This is Compton with a foot of snow on top of it.
The year is 2012. Rap prognosticators are shifting through the tealeaves trying to determine which budding young rapper would come to be the face of the then-new Top Dawg Entertainment. Would it be Kendrick Lamar, the mile-a-minute doe-eyed killer with the spot-on Devin the Dude impression? Or would it be ScHoolboy Q, the bucket-hat wearing gangsta rapper with a budding college fanbase?
Hindsight makes fools of us all. Four years later, there’s no question which of the two is the more important cultural figure, the more compelling artist and more iconic to the genre. A funny thing happened on the way to To Pimp a Butterfly, though; ScHoolboy Q became a reliable pop-rap crossover vehicle. “Man of the Year” and “Studio,” two singles from 2014’s Oxymoron, both performed well via standard data (both charted high on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B / Rap charts) and improvable anecdote (you couldn’t drive a city block in Philadelphia without hearing one of these two songs during the whole damn summer). He popped up on the right albums, assisted Tinashe on “2 On” and generally behaved like a guy who was more interested in making a career than claiming an impossible-to-quantify throne. He positioned himself as the money-maker, the seat warmer, the easy-to-enjoy intermission before Lamar got back to talking about the important shit.
Blank Face LP’s big radio hit is “THat Part,” a spooky thump of gangsta puffery that shines thanks to a heavy assist from a ready-to-spazz-out Kanye West (few can do as much with as little as West does with the word “Okay” here). It doesn’t really matter that Q’s nasal growl is the least compelling part of the song, because the dude has put himself in the room and the machinery is working around him. Beyond its immediate pop qualities, though, “THat Part” is an interesting Trojan horse for rest of the album’s specific vibe; it’s coldness is a symptom of the deeper problems of seemingly inescapable violence and poverty that give Blank Face LP] its worn-down feel and, ultimately, its wings.
Q sounds more comfortable here than he did on Oxymoron, possibly because, with his pop bona fides established, he is free to lean into G-funk more completely. Blank Face is a gangsta rap record enamored with its own hardness while being exhausted by it at the same time. The weariness lives in the bones of the record’s production; from the windy funhouse noises on “THat Part,” to the flat, barking horns on the Vince Staples-assisted “Ride Out,” all the way to the pain-jazz of the record’s title track. It extends to the guest verses as well; Q surrounds himself with street-tested flamethrowers like Jadakiss and Vince Staples, only to have those spitters match the record’s overall feeling of numbness. Let’s take a moment to specifically call out “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane,” in which the aforementioned Jadakiss brings some palpable regret to his usually barred-teeth threats.
This is not one of those fun G-funk, West Coast, gangsta rap party records (like YG’s recent work), nor is it the work of a young lion ready to tear the world apart for their own spot (though it’s not a complete summary of his work, Vince Staples gets in this lane from time to time). Q is trying to show the impossible task that a life surrounded by struggle creates; a warped view of power that calls for eternal rejection of emotion or empathy, that must capitalize on anything other than a closed fist. This is Compton with a foot of snow on top of it.
The phrase “blank face” keeps coming up, over and over, on the record. It happens on “Lord Have Mercy,” when Q talks about shaking broken hands, making that tried-and-true gangsta rap survivor observation that “Being real never once brought the groceries in.” It pops up as the de-facto hook on “Groovy Tony,” in which Q accelerates his flow to match the increasing violence and panic of his lyrics. It isn’t said outright, but is reflected in the observations on “Black THougHts,” which aims to directly deconstruct the gangsta rap myth. It pops up as a song title, a track in which Anderson Paak – whose star just continues to shine – pours much-needed emotion into a record of chilled resignation.
The repetition is more than just branding, it’s the record’s thesis; this is what comes of this life, what we cannot get out from. Vacancy is the only tested way to survive. Blank Face LP is the end of the gangsta-rap arc. It might not be the most illuminating record for those who have heard the cycle play out before, but its execution has rarely felt this visceral.