Thursday, February 20, 2014

Schoolboy Q's "Setbacks"

I first became aware of Schoolboy Q back in 2012 when he popped up on a few mixtapes that had been blowing up my iPod that summer.  The rapper was a standout on his features on ASAP Rocky’s Live.Love.ASAP and Childish Gambino’s Royalty (prior to these mixtapes, I had apparently also heard him on Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, but didn’t make the connection).  Like half of the artists I have covered on this blog to date, I really enjoyed what I heard when Q performed his verses on another artist’s record, but for whatever reason simply never got around to checking out his solo work.  This deficit in my music library changed this past fall when I watched a Kendrick Lamar concert on iTunes where Schoolboy Q served as the opening act.  I promptly purchased Habits & Contradictions, Q’s sophomore effort, and the record earned regular rotation in the car.  It was a loud and fun album that was perfect accompaniment on drives to and from work and earned me quite a few strange looks from my wife when I routinely found myself singing lyrics (pretty sure “if I fucked her once, then I could fuck her twice” was a bit disarming the first few times I randomly exclaimed this around the house).  Honestly though, I didn’t really think too much about Schoolboy Q beyond the fact that I found Habits to be fun.  That was it…just fun music.  Nothing revelatory or transcendent.  Sure, he could spit like a motherfucker, but I just wanted his music to bang and I didn’t want to think too hard about it.  Then I decided to give his first record, Setbacks, a listen for this blog and a funny thing happened:  suddenly Schoolboy Q’s music was revelatory, transcendent, and I had to think hard about it.

Setbacks was released in 2011 through Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), a west coast based independent record label and home of Schoolboy Q’s Black Hippy bandmates Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Kendrick Lamar.  Schoolboy Q had released a few mixtapes over the course of the few years prior to dropping Setbacks, but during that time was still engaged in gang activity and selling drugs to support himself.  In an interview with Complex, the rapper stated that he had only “stopped gang-banging like four months before Setbacks dropped.”  In the same interview, he discussed the meaning of the album title:  The concept behind Setbacks was [to talk about] all the shit that’s the reason why I can’t rap. The reason I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish is because I’m doing all this dumb shit. I put it all together on the album.  Like, ‘Druggys With Hoes,’ I’m out here drugging and I’m not even trying to fuck with hoes. ‘Kamikaze,’ I’m not even trying to rap—keep going broke. Different shit like that, I sum it up all in one album.”  This second quote inevitably changed the way that I heard the album.

  Be careful, the “Schoolboy Q said it was okay” defense probably won’t work.

Prior to writing a blog post, I will typically listen to the album in question two to three times to fully solidify my thoughts.  The first listen is typically cursory, just to gauge my initial reactions, make a few notes, and replicate my casual music habits.  I also use this time to bookmark music videos, interviews, inspect the strange growth on my glans, etc.  Upon my first listen, there were a few standout tracks but my overall reaction was not dissimilar to how I felt about Habits & Contradictions - it was fun, but overall I thought it was less fun than Habits.  I was preparing Empire Strikes Back references because I felt that the second was definitely better than the first.  I followed up with my bookmarked videos and interviews then I played Setbacks for my in-depth second listen and found a much deeper record once I, uh, actually paid closer attention.

What I found upon my subsequent examination of the album was a very rich concept album that wasn’t apparent the first go round.  There is a clear story arc that runs throughout the record and very masterful world-building from the very first track.  “Figg Get Da Money” does a fantastic job of setting the tone for the album, giving it a sense of time and place, and establishing the setting.  He describes the neighborhood that he comes from and its inhabitants, from pimps to shop owners and junkies to drug dealers, and their methods of supporting themselves.  The next track, “Kamikaze,” follows-up this establishment of setting by introducing us to a specific character, adding that character’s perspective to his surroundings. Schoolboy Q describes his environment as a war zone and vividly portrays what he has seen.

“Light Years Ahead (Sky High)” is then an escape through drugs from the reality that Schoolboy has portrayed up until this point on the album.  Q does a fantastic job of describing the transcendence of his drug experience with his space imagery, perfectly capturing a number of the sensations that really good weed can deliver (uh, so I’ve heard).  This high is not without its drawbacks though, as guest vocalist Kendrick Lamar reminds the listener in his verse:  “my turbo boosting, my jetpack cruising/get jet lag when I come back to these fucking humans.”  Lamar realizes that he’ll come down and will once more have to deal more with grim reality.
“What’s tha Word?” brings Schoolboy back to the earth/streets of LA.  The stunted line delivery seems to evoke an irritation at having to deal with reality after his “Sky High.”  He describes this feeling as his “brain with a stain on it.”  Also, there’s a reminder that as he’s grumpily going about his gangster shit, that he needs to go about his rapper shit:  “keep them gangsters in the streets/you know that shit was handled/ten speed, handle bar shift, Astro fit/hopped off with a message in the clip/inbox read ‘third verse’/hittin’ ’til the third/I’ll be back up on the curb/what’s the word?”  The “message in the clip” is an allusion to gunplay, but also refers to the next line where he receives an email reminding him to record his third verse.  It’s a brief reminder that he needs to remove his focus from the streets and put it into the recording booth.
“IBETIGOTSUMWEED” is an especially cryptic track.  I’m pretty sure that Schoolboy is expressing that he enjoys smoking marijuana.  It’s mostly a smoke-out, feel-good sort of track that fits in with the overall narrative as it is yet another drug break/escape from reality.  This feel-good track is then followed by “Druggys Wit Hoes” in which Schoolboy and TDE label mate Ab-Soul discuss…enjoying the act of smoking marijuana and having sex with women.
“Cycle” tells the story of a character from the time he was a child first starting to gang bang to the time of his death.  The opening verse describes the character’s first murder at the age of twelve of another child from his school who was a friend turned rival.  The character “threw on his hood and then he fired,” killing the other child and firmly cementing the main character’s status as a gangster and his fate “trapped in the belly of the beast.”  The title of the song and the chorus describes this violence in the inner city as cyclical, with this theme being reinforced in the final verse of the song.  The character, now 21, goes to the corner store where he is “approached by a little nigga, hoodie over his lid, looking down a barrel/of a burner tucked, aimed at his wig, let him fire, then he fire.”  I love the way that the character meets his demise at the hands of a child that is dressed in the same manner as he was when he made his first kill.  Very evocative storytelling.
The next few tracks, “To tha Beat (F’d Up)” and “Crazy” further illustrate Q’s cycle of drug use, promiscuity, and violence that keeps him tied to the streets.  The final third of the record, beginning with the track “Phenomenon,” is much more positive than what had preceded it.  “Phenomenon” describes his aspirations in his career.  The song, in terms of the overarching story, is the point that Schoolboy is prioritizing his music over crime.  It’s easily the most positive song up until this point in the album.  In “Situations,” Q furthers the themes from the previous song and indicates that he makes his music “for my niggas, bet they say it’s worth it/so I don’t leave the studio not until it’s perfect.” This is then followed by “Fantasy” in which Q describes finding a woman with whom he could see himself settling down with.  This track definitely shows the softer side of the gangster that Schoolboy Q has portrayed throughout the record, but once the ethereal and sultry voice of Jhene Aiko croons the hook, I was immediately reminded of the title of the song.  The question came to mind - is this really something that’s happening or is this simply Q’s dream, possibly drug induced?
Ultimately, the record remains positive through “I’m Good” and the album is capped with “Birds & the Beez.”  The closing track sees Schoolboy finally make a firm commitment to his music over his life on the streets.  “I just wanna do this fucking music boy, leave this dope alone and count this change.”  He is offered support from Kendrick Lamar who tells him “and for you my nigga/I would sacrifice myself to make it just to see you hold the mic.”  It’s a very touching verse that teems with genuine concern for his friend as he urges him to embrace his talent, think about his daughter, and to give up the gangster life.  The story has a happy ending in that Schoolboy abandons the streets and focuses on his art.
Listening to Schoolboy Q’s Setbacks was indeed a pleasure and an experience I will most assuredly repeat.  I have gained a much deeper appreciation for Q’s artistry and also look forward to revisiting Habits & Contradictions with new ears.  Incidentally, his new record, Oxymoron, is set to drop on February 25 (it’s already leaked as of the time of this writing, so I might just get a sneak peek) and he’s pretty much guaranteed my money.
Up next on I Need a Beat will be the Rammellzee’s Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee.

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