Schoolboy Q’s 2014 major-label debut, Oxymoron, marked him as the most street MC in L.A.’s Black Hippy rap collective. No less stressed or conflicted than that crew’s breakout star, Kendrick Lamar, he’s reporting from deeper within the fog of war on his follow-up. “I’ll trade the noise for a piece of divine,” he pleads early on, but that grace consistently eludes him. Starkly laying out his limited options on the title track (“Move pounds or move down to Section 8 livin'”) or looking back on his childhood without nostalgia (“Gang injunction tell me where we can’t go/ Shoot me in my back because my afro”) on “John Muir” (named for his junior high school), Q rhymes in a cool, clipped style that can break into a remorseful groan or a higher-pitched desperation.
Digi+Phonics, Black Hippy’s go-to production crew, handle most of the beats, which are plush with sumptuous, weed-hazy pleasures but steeped in a dank, justifiable paranoia. Nearly every element of the sound – the mean breakbeat from an old Christine McVie tune that Tae Beast loops beneath lead single “Groovy Tony,” R&B visionary Anderson .Paak sweetening the mood without lightening it, guest rhymes from Kanye and Jadakiss and Vince Staples – adds an ominous undertone. Q’s safest career track would have been to duplicate the biggest hit of Oxymoron, the uncharacteristically sweet and chill “Studio.” Instead, he’s doubled down on the bleakness, so that even the high-rolling party track “Whateva U Want” sounds trapped and haunted, and his music is richer for its resistance to escapist fantasy.