Review Summary: ScHoolboy Q's descent into darkness.
Outside of Future and Chance the Rapper, no rapper's stock has soared more of late than that of South Central Los Angeles product ScHoolboy Q. His hard-partying yet edgy gangsta persona combined with his relationships with established heavy-hitters including A$AP Rocky and Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate Kendrick Lamar took him from under-the-radar favorite to breakout star with his third LP Oxymoron, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album charts and as of last month, has sold over 415,000 copies in the United States alone. Q's fourth LP Blank Face proves that his recent breakout success has not gone to his head as it's easily the most complex and ambitious artistic endeavor of his career so far.
Anyone that's looking for a party jam a la "Man of the Year" or a smooth radio-ready R&B track like "Studio" is going to be sorely disappointed with what Blank Face offers up. Blank Face is an unrelentingly grim look into the mind of a man that's in a bleak mental state despite all of the success he's enjoyed in his career over the past few years. Regardless of each individual song's subject matter, the production is atmospheric and almost nightmarish and Q maintains a somber demeanor for a vast majority of the album's 74-minute runtime. It's a bold move to follow up your breakout album with a project that's this pitch-black in nature and while there's times where it's gloominess becomes overwhelming ("Kno Ya Wrong", "WHateva U Want"), you have to admire Q for being more concerned with making highly personal music than what's going to move the most units.
The almost exclusively grimy, psychedelic-tinged beats perfectly pair with Q's trademark hard-edged flow. The grit Q raps with has always been a large part of his appeal and his signature trait makes the messages on Blank Flace hit with a considerable amount of force. The fiery, emotional verses he drops on tracks like "JoHn Muir", "Black THoughts" and "By Any Means" sees the negativity that's been building up inside him since he hit it big practically pour out of the speakers. While the rage and discontent is evident when listening to these tracks, you can also hear the level of catharsis he's achieving by putting these feelings out into the world. These feelings have plagued his psyche for the past two years and the emotional release that he experiences finally opening up about his issues is palpable throughout the record. In the hands of a lesser MC, a record with this tone and overarching message would've been an unhinged, forced disaster, but Q's ability to spit out raw verses completely from the heart allows the listener to become fully consumed in his world of internal anger and depression.
The only thing that prevents Blank Face from being one of 2016's finest hip-hop releases is the less-than-stellar series of tracks that it opens and closes on. With the exception of the excellent street anthems "Ride Out" and "Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane" and "Black ThougHts", an incredibly poignant call for interracial unity, the first seven and final four songs are pretty forgettable. There are a few standout moments (Q's first verse on "TorcH", Kanye West's absurd guest spot on "THat Part", Anderson Paak.'s stunning vocals on "Blank Face's" intro) along the way, but these songs mostly lack the polish and gut-punch impact that the album-defining run of "By Any Means" through "Neva CHange" has. Closing and opening on a strong note plays a crucial role in defining the success of an album and in the case of Blank Face, a mediocre start and finish is ultimately the catalyst for why it doesn't achieve greatness.
Blank Face is a dense, finely-crafted effort that falls just short of being something really special. While the rapping, emotional heft and production are worthy of ample praise, its shortcomings on the bookends of the album and the occasional forays into overblown darkness can't be overlooked. Blank Face is a textbook example of an album that I respect more than I actively enjoy and as of right now, I doubt any number of re-listens is going to change that stance.