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Getty Images / Bennett Raglin

We’ve all seen the photo, that snapshot which captured LA’s gangsta rap dynasty at the peak of its globe-spanning powers. All emanating from the California area, it was Vibe Magazine’s 1996 cover shoot with Death Row Records which gave way to that foreboding image of 2pac, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the label’s iron-fisted kingpin Suge Knight clad in black save for the trappings of success that adorned their necks and wrists, all perched comfortably at the apex of the rap game as a united front. With the benefit of hindsight; it was clear even then that the seemingly impenetrable, life-long allegiance to ‘Tha Row’ had already begun to capsize under the weight of friction between Suge and his artists, alongside his stubbornness to separate the company’s business dealings from its ties to the criminal element. After little more than a few years of uninhibited dominance, the label that had once seemed predestined to become a permanent fixture on hip-hop’s landscape instead became an allegory for how not to maneuver in the rap game.

Founded on a set of principles that are inalienable to those which Suge and company operated with, today’s leading proponent of LA-centric sounds is undoubtedly Anthony Tiffith’s Top Dawg Entertainment. Designed as a “platform for West Coast artists to express themselves freely and give themselves to the world,” both TDE and former Death Row affiliates including Snoop have vehemently and rightly refuted any haphazard comparisons between the two on the grounds that today’s Californian exports are informed by a pacifistic and level-headed approach. That aside, there is another crucial factor which separates the two beyond just a difference in ethos, and it’s one that has threatened to infringe upon the progress of its artists. When you think of Death Row’s alumni, the mind is instantly drawn right back to that stark cover shoot that has become the lasting commemoration of their golden era. Although intermingled on record and, in Snoop’s case, brought to the fore by Dre, the commonly held perception is that both artists behind such G-funk classics as “Nothin’ But a G Thang” and “Gin and Juice” were on level pegging in acclaim and stature as the dichotomous street prophet that was Tupac Shakur when they stood side by side for the photographers.

For the core contingent of artists that is synonymous with TDE in Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, there is far more of a pronounced disparity in terms of how the mainstream consciousness views them that has led to three of them being routinely considered as creatively and commercially inferior to the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Kung Fu Kenny.’

Collectively known as Black Hippy, it is these MC’s that implanted the TDE acronym into the cultural vernacular as a unit and formulated label figurehead Tiffith’s reputation as a man with an innate ear for talent after he recruited this all-star team between the years of 2005 to 2009. To this day, there is always an air of palpable excitement whenever this quartet of MC’s jump on a track together, be it on an album’s lead single such as Jay Rock’s “Vice City” or a supplementary remix such as ScHoolboy Q’s “That Part (Remix),” but this rapturous response has never translated to them being viewed on an even keel. Save for the transcendence of SZA and her 2017 R&B opus CTRL, the presence of Kendrick in their midst has been paradoxical in nature due to being both a positive attribute and a hindrance for his comrades. While a factor ever since the emergence of his seminal Interscope debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, this overarching issue has seldom reared its head as profoundly as when Isaiah Rashad recently took to Instagram to elaborate on what’s coming down the pipeline from the TDE camp.

An immensely talented artist in his own right, whose follow-up to 2016’s The Sun’s Tirade is clamored for by his captive audience, the Tennessee-bred import recently sparked pandemonium when he alluded to a slew of impending TDE projects from SIR, new signee Reason, Zacari and, most enticingly, a ‘damn-near’ finished record from Kendrick and a ScHoolboy Q album that he proclaimed was “finna drop.” Across the lion’s share of demographics and readerships, most of Isaiah’s insights from the studio were sidelined in favor of centring their coverage on a new Kendrick project, while denoting Q’s forthcoming release as a supplementary footnote. Now that the rumors of a new K-Dot body of work have been rebuffed by Top, the hype train’s trajectory can be rerouted back to the emergence of Groovy Q’s new project, his first since his star-studded gangsta rap odyssey Blank Face LP from 2016. Rather than being the product of unfounded hyperbole or a wry tease from Rashad, news of a soon-to-be released record dropping from Q have been intensifying ever since Tiffith claimed the long-awaited follow-up was 90-95% done at the beginning of August 2018. Now, we know that it’s most likely dropping in 2019 since he released his single “Numb Numb Juice” in March, debuting another single “Chopstix” on Jimmy Fallon shortly after. Yet for all that, ScHoolboy Q could have been rightfully perturbed about how progress updates on his forthcoming record have been treated as a conciliatory offering by outlets in the absence of Kendrick, and therefore not given its due credence. But it’s highly unlikely that he’d be taken aback – it’s endemic of a trend that he and his supporters have combatted for years.

In the same vein that Q has loaned his propulsive rasp to Kendrick’s work to great effect (such is the case of his momentous ad lib on “M.A.A.D City”), there’s a storied history of K-Dot reciprocating throughout Q’s discography on tracks including “The Spiteful Chant,” “Collard Greens,” and “By Any Means.” Given their alignment under the same banner, this wouldn’t normally be noteworthy, but the discourse that has surrounded these tracks makes for a clear-cut example of how Q is often fighting an uphill struggle against Kendrick’s appearances superseding his own contributions.

In an interview with DJ Whoo Kid from 2016’s exhaustive Blank Face LP press run, Q voiced his displeasure over the remarks of fans that were overtly fixated by a prospective verse from K-Dot rather than ascribing the excitement towards the fruits of his own labor on the album:

“They suck Kendrick’s dick so much. Like, I played a whole song and motherfuckers was like ‘ooh, I love the snippet [with Kendrick].’ Like damn. They can’t wait for the Kendrick verse to pop up, it’s not happening. He doesn’t have a fucking verse on there.”

In the wake of the album’s release, it became clear to studious listeners that they were either referring to “By Any Means” or “Black ThougHts,” two tracks in which the no-holds-barred examinations of a crime-fueled life are at their most affecting, and therefore this preoccupation with Kendrick’s hooks would border on disrespectful. To his credit, Q is entirely self-aware of why Kendrick’s every move is met with bated breath and has acknowledged that his longtime friend’s effortless ingenuity bugs him, but still feels that he could become ‘the greatest.’ So, while he may not be held in the same esteem at this exact moment in the eyes of the mainstream hip-hop fan, Q’s innate aptitude for overcoming the odds means that he can never be counted out, no matter how unassailable the goal may seem.

From his formative years as a bright kid from South Figueroa to his position among hip-hop’s upper echelon, adversity and ScHoolboy Q have never grown estranged from one another. In a strikingly poignant case of life imitating art, the inner-duality and self-deceptions that formed the basis of his first three LP’s – Setbacks, Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron – are at once what made his material so enthralling but also threatened to bring his career, and life, to an unceremonious halt. Authentic to the hilt, there is a distinct level of conviction and confessional repentance in every line that Q spits, and it’s because he’s still dealing with the ramifications of these actions to this day. Amid the reflections on his time as an active member of the Hoover Crips, another key tenet of Q’s lyrical content has been the intertwined glamorization and condemnation of his dabbling with narcotics. In some cases, this has been the epicenter of some of his finest work, whether it’s hinged on his distribution of drugs as a former trapper to feeling the wrath of these substances first-hand. Contrastingly, this compelling subject matter has also been a notable obstacle that has seen him question his self-worth and positioning in the rap game as a whole.

In the lead-up to the release of Oxymoron in 2014, a world-weary Q arrived at Hot 97 for an interview with Angie Martinez and proclaimed in no uncertain terms that “my music sucks right now.” Interspersed alongside harrowing examples of when his dalliances with ‘percs’ and ‘lean’ left him immobilized, ScHoolboy Q’s admissions that he had ‘purple’ on him during the interview caused fans to speculate as to whether he was towing the line between functionality and tragedy.

Three years removed from that uncomfortably honest interview and in the wake of the release of Blank Face LP, Q was all too willing to concede that his drug use and the ‘habits’ that were so enshrined into his music had made him a “deadbeat dad” to his daughter Joy in the past. In retrospect, this revelation made it clear that Q had went so far as to vividly illustrate this on Oxymoron’s “Prescription/Oxymoron.” A rumination on the contrast between the afflicted user and the gleeful apathy of the dealer, its most heartrending section comes when Q’s beloved child that’s graced both album covers and videos can be heard bemusedly asking her father “What’s wrong? You tired? You mad? Okay? I love you daddy.”

This excerpt epitomizes how Q’s content is often too raw and unpalatable for the mainstream in a way that gives his music an imprint of its own. Unlike his TDE counterpart that’s transcended hip-hop to find his way into the libraries of those that would usually look upon hip-hop with a pompous sense of elitism, ScHoolboy Q doesn’t look to sermonize or philosophize, but is on-hand to document life’s seedy underbelly without judgment. Yet where others have succumbed to the rigors of this lifestyle, Q has been reinvigorated by the turmoil, and these foibles are an intrinsic component of what makes his artistry so unique and enthralling in a way that his counterparts couldn’t hope to replicate.

Where other so called ‘gangsta’ exports skim the surface of the well-trodden lyrical terrain that’s became a prerequisite of this subcategory, ScHoolboy Q foregoes the birds-eye view of gang warfare on the streets of South Central or the perils of drug-peddling in order to wedge upon an auditory portal through which you can vicariously experience them. Just take a look at the autobiographic lament of “Hoover Street;” on the whole, gangsta rappers tend to give a broad overview of what their dangeorus existence entails while omitting the finer details of how this lifestyle is perpetuated through generations. On this standout Sounwave-produced track from Oxymoron, Q elaborates on how he was indoctrinated into the gangbanging life by his grandmother’s affinity for guns and his uncle’s light-fingered approach to enabling his drug habit – all before conceding that he was entranced by an older friend firing an AK-47 to the point that he soon found himself in the welcoming arms of the Crips. Rather than just braggadocio and stunting for the sake of maintaining an impenetrable façade of toughness, Q delves below the surface to educate the uninitiated on how its allure manifests in a way that is grounded in empathy and understanding.

Although his lyrical content hasn’t ever evolved from a subject matter standpoint, he has consistently transplanted its DNA to healthier, less asthmatically-bloated hosts, culminating on 2016’s Blank Face LP, where his artistry was presented with little filler and an improved clarity. Laden with brooding street anthems and trunk-rattling cuts that celebrated the heritage of both the West Coast and gangsta rap in its entirety, the decision to commission features from D-Block’s Jadakiss, The Dogg Pound and E-40 (alongside verses from his recently freed, blue-up cohorts Traffic & T&F) attests to his status as the torchbearer for the gangsta side of the spectrum. In fact, these ringing endorsements from stalwarts of the game serve as his succession to the throne in the same vein as Dre, Snoop, and The Game’s decision to formally anoint Kendrick as new King of the West in 2011.

What’s more, the notion of his music’s aesthetic being exacted with increased precision is compounded in the visual accompaniments to the record’s pivotal tracks. Coined as the ‘Blank Face Trilogy,’ the videos for “By Any Means,” “Tookie Knows Part II,” and “Black ThougHts” register as an impactful window into the plight of a young hustler that’s striving to evade a life of inequity. Just as Kendrick has developed a predilection for crafting visual accompaniments that go far beyond the confines of a perfunctory hip-hop video, this trilogy emphasizes just how uniquely powerful Q’s music can be when all the ducks are in a row, not to mention the the wonders The Blank Face LP has done for his legacy and stature in the genre.

Due to the resounding success of his last project, the appetite for new music from the bucket-hatted MC has shown no signs of subsiding, and it appears that this untethered desire from his core fanbase hasn’t gone unnoticed by Q. As opposed to withering under the scrutinizing lights, ScHoolboy has submerged himself in the creative waters in a way that is irreconcilable with the sedated, bleary-eyed man that once derided his own output at Hot 97. With his contemplative thoughts of hanging up the mic firmly shelved, the gravelly-voiced rapper has been zealously working on the follow-up to his 2016 tour-de-force and was said to have the spines of over 50 tracks from esteemed producers such as trap mastermind Zaytoven and previous collaborator The Alchemist in June of last year. Now that Top has declared the album to be mere milliseconds from the final whistle, it appears that Q has either taken the time to meticulously cut any superfluous tracks out or is preparing to release a sprawling double album that’s been sparked by his creative purple patch.

That said, one important caveat which must be brought to light when discussing the new ScHoolboy Q album has emerged in the form of an untimely tragedy. In addition to guest spots on his albums Watching Movies With the Sound On and 2014’s eponymous LP, the late Mac Miller and ScHoolboy Q were firm friends, and there is a multitude of now heartrending content of the two clowning each other and getting some much needed respite from the rap game available from Vine and other social media. Without this friendship that was untampered by the perils of the industry, Q made his feelings known at one of his recent shows and claimed that “I just don’t feel right putting out an album.” As y’all can tell, I’m not my real self right now. I shouldn’t even be here right now. But like I said, my nigga Mac would not want me to be in the house sad. He would clown me for some weird shit. I’m here today because it’s no way he would allow me to sit in the house and be a little bitch.”

ScHoolboy Q is not an artist who’ll ever be the toast of the rap casual, but he’s not here to merely pick up a participation trophy or hang on to the coattails of his colleagues either. With his every move comes an outpouring of love and adoration from fans that is the direct result of his affable demeanor, lyrical honesty, and the unabashed swagger of his music. Where his arena-filling cohort Kendrick Lamar expounds on the meanings that he accrues from life and its turbulent, often wholly unjust nature, ScHoolboy Q acts as the conflict reporter, sending dispatches from the trenches with his biases and partisanship on his sleeve. Above all else, it is this notable difference in modus operandi and tact that has allowed Q to be unburdened by any desire to dethrone TDE’s commercial kingpin and, instead, focus on carving out his own highly rewarding lane to thrive within.

For more like this, read our piece honoring the life and career of Mac Miller.

Words by Robert Blair