In a recent conversation with a friend, the subject of Schoolboy Q’s status in hip-hop was debated and, in a rare moment of rap chat unity, we were both somewhat at a loss to figure out how to classify him. In a list of the top 10 biggest rappers right now, there was something juvenile about throwing him in the top 10 because it was going to discredit successful artists who unfortunately fail to lend credibility to their own genre. But at the same time, Schoolboy certainly seems to exist near, if not actually in, the top 10. I mean, have you HEARD “Break the Bank”? Only someone at the top of their game could produce that track.
The act of considering a power ranking of rap stars is almost always personal, and it’s been vital to hip-hop for as long as the genre has been around. It’s a genre built on youth and, in turn, the youth have appropriated it to reflecting themselves. We say “hip-hop” and “rap” as catchalls but, really, it has so many influences and styles and sublevels that people have become obsessed with letting “their” lists give them a source of identity because “their” list is almost always different. Picking your list is a lot like picking your top 5 favorite Saturday Night Live cast members of all time, in that it reflects how much you know about SNL, your age, and your taste.
But this wasn’t that. This conversation was far more analytical than that. This was more akin to arbitrary rankings like Forbes 30 Under 30, which probably features an outlier or two, but is, to some degree, wholly representative and irrefutable (if you can safely say that 27 of the 30 are justified being on the list over other insanely young and successful people, then irrefutable is the word I’d use to describe that.) This was a list that had more to do with the economy of radio play and album sales combining with influence and notoriety than it did “Biggie over Pac.” Including Schoolboy Q, an artist my friend and I both have a great deal of admiration for, would have made our list seem personal. Just because a student is adored by a teacher doesn’t mean they get an “A”, and in this sense, Q just couldn’t quite make the cut.
The first three on the top ten were obvious: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Drake. Anyone not putting those men in the top three are the types of people who refuse to acknowledge the Beatles influence, or people who argue that The Simpsons isn’t the greatest cartoon ever made. There are some universal truths and, in August of 2016, those three are the kings.
The next tier was equally easy to figure out. Love him or hate him, J. Cole is in the top 5 (I’m indifferent on the “is J. Cole good or bad” argument, but I do get a sense that J.Cole fans are the new Incubus fans which makes me lean towards hating him.) Macklemore’s lingering influence is still being felt, for better or worse. Chance the Rapper has made a pretty strong case this year that he has to be on it. Future, A$AP Rocky, and tragically G-Eazy probably round out the top 9. And the 10th spot would be highly debated by two camps of people, those that can admit Childish Gambino can fill that spot due to an odd glitch in the matrix when his grasp on the media culture all collided at once back in the early ‘10’s, and those that reject this idea and would instead say Rick Ross is a safe pick to round out the list given his better-than-okay 2015 output and the fact that, well, everyone else just doesn’t seem qualified. Since I’m not here to say either way, let’s just agree on a 10a and 10b system.
[Editors Note: Prior to the release of this article, it was pointed out that Travi$ Scott was glaringly overlooked throughout all of this and that’s probably true – he’s an easy pick for #10. Rodeo put him on the map, justifiably, in a big way. So die-hard T-Scott fans, don’t worry, we hear you, we see you. August 2016 remembers you.]
But Schoolboy Q is, arguably, a better pick for #10 than Rick Ross or Childish Gambino. His output is more critically acclaimed at this point, and people who love either Childish Gambino or Rick Ross can both agree on the fact that “Hands on the Wheel” is one helluva slapper, which might make it the Appomattox Courthouse of Schoolboy Q songs for two very different camps of rap fans. And each have sold a similar number of albums when considering their recent output (although Ross’s sales have been on the decline over the past 3-4 years.)
Our reservations about putting Schoolboy in the #10 spot exist more in theory than they do in reality. Rick Ross is a walking embodiment of excess, living his mogul lifestyle with a degree of calculated bravado. He’s a heavy hitter who lends credibility to a track simply because his voice commands a tone. And on the flip side, you have Gambino, who has a background in comedy, is label mates with Mumford & Sons and Phoenix, and is hip-hop’s second most public emo kid (with #1 being Earl “Maybe Call Someone To Make Sure He’s Left His House Recently” Sweatshirt.) They both seem to round out elements of the genres culture in different ways.
Schoolboy Q’s identity is harder to pin down, in the same way that it’s difficult to label his role among his own supergroup, Black Hippy. When reviewing his 2013 release Oxymoron, I described Q as this:
“…it can’t be debated that Schoolboy – within the modern context of hip-hop – is less dimensional and more accessible than his comrades. He’s the partier, he’s the gangster, and he’s the character piece of the group. To put this in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia terms, Schoolboy Q is Charlie Kelly; he’s the lovable wildcard that doesn’t necessarily require a context to like.”
Oddly this all seems still fairly accurate even if the description is (by design) somewhat shallow. See, Q isn’t as dimensional as everyone else in that top ten, and for whatever reason he lacks the type of personality that makes those other rappers enigmatic. On record, he ranges from being a sympathetic gangster-turned-father to being a terrifying drug ridden party star with a gun. But in real life, he’s just a normal guy. Too normal, in fact. In a recent interview with Fader, he adamantly disses the Dodgers to insist that he’s an Angels fan. He hates ketchup. His favorite rappers are 50 Cent, Tupac, Biggie and Jay-Z. He loves bucket hats. He’s a father. He lives in a pretty average house, he has a pretty normal group of friends, and his splintery relationship with his daughter seems, you guessed it, normal. Rick Ross? Childish Gambino? They’re a lot of things but “normal” isn’t going to be one of them. The Schoolboy Q on Oxymoron doesn’t go to his daughter’s soccer games. And the Schoolboy Q on Setbacks doesn’t casually watch the NBA finals at home high and alone. Snapchat is a wondrous piece of social media, but it’s revealed that Schoolboy Q is basically my dad, if my dad smoked weed and liked hip-hop.
The basis of my friend and I’s conversation was mostly revolving around Q’s newest album Blank Face, an LP that we had agreed was a pretty odd career move. If features likable songs that don’t necessarily require a context to like, but it’s also a fucking weird album, so much so that it almost feels intentionally distant from the rappers previous records. It’s filled with tracks that are too loose and meandering to be considered gangster rap in a traditional sense, but it’s also too experimental to be party rap, and yet in some sense it’s both of those things. It features topsy turvy beats, weird guest verses (E-40 delivering the most “wait what are you doing here?” verse of 2016 thus far,) and constantly feels volcanic in its delivery while never quite pushing it to the point of exploding. I like Blank Face, but it doesn’t push him into the top 10.
But then I thought, “Well maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m misremembering Schoolboy Q. Maybe if I returned to Habits & Contradictions, I would hear a version of Blank Face.” So I did that. I went back and listened to the first three albums and here were three of my takeaways:
Kendrick Lamar is Kendrick Lamar always, but Ab-Soul’s verse on “Druggy’s Wit Hoes” is the MVP of Setbacks.
The deluxe edition of Oxymoron is so superior to the originally released version, it almost hurts.
And most importantly:
The first two records, and to some extent Oxymoron, are defined by how scarce they are. It makes Q seem far more menacing. Even Oxymoron, his major label debut, is inarguably a bigger and more expensive release but still features some pretty minimalist and ratchety beatwork.
After spending a fair amount of time determining if I was wrong (which I’m not), I went into Blank Face’s first track “TorcH”, which is fevery and uncomfortable and has dozens of different productions elements coming together. It’s not a bad song. It’s just jarringly different and, in this case, weird.
If Blank Face was released by a lot of other rappers, it would make sense. Blank Face is like Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage, in that it’s pretty obviously the Fleetwood Mac people had come to love, but it’s just a bit off and would make more sense as an album done by a non-70’s holdout band. Blank Face should be an album that pushes Q into the top 10. It should make him a sub headliner at music festivals. It should make him a name recognized by those that DO enjoy Macklemore. But I’m not sure it will do any of those things.
The normalcy of Q as a person and the weirdness of Blank Face collided to create an artist who isn’t quite ready to be a top ten hip-hop artist right now, even if this release is a work of inspired genius. Artists in the 11-20 rankings, like Young Thug or Tyler the Creator or Mac Miller, are held back by different obstacles than Q; Personality, frequency of output and inability to touch the mainstream aren’t Q’s issues. If Blank Face was more obvious, or more transparent, or even more pandering, it would push him into that list. But it’s not. And he’s not.
Schoolboy Q is a lot like Wheat Thins. It’s a statement that, to my knowledge, has never been written on the Internet or spoken in real life. But Wheat Thins are an incredible snack. They’re not exactly underrated since they’re sitting alongside most cheese plates at most book club nights across America. People do BUY Wheat Thins and, in fact, people buy A LOT of Wheat Thins. But they’re not overrated either, seeing as how they’re almost no ones go-to snack. In fact, as far as snacks go, they’re kind of a weird thing to consider a snack at all yet, indisputably, they are a snack. They’re not good for you and, in light of that, the snacks that would exist ahead of it are easier to justify because of that. And consider that Wheat Thins, like Schoolboy Q, are almost surprisingly normal. Wheat Thins, like Schoolboy Q, would generally fall just outside of the top 10 snack foods. And we don’t hate Wheat Thins. And we don’t hate Schoolboy Q. Even the heathanistic people who love Triscuits don’t hate Wheat Thins (Big Sean is the Triscuits of hip-hop.) At best, you accidentally eat an entire box while watching reruns on TBS. At worst you simply don’t care about them. But by and large, Wheat Thins exist as a weird, by all standards drab, but enjoyable snack.
Schoolboy Q is a lot like Wheat Thins. Granted, Wheat Thins will never have an opportunity to move into a Top 10 snack, and also no one will admit to themselves that, in the pantheon of successful snack foods, they exist somewhere between #11 and #20. But at the current time of writing, this is true for Schoolboy Q as well. Both are pretty unassuming and embrace normalcy, but the nature of where they exist in their respective industries (snacks and hip-hop) is shrouded in weirdness. Blank Face is the Chili Cheese Wheat Thins of Wheat Thins. A verbal reasoning analogy of this would look something like:
Wheat Thins Brand : Schoolboy Q :: Chili Cheese Wheat Thins : Blank Face
Chili Cheese Wheat Thins are weird, but they’re also under the Wheat Thins umbrella so their weirdness is undermined by the nature of the product. And even in the hyperbole of this analogy, I kind of wish that Wheat Thins get the respect they deserve just like I hope Schoolboy Q gets his respect.