If nothing else, Oxymoron is complicated, an album about the conflicted feelings ScHoolboy Q started to remember when he left the streets for the altogether safer conditions of stardom. Toting a pistol but not really wanting to use it. Wanting to indulge a taste for certain drugs but needing to take care of his daughter. Getting good grades in high school so he could afford to play hooky and spend a few extra days on the block. Coming to disregard relatives even though they are, after all, family.
It’s rare that an album is made under Oxymoron’s admittedly competitive conditions. It’s the first album from Black Hippy since Kendrick Lamar’s star-launching good kid, m.A.A.d City, and Q has admitted good kid is 100 percent the bar he felt he had to clear. The two records have obvious parallels. Introspective two-parter? Check (“Prescription/Oxymoron”). Cameo from a resurrected L.A. legend? Kurupt, 41-year-old alumnus of The Chronic, coughs up his snarling best verse in years on “The Purge”.
Q was around 12 when he caught up with the Crips; the lifestyle appealed to him, he’s said, after he’d already proven his tenacity fighting kids in school. He’s 27 now, which makes a decade and a half he’s had ties to the Crips. Here, he relives his younger days, selling everything on both sides of the pharmacy counter, when “every last one of us had a pistol in the room.” It’s not an album about reforming, though; it’s about relearning, accounting for certain things he originally found exciting about gang life and weighing the final pros and cons.
While Oxymoron never name-checks Tookie Wiliams or the LAPD, say, the L.A.-founded Crips are rich in tradition, and Q feels obliged to honor that. A few things about the Crips: They’re the blue ones. They began in the late ‘60s after the meeting of the fisticuffs-favoring Raymond Washington and the more trigger-happy Stanley Williams. Their signs, usually Cs formed with the thumb and forefinger of both hands, are iconic. The brotherhood Washington and Williams spun is supposed to be one of the alluring components for prospective members. Q recounts drive-bys, sparks a couple Sherms, and explains how those pink hairs in his mustache came to be — all real thug shit. On opener “Gangsta”, it sounds like Q was just jumped in and couldn’t be happier. The bruises haven’t grown to full size yet. “Prescription/Oxymoron” has a downer first half and an upper second, paradoxical with its exuberant hook: “I just stopped selling crack today.” On “Hoover Street”, like Danny Brown’s “Torture”, Q’s addict uncle asks for some spare piss before meeting his parole officer — not directly gang-related, but it captures a formative despair.
The most ambitious moment on Oxymoron, where probably 12 of its 15 songs can be someone’s favorite, is the six-minute “Break the Bank”. Produced by The Alchemist, who hasn’t had a better, higher-profile showing this decade, it’s all inchworm piano runs and vinyl crackle, taking the “If you ain’t talking money…” cliché to new heights. The song starts as an ode to the promises of wealth, Q envisioning all the “good weed and me time” he’ll have when he makes it. Soon, Q wonders why the cops won’t just leave these kids at the park alone: “I just wanna smoke weed and sip lean by the quart, for real.” It’s a wildly drunk-sounding song, but it’s all sober thinking.
For all its strategizing, Q didn’t overlook the easier opportunities he had to keep Oxymoron supremely approachable. As serious as its composition must have been, ScHoolboy is an inheritor of the immortal party rap of California’s ’90s (think Souls of Mischief), and the Kendrick-featuring “Collard Greens” bustles like a multilingual block party. Q’s in further good company when 2 Chainz arrives on “What They Want” (“I’d be dodging po-lice when I was po’ with no lights”) and Kurupt steals the show (sorry) on “The Purge”. Even the ad libs here — of which Q’s “YAWK!” (which sounds like someone is literally yanking his chain) and his especially theatrical braking car “Skrrr!” are just two — are brilliant.
There are exactly three underwhelming songs on Oxymoron. “Studio” is a skippable sex jam featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, a failure that’s surprising considering the singer’s track record with Black Hippy. You’ve never heard Q so flatfooted, spacing out his words like they’re actually worth the emphasis: “I’mma put this dick up all inside of you.” As the album winds down, a couple beats are nondescript, including the SZA-featuring “His and Her Fiend” and the Suga Free-assisted “Grooveline Pt. 2”, sequel to the Lex Luger-produced original. Conversely, the album’s standout productions include Pharrell’s “Los Awesome”, Mike Will’s “What They Want”, and Nez & Rio’s “Man of the Year”, which heavily samples Chromatics’ skydive “Cherry”.
It’d be silly to say outright whether Oxymoron is “better” than good kid, m.A.A.d City. It’s certain that Q is more of a specialist than Kendrick will ever be. He probably doesn’t have a “Fuckin’ Problems” or a “Radioactive” in him, or if he does, it will inevitably sound a little hokey. The moral of Oxymoron, though, is that Q couldn’t have made a much better album being the rapper he is. It deserves the term “rap opera” more than most “rock operas” deserve theirs. It’s something special, just like it was always planned to be.
Essential Tracks: “Los Awesome”, “Prescription/Oxymoron”, and “Break the Bank”