce it’s always yearned to be. I want to shoot fireworks off to this song; I want to lead a public sing-along as I pour Lone Star all over my body.
Q has become a better storyteller on the songs that make it count, and what I’ve always liked about him is he’s never tried to make his rapping something more than what it is. I saw a lot of misguided projection thrown onto Danny Brown’s disappointing Old, as if the misanthropic hedonism was more interesting than it was (that the narrative changed from the actually-perfect XXX to Old perfecting his self-destructive but cathartic rapping is totally inaccurate). Q isn’t doing that with Oxymoron—here’s him rapping about selling drugs, here’s him rapping about taking drugs, here’s him passing out, here’s his daughter urging him to wake up, but it doesn’t feel played for cheap emotion. It’s what a storyteller is supposed to do—give you pertinent details, fill in some blanks, let you draw your own conclusions.
More than his previous work, Oxymoron feels complete and like a real album, instead of a haphazard collection of impeccably produced rap songs. A rap album is humming along greatly when the features pop up as an organic part of the landscape—every non-TDE guest is an distinctly identifiable personality (Kurupt, Tyler, Raekwon, Suga Free) but they become a part of this world, a vision of Los Angeles and California that’s as western frontier-sunny and rose-tinted as it is Menace II Society-dark, unsettling, and raucous.
From the joyous “Los Awesome” to bonus cut “Fuck LA,” Oxymoron is a fittingly titled, constantly shuffling rap album whose creator is exercising his main privilege—moving the parts of his large body around, poking at this, rolling that, pulling this, in front of a mirror obscured by weed smoke and west coast sun. Q is unafraid to let himself be seen as flawed, despicable, hopeless, and unflattering, but he doesn’t try to leverage it by selling some homogenized image of himself, or aim for a middlebrow thing of making that the whole point of his raps—“exorcising demons”—because as countless humorless albums since 2011 have proved, rap is better when it’s semi party and only partly bullshit.