There's an old gangsta rap truism that the toughest rappers are usually the worst at rapping and vice versa; the more work you put in banging, the less time’s available for open mike nights, freestyle ciphers and Jansport fittings. Not only does Schoolboy Q, the 25-year old Hoover Crip falsify that idea, his Habits & Contradictions (out last week via Top Dawg Entertainment) might be the most original LA gangsta rap album in years.
Once upon a crime Compton, Long Beach, and South Central had the world waving marine blue and blood red. But those days dimmed with 2Pac’s murder in the autumn of 1996. Add that to Dre’s disappearance after Chronic 2001, and the L.A. hard-core rap landscape might well have slipped into a Kevlar-wrapped coma. The lone national star of the 2000s was The Game, who treated Dr. Dre, N.W.A. and Ice Cube with biblical reverence and black hat orthodoxy. His songs were good but insomuch as they were intended for a never-to-be-filmed Showtime remake of Boyz in the Hood.
"Don’t confuse 'Habits & Contradictions' for a radical re-thinking of gangsta rap; it’s more the desire to annex fresh enemy territory."
Enter Black Hippy, the rapidly rising wildcards out of Watts (Jay Rock), Compton (Kendrick Lamar), Carson (Ab-Soul), and South Central, where Schoolboy Q was raised around 51st and Figueroa -- blocks from where the riots started 20 years ago. Until recently, Q was best known for doing dirt and playing wide receiver, first at city section powerhouse Crenshaw High School, then for West L.A. community college. When that didn’t pan out, he returned to the streets, frequently homeless and feeding his daughter through a career shuttling Oxycontin from L.A. to Seattle and flipping it at $60 a pop.
It’s this past that haunts the creases of Habits & Contradictions. The first track “Sacrilege” opens with Q “gloomy on sunny days,” lurking in the shadows, lacking a roof or weed, shrouded in “hoodies and weaponry.” Though he’s agnostic he prays, “God shall keep me blessed” when the “dark shall fall on my armor.” Even if God exists, he’s committed sins that he can never wash away. It’s weary and resigned, offering the shaky contrition of “Murder Was the Case,” Wu-Tang Clan and Clipse’s “Nightmares.” No need to atone or apologize for the crimes. They're just there, looming in the background. The scars are subtle. You never see the killing; you only feel the cold sweat of the hunt and the queasy after-burn of adrenaline and guilt.
But ominous imagery isn’t the only thing unusually gothic for a region with 340 days of sunshine -- album highlight “Raymond 1969” samples Portishead’s “Cowboys.” Of course, anyone can loop an old trip-hop sample, but few would interlace it with vocal samples of the Beatnuts’ “Off the Books,” and snarling springy raps dedicated to the year Raymond Washington founded the Crips.
The risk taking and off-handed artiness is crucial to Q’s success. His version of “I Don’t Give a Fuck” extends to the music. Traditional song structure is treated with total disregard. Hooks can be bridges and bridges can hooks. The samples are unabashedly quirky: melancholy indie poppers Menomena, Stones-Throwish psych rap, the lace-voiced folk of Lissie. What holds it together are Q’s instincts, melodic sense, and cough-up-a- lung conviction. Most importantly, the record just sounds good played at maximum volume from a strong system.
Make no mistake: Habits & Contradictions is a team effort. Every time the Hippies pop up, they add a hypodermic boost and hard-boiled eccentricity. Even the group’s manager Dave Free produces the ethereal and stunning closer, “Blessed.” Working with Lamar, whose Section 80 was the best rap album last year, has paid off for Q’s low-to-the-ground fluidity. He’s deceptively virtuosic, double-timing a couple bars, and effortlessly cresting into booming bouncing chant-raps. "Nightmare on Figg St." begins with a few false starts riffing on "Niggas in Paris." Rather than chop them, Q opts for a loose and raw feel -- as though someone caught them stoned in the studio and covertly pressed play.
Gone are the leaden strings and down-tempo pianos of late-period Dre. There is no internecine nostalgia for the warfare of the N.W.A. and Colors era. Q might wave the same rags and creep down the same Avenues, but his infrared is state of the art. After all, his favorite rapper growing up was Nas, not Ice Cube or Snoop. These are different times. The newspapers call South Central “South L.A.” now.
Don’t confuse Habits & Contradictions for a radical re-thinking of gangsta rap; it’s more the desire to annex fresh enemy territory. The title is no error. This is about the breaking of bad habits and the ability to revel in contradictions. It’s 2012. We’re going to have to acknowledge that the best rapping dude on the block might shoot you and drive off bumping Portishead.
ScHoolboy Q's Habits & Contradictions is out now via Top Dawg Entertainment