2016 was a stacked year for new music. We got event records from megastars like Kanye West, Drake, Rihanna, Chance The Rapper, Frank Ocean, and Beyonce. We got breakthrough efforts from the likes of Car Seat Headrest, Anderson .Paak, Mitski, Kevin Morby, and Isaiah Rashad. We also got solid entries from legendary mainstays like David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, and Paul Simon. But for all the tremendous albums that hit last year, the one that has had the most staying power for me has been ScHoolboy Q’s fourth solo record Blank Face LP.
“All my music is pretty much dark,” Q told Rolling Stone in an article that dropped the day Blank Face went live. Talk about an understatement. While it’s true that Schoolboy has created many menacing works of nihilistic brilliance, Blank Face LP attained empty void shades of midnight. It’s a document that thrives in the shadows, revealing different parts of itself in the faded glow of street lamps passing over the hood of your car while driving down lonely, deserted highways at 1 AM.
My impression of Q’s previous effort Oxymoron was that it was merely good, so when Blank Face dropped last July, I wasn’t eagerly anticipating it all that much anyway. Nevertheless, call it the old habits of a modern music critic, I stayed up late that Thursday evening to get in a first listen and see if the pre-release buzz was warranted. I was wholly unprepared for the eye-popping thrill ride that Q and his production team had put together. I listened to it once, then twice, then a third time. I stayed up well past the point of mental exhaustion trying to process this dense, foreboding collection of music.
Blank Face opens with the song “TorcH.” The voice of Anderson. Paak rises out of a funky sonic tapestry of bass notes and garbled language. “Trade the noise for a piece of divine,” he advises. Seconds later, Anderson is consumed by a fuzzed-out, warbling electric guitar. Q jumps in with his verse, commanding that you “Look through my mother**kin’ ey-ey-ey-ey-ey’s!” It’s immediately apparent that you’re in a different dimension of sinister. Mobb Deep, The Infamous, levels of icy menace.
This isn’t an album about evil. It’s actually far worse than that. This is an album about apathy. It’s all about the masks you’re forced to wear to stay alive in the violent, dog-eat-dog world that Q grew up in. Through the drug deals and shootouts, the moments when you’re consoling the mother of your best friend who just lost his life, you have to keep on the Blank Face. Any betrayal of emotion is a sign of weakness and it could cost you’re your life. That theme is driven home time and time again on songs like “JoHn Muir,” the Vince Staples-scene stealer “Ride Out,” and the Tupac homage “Str8 Ballin.”
As a rapper, Q is all intensity and intrigue. His flow crackles with electricity. It’s the vivid imagery he creates that really sets him apart from his peers. He’s not going to change up his delivery two or three times in a track, adopt new voices and different guises, but picture-painting lines like, “The demons hate when you make it and stay alive / They’d rather see me down under than see me fly” on “Lord Have Mercy” and “Pistol through your Civic / Most die before they hear it, turn a n***a to a spirit” on “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane” stick with you long after the running time is over.
Regarding the big single with Kanye West, “THat Part,” it pains me to admit it — because I’m about as big a Yeezy stan as it gets — but it’s one of my least favorite cuts on this record. I actually took the official version off the album in my iTunes library and replaced it with the far superior Black Hippy remix featuring TDE standouts Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. The original is fine, and smacked live during Ye’s Saint Pablo tour, but it feels out of place in the context of Blank Face as an experience. ScHoolboy himself admitted as much in an interview he gave to Real 92.3.