ScHoolboy Q paints dark, honest portrait on ‘Blank Face’

ScHoolboy Q Blank Face | Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment Grade: A-
Interscope- Top Dawg Entertainment/File
ScHoolboy Q Blank Face | Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment
Grade: A-

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“I’m a gangbanger, deadbeat father and drug dealer.” In one line, ScHoolboy Q plainly lays out the intricacies of his latest project Blank Face. The lyrics on Blank Face read like an urban legend come to life, carefully recounting the experiences of Quincey Hanley and his upbringing on the intense, dark and gloomy streets of Los Angeles.

Blank Face is straightforward and upfront, with the bravado and swagger of typical gangster rap. But there’s an underlying complexity in Hanley’s narrative that distorts any notions of what it means to have the rapper lifestyle. Hanley’s eye for detail and intimately personal storytelling warps the seemingly simple sound of the music into an introspective narrative that elevates Blank Face above its contemporaries.

Blank Face showcases Hanley’s knack for one-liners and general wordplay (see “More baggies bagged than at Ralphs” from “TorcH”), but the overarching theme of “blank face” is what makes this record lyrically remarkable in comparison to his earlier work. Adamant about letting listeners decipher the significance of “blank face” on their own, Hanley makes multiple references to the phrase in a variety of diverse contexts: the name of an anonymous criminal, a metaphor for society’s perception of African Americans and an emotionless demeanor all at once.

On “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane,” Hanley mentions his desire to drop his image as a drug dealer and abuser in favor of a blank face. Later in the song, the meaning of blank face changes when Hanley describes robbing a bank with a cold heart, devoid of emotion and feeling, and even further along the track, featured artist Jadakiss references “blank face” as the look he gives cops as they interrogate him.

Booming bass and gnarled instrumentation make each track dark and moody, with a more focused tone than the lighter, snappier feel of 2014’s Oxymoron. The opening track “TorcH” begins with stripped-back electric guitar, with Hanley repeating “blank face” (a motif that returns periodically throughout the record). The guitar slowly mutates into a snarling riff underneath vocals by Anderson .Paak. The intensity of these opening seconds is the perfect precursor to the remainder of the album: There is chaos, subtlety, contempt and passion.

In addition to the vivid details, the beats themselves illustrate the narrative as a whole. The immersive sirens on the closing track “Tookie Knows II” bring the image of the LA streets into full focus. The distorted looping vocal sample on “Neva CHange” highlights the fear and hopelessness of having to raise children in a poverty-stricken home. “Lord Have Mercy” utilizes an eerie chord progression as the song discusses the duplicity of being a drug dealer, where money also comes with betrayal.

Though the production is overwhelmingly expressive, it occasionally overstays its welcome. The lingering tones at the end of “JoHn Muir” and the slow fade out in “Str8 Ballin” feel like overextensions rather than smooth transitions. For a record that is so lyrically and thematically tight otherwise, these moments can feel jarring and distracting.

But where the production might falter, Hanley’s flow provides a unique dimension to revitalize his songs. In addition to the double-time flow typical in gangster rap, Hanley is also very patient with his delivery. Sometimes vowels are stretched across the length of half a measure (the hook on “TorcH” features this technique throughout) and other times Hanley waits until the last moment, creating room for his bars to breathe (see his hook on “THat Part”). In these moments, it’s as if Hanley is looking at you with a coy grin waiting for the punchlines to settle in.

Despite the amorphous definition of the phrase, Q’s “blank face” seems to be an affliction that affects all parts of life: Not only can someone feel cold-hearted and blank when confronted with emotional issues, but there can also be a desire to be seen without prejudice and to appear to others as having a blank face.

In Hanley’s most thematically poignant track “Black THougHts,” the last verse closes with “All lives matter, both sides,” which may sound like typical anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric of some of his peers. Instead, it’s meant to reference the violence between Los Angeles’ most prominent gangs.

Hanley depicts a much truer image than the typically hyperbolized lyrics of rap, a testament to his experience and the experiences of so many others across the nation. In doing so, the urban legend of Blank Face gives way to an honest portrayal of Black life in America.

Contact Sam Gunn at [email protected].