There’s a common misconception that gangster rap promotes a violent lifestyle. Several other reviews have criticised Blank Face LP for promoting violence and misogyny. It’s an easy misunderstanding to come to, given the way acclaimed albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and Yeezus examine race relations through metaphor and parable. However, the last few years, there have been several albums that exist very much within the realm of gangster rap, but instead of sounding triumphant and bombastic like the classics of the genre, they sounded morbid and brooding, removing any hint of romanticism from their content. Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 is likely the most notable of these, and like that stellar album, Blank Face LP is phenomenal.
Schoolboy Q has always been a slightly perplexing rapper. In interviews, his persona is silly to the extreme (he repeatedly calls his friend Danny Brown “ugly”), and he perpetually wears a trademark bucket hat, but on record, he’s always been uncompromisingly fierce. His voice is raspy and aggressive, and he raps almost exclusively about gangbanging. His last album, Oxymoron was a very deliberate push into the mainstream, with more player anthems, and colder, modern production. It did score him a #1 on the Billboard charts, but it hasn’t been revered as a classic in the way he obviously wanted it to be, and has suffered somewhat in comparison to the releases from fellow Black Hippy member, Kendrick Lamar. Blank Face LP is more of a straight rap album, with its sprawling length and unique production, and perhaps because Q has allowed himself to relax somewhat, it stands head and shoulders above his precious work.
The album open with an intro of funk bass and snippets of vocals (both Q’s and Anderson .Paak’s), before switching into the seminal, guitar-driven TorcH. It sets the record’s tone of ominous violence, and rumination on race relations – “one of the homies got slayed so we bang at the King Parade”. The rest of the record largely follows suit, with one brooding, gloomy track about urban displacement after another. Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane is an early standout, with a grinding beat made up of ominous synths, crunchy drums, and eerie backing vocals. Q raps harshly and firmly about his days as a Cribs member – “crack of n****r, I’m squeezing empty ’til the shell break” – but he punctuates the track with comments on police violence – “tell me put the gun down, I’m probably gonna die” – the resonate with contemporary times with horrifying efficacy.
The run of tracks from Ride Out to Dope Dealer is probably the best Q has ever recorded. The former is a classic gangster anthem, but without any sense of triumph, only menace. It features an incredible feature from the aforementioned Vince Staples, as he raps about his former lifestyle with a gritty authenticity, even going so far as to talk about chasing a woman for her government-issued bank card – “turn around and f**k her sister / heard that b***h got EBT”. Whatever You Want is one of the poppier tracks on the album, with a dance beat and synth line in the chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Flo Ride track. However, the backing vocal “eeh-ah” chants give the song an almost apocalyptic verve that allows it to fit on the extremely downbeat album.
Blank Face LP shows just what gangster rap can be. In place of celebration, there’s sorrow at a generation of black children being forced into a life of crime and violence. The record’s sound is hazy and psychedelic, and due to its sheer length comes across as almost monolithic. It’s a dense, complicated album of extremely specific purpose, and is Q’s best work by a mile. Blank Face LP is one of the best rap albums of the year, both thrilling and politically potent, and deserves to be acclaimed as such.