Paranoia drips like air-conditioner condensation from Schoolboy Q's fourth studio album, Blank Face LP. It's a fever nightmare that takes its cues from Black Sabbath and California angel-dust rap. "I see faces at my window," Anderson .Paak sings toward the end of "Torch," the album's first track, calling up the Geto Boys' 1991 classic “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” as a touchstone. "Torch" establishes the album's dominant tone — psychedelic gangsta rap with shades of horrorcore, more psychological thriller than slasher flick, although there are bodies everywhere.
The history of racist violence in Los Angeles is the history of Los Angeles. In May 1966, the summer after the Watts Rebellion, 25-year-old black man Leonard Deadwyler was killed by a white police officer who had pulled him over for running red lights in South Los Angeles. Deadwyler was rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital as she went into labor. He was killed when the cop leaned into his car window. Despite multiple eyewitnesses to the contrary, the cop maintained that his gun went off accidentally after the car jerked forward. He never explained why his gun was drawn for a routine traffic stop. According to a Thomas Pynchon article from the time, Leonard Deadwyler's last words were "She's going to have a baby." Fifty years later, we are in the midst of still another very bad American summer. That context lends a feeling of political urgency to Blank Face — perhaps even more so because it's such a personal and heavily specific album.
Blank Face is about the pursuit of a stoic, expressionless front, but also about its falseness. It explores the corrupt conditions and seductive vices — one of which is success — that make a lack of feeling seem desirable. Schoolboy Q places himself in the tradition of storytellers like MC Eiht and Spice 1, who make the most gruesome experiences even more terrifying by sounding so smooth when they describe them. With the exception of a few upbeat songs devoted to pleasures of the flesh, Blank Face is mostly about bad trips: PTSD, cycles of violence, and all the ways the deck is stacked against people of color growing up in poor neighborhoods. If 2014's Oxymoron was about the pleasures and hazards of getting rich, Blank Face invokes the pleasures and hazards of staying rich. It swings between ecstatic, artificially assisted highs and withdrawn, curtains-closed bottoming out.
Q often leads with his faults. "I'm a gangbanger, deadbeat father, and drug dealer" is how he opens the Swizz Beatz–produced creeper "Lord Have Mercy." He never blames anyone but himself for his own personal failings, but he also realizes he was born drafted into a war he didn't start. There's a nihilism to Blank Face, but it never gives in fully to the downward spiral. There's a tinge of grace buried under all that graveyard dirt: "The demons hate when you make it and stay alive."
Every note of Blank Face breathes smoke. Second single "That Part" is a sinister banger whose video shows Schoolboy and friends under giallo lights in an empty party house. Schoolboy Q, who has done more for bucket hats than any musician since Liam Gallagher in the ’90s, also sports Prince Be sunglasses, adding to his blank affect — mirrored by the actual, terrifying blank faces. Kanye makes a memorable appearance in the "That Part" video, eagerly lip-synching his hilarious guest verse that references the California pop-cultural trilogy of O'Shea Jackson, Kobe Bryant, and O.J. Simpson. (’Ye also answers the philosophical question he posed on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”: If Kanye gets bleach on his t-shirt, nobody will even be able to tell, because his t-shirt is a bleached, tie-dyed t-shirt.)
The album could easily lose "Overtime," a song that Q has claimed Interscope forced him to make to try and replicate the success of Oxymoron's "Studio." At a listening party, he called "Overtime" a “bootleg ass” version of "Studio," which it definitely is. But it's a rare low point for Blank Face. With its lumbering brontosaurus beat and Vince Staples guest spot, "Ride Out" sounds like a lowrider with square wheels. The album is a dense fog of weed smoke, gunpowder, memories, and regrets. "My life’s so fucked up the drank don’t get me buzzed," Q says on the title song. "Kno Ya Wrong" features new TDE signee Lance Skiiiwalker and a multipart skittering bounce from The Alchemist that is as jubilant as Blank Face gets. "Big Body" brings out Tha Dogg Pound for an ode to groupie luv. "John Muir" is a sepia-toned Proustian homage to being a middle-school-age drug dealer and experiencing the feeling of seizing power for the first time. The guest verses are all great and carefully chosen, balancing appearances from Black Hippy members and friends of TDE (Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak) with prestige verses from respected rap elders (E-40, Kanye, Jadakiss). The title song talks about making it past 25 against the odds. Q is now 29. "Let's put the rags down and raise our kids," he says on "Black Thoughts." "Let's put the guns down and blaze a spliff."
He excels at capturing pivotal moments of decisive fear. Embedded in the 2Pac-quoting, money-flaunting "Str8 Ballin" is a feeling Q just can't seem to shake: "Watchin' every car that drive by, lookin' every driver in the eye," he raps. Q's paranoia is just the flip side of the racial paranoia that is racism — a logical response to a genuine white conspiracy against people of color fueled by illogical stereotypes. Famous racist paranoiac Richard Nixon was from California, too. There's the suggestion that no matter how far Q gets, he'll always be afraid to look back: "You see them lights get behind us / They pull me out for my priors / Won't let me freeze ’fore they fire / You say that footage a liar." Money bought him cars, and fame brought him women, but he can never really rest long enough to stop worrying he's being followed. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.