Imagine rap divided into movie-star strata—there are rising stars and indie burnouts along with critical darlings. I’m not so sure that anyone’s exactly Brad Pitt right now, but Drake is something like Robert Downey Jr.: the face on a massive, branded blimp, eclipsing the sun every three fiscal quarters or so. Megan Thee Stallion is like a younger Angela Bassett. And then there’s ScHoolboy Q, who’s not quite a ubiquitous character actor and not blessed with the winning looks of a leading man, yet constantly pops up in Scorsese projects. In another life, if he’d gone to the audition, he could have been George Costanza. ScHoolboy Q is Steve Buscemi.
He’s confected pop smashes, he’s played the role of TDE attack dog, and he’s been the scene-stealer in Black Hippy posse cuts. In 2016, after labelmate Kendrick Lamar spent two years making everyone else look bad, Q released his fourth and most critic-baiting album, Blank Face. It was the platonic ideal of his gift for gallows humor and unsparing street tales; by turns dire and funny, but ultimately, kind of a bummer. It seems lately though, that ScHoolboy Q is free to finally be the goofiest, most gonzo, Q-est version of himself. After amassing a “filmography” in which he’s played the winsome oddball and the cold-blooded killer, at 32, Q is at the passion project, “guest appearance on Electric Dreams” phase of his career. His newest album, CrasH Talk, arrived last Friday.
So there he is in the video for its lead single “Numb Numb Juice,” on the doorstep of his Calabasas mansion, hitting his dougie like Rico in Paid In Full. His beard and head are both peasy, but it’s fine because the robe, the shades, and the cigar are all expensive. In addition to being a Buscemi-like figure, he’s also sort of like your newly divorced uncle who doesn’t wait until after plates are made at the family function to break out the Crown Royal. He’s not concerned with who he’s supposed to be anymore; gone are the days of wanting everything Kendrick has. Q is a star in his own right and cherished across generational divides. When he posted the glossy photos from his recent GQ profile to Instagram, Tyler The Creator, who called him “Papa,” noted that this was the first time Q hasn’t looked like he stunk. Wiz Khalifa called him “Nappy Gilmore.”
Q is, in short, comfortably washed—which isn’t, strictly speaking, a pejorative. He’s the cool and health-conscious kind of washed, the version that awaits you in your 30s, once you’ve stopped straining for some idealized version of yourself or trying to build the largest thing ever built, or whatever. Q intermittently fasts. He boxes. He spends weekends on the sidelines at his daughter’s soccer games. He golfs now, in Zegna polos. “Living like I’m ‘posed to,” he thinks aloud on “Black Folk,” which arrives at CrasH Talk’s halfway point.
Also on that song: “I’mma fuck up like I’m ’posed to.” Q took a bit of a beating with his 2014 major-label debut Oxymoron—the critical line was that it was diluted by label interests, and hardly as good as its predecessor, 2012’s unsparing and widely beloved Habits & Contradictions. The follow-up Blank Face was accomplished and well reviewed, but, as he said on a recent Breakfast Club interview, no one really showed up for it. There’s a faint, almost untraceable annoyance in his voice when he considers Drake “one of the greats”—what artist wouldn’t want the inevitability that he has? But in lieu of world domination, a cozy upper-middle-class existence will do fine. (I’m a big fan of the earflap-hat-and-white-T-shirt combo he’s been wearing to all of these press tour radio hits.) CrasH Talk is Q breaking even: It’s his happy medium. It’s an incredibly gratifying way to spend 40 minutes, if you need me to say so. There’s a part, in that GQ profile when, on the ninth hole, he finally gets it together. “You can always bounce back, dawg! Hit a good chip shot, get a good putt, save the day, par. That’s life!”
He’s unburdened himself, and the resulting music feels unburdened. It’s telling that his favorite songs from CrasH Talk are “all da fun shit.” On past projects you could expect to find a “THere He Go,” or a “THat Part” in the box, but on his fifth album, there’s nearly an excess of freewheeling, bass-driven stuff that seems to have no other purpose than to soundtrack joy rides or the defacing of public property. “Floating” I’ve already written about; there’s also “5200,” “Die Wit Em,” and CrasH Talk’s warning shot, “Gang Gang.” The first words of the album seem to be there for no other reason than they feel good to say aloud: “WHOLE LOTTA FUCKING GANG SHIT.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Q has said, in the run-up, that he’s finally making the music he wants to make—CrasH Talk doesn’t cohere into a larger thematic idea, unlike, well, pick literally any TDE project. They’re typically agonized over, and each song fits into some larger story that Jay Rock or Kendrick and previously ScHoolBoy Q are trying to tell. Past Q projects largely processed his past fuck-ups—like quitting football to gangbang, which he references on “Attention”— and going through pains to explain how a crash dummy survived into adulthood, and how Kendrick’s hypeman found a rap stardom of his own. For the most part on CrasH Talk, Q is just enjoying himself. If I could be allowed a mild criticism of this project, which was assembled with a devil-may-care attitude with critics far from mind: He’s still never less listenable than when he’s horny. For a radio hit or for a jump-off, “Lies,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and YG is fine, but ultimately forgettable. “CHopstix,” another pressed-for-radio ditty that drags along a listless Travis Scott, is upsettingly, not about guns.
But the thing about not being a leading man, about being an underdog, about settling into your oddball status like Steve Buscemi or ScHoolboy Q, is that your work is bound to be less relentlessly scrutinized. If it’s good, great; if it’s bad, it’ll blow over. And you’ll always get a call when Scorsese is casting that next project.