‘Blue Lips’ is ScHoolboy Q’s Magnum Opus

Over a decade into his career, ScHoolboy Q continues to find new peaks. His latest album Blue Lips once again pushes the envelope and showcases how far he has come as an artist. 

ScHoolboy Q might be rap’s most unlikely A-lister. His journey from Hoover crip to golf-playing soccer dad nearly mirrors his musical evolution, which has seen him go from a raw and hungry stoner rapper to the forefront of the Gangsta Rap renaissance and an elder statesman of Top Dawg Entertainment.

Even among the Black Hippy cohort he came up with, you could argue that ScHoolboy Q was the most unassuming. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock had obvious star qualities and by the early 2010s either had or were nearly promised mainstream breakthroughs, while Ab-Soul had all the makings of an indie darling with his advanced wordplay and trippy soundscapes.

Somewhere in the middle was Q, who wasn’t quite as technically gifted as his TDE labelmates (at least at first), but there was something about him — be it his chameleonic ability to change flows, infectious charisma, or menacing, raspy voice — that was particularly magnetic.

Over a decade since he made his way into the spotlight with Setbacks, ScHoolboy Q has found a rare combination of longevity, critical acclaim, and commercial success, which can be attributed to an uncanny ability to evolve his sound without completely changing his style. A relatively late entry into music has allowed him to grow more polished in front of our eyes with each new album, akin to late bloomers in the sports world like Joel Embiid, Didier Drogba, and Jamie Vardy.

His latest album Blue Lips is another stellar entry in his storied discography, and could very well be the peak of what he’s created thus far. And while a few listens at face value are enough to convince you of its quality, when you look back at Q’s music journey, it makes the triumphant release all the more impressive.

Let’s start from the beginning. Q began working with TDE in 2006, and it was reportedly his idea to start the Black Hippy supergroup two years later. The last of the group to sign to TDE and the greenest MC out of the four, Q wanted to team up with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock as a way for him to step up his game musically. And it worked.

Potent verses on Lamar’s “Michael Jordan” and “6 Foot 7 Foot” freestyle had the hype around Q building, and his debut album Setbacks released at the beginning of 2011 to a warm reception from both critics and fans alike.

On Setbacks, Q’s rawness is particularly evident. Saying himself that he “barely started rapping” when making the album, there was nevertheless flashes of talent throughout the project in tracks like “LigHtyears Ahead,” “Druggy’s Wit Hoes,” and the Black Hippy posse cut “Rolling Stone.”

A year later, he’d release Habits and Contradictions, through which he made the significant jump from promising rookie to emerging star. The album came out during my senior year of high school, giving it a particularly nostalgic place in my heart, however it is objectively one of the best projects of the Blog Era, which was booming at the time of its release.

“Hands on the Wheel” featuring A$AP Rocky was a bonafide hit, and Q shows his growth on “Sacrilegious” and “Blessed,” which both feature Kendrick Lamar. Habits and Contradictions forced people to start paying attention to Q, who clearly had more in the tank.

2014 brought Oxymoron, Q’s oft-delayed and highly anticipated major label debut and breakthrough into the mainstream. It didn’t quite live up to the hype, and quality-wise wasn’t as complete as Habits and Contradictions, but it gave Q his first (and currently only) platinum album, and featured a few undeniable hits like “Collard Greens,” and “Man of the Year.”

Album cuts like “Break the Bank” showcased what made Q so great — his ability to tell harrowing drug tales in a catchy and engaging form, something only the likes of Pusha T, Freddie Gibbs, and Westside Gunn can do at a similar level.

If Oxymoron made Q a bankable star, 2016’s Blank Face LP firmly established him as an elite artist. He was lightyears away from the inexperienced MC that he was on Setbacks, and we were seeing him come into his full form. Front to back, Blank Face is a masterpiece, and one of the best albums of the 2010s. In addition to fantastic production, stellar features (find a better guest verse than Jadakiss on “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane,” I dare you), it showcased Q’s versatility and ability to rap over any beat — the incredibly stark contrast from “JoHn Muir” to “Big Body” is perhaps unmatched in any back-to-back track on any album ever made.

Blank Face didn’t put up the numbers of Oxymoron, but it didn’t need to. It silenced any doubt as to whether ScHoolboy Q could continue to improve, and was the crowning jewel of his discography up to that point.

It would however prove to be a difficult project to follow, as three years later Q dropped CrasH Talk, a disjointed project that somewhat veered away from his trademark sound. There are certainly highlights throughout the album, but as a whole it was a bit of a disappointment. Q himself admitted to being obsessed with chasing sales and the first week numbers, and that the entire album wasn’t up to his personal standards.

He’d also say that CrasH Talk was his least introspective album, but he would learn from his mistake. He’d take five years, the longest gap between projects in his career, before releasing Blue Lips, and the wait was very much worth it.

Blue Lips is the culmination of everything Q has done throughout his career, and he takes bits and pieces from every previous album, only elevating them to a higher level. It’s why it is his best work yet, even surpassing the lofty bar set by Blank Face LP.

The raw energy of Setbacks is present in tracks like “Foux,” featuring Ab-Soul, which contains a refrain that recalls images of the prior “Druggy’s Wit Hoes” tracks the two have made. Only “Foux” features an avant-garde, jazzy beat that both Q and Soul effortlessly float over. It’s like if you gourmet-ified “Druggy’s Wit Hoes” without being pretentious at all.

“THank god 4 me,” “Yeern 101,” and “Pig feet” have the gritty, anthemic qualities that Q has exemplified throughout his career, perhaps most masterfully on Habits and Contradictions and Oxymoron.

The elevated and high concept Gangsta Rap of Blank Face EP is present throughout the album as well, and is perhaps best illustrated in the stellar three-track run of “Lost Times,” “Germany ‘86,” and “Time killers.”

He also explores different sounds and musical influences — jazz, soul, trap — to create a diverse soundscape, similar to that of Blank Face, but a bit more cohesively. The changes in vibe from track to track don’t slap the listener in the face, but rather it forces them to be on their toes and prevents any lulls throughout the album.

In addition, we get Q where we haven’t seen him before on Blue Lips — another plateau that he’s somehow reached over a decade into his career. “Blueslides,” which immediately follows the incredible high energy of “THank god 4 me,” is a subdued and poignant tribute to the late Mac Miller over a minimalist jazzy backtrack. It’s nothing like we’ve heard from Q, and is easily one of the top three tracks on the project.

He’s introspective and poetic, and not that he hasn’t been those things before, but lines like “Lost a homeboy to the drugs, man, I ain’t tryna go backwards/When I realize that his — hurt and think, ‘Was it worth it?’/Man I gotta shake this shit, wake up and move with a purpose” show his growth both as a writer and a person, referencing his journey with sobriety over the past few years.

Then there’s “oHio” featuring Freddie Gibbs, which sees Q navigating through multiple beat switches, concluding with a “Naima” sample. ScHoolboy Q rapping over Coltrane’s sax? Suggest that in 2012 and you’d be laughed out of the studio.

It’s this constant evolution that has given ScHoolboy Q his longevity. In the world of music, particularly rap, it’s easy to fizzle out after a year or two if you don’t continue to evolve as an artist.

Q could’ve easily slid into a nice stoner rapper role, released a few decent albums, only to step away from music to create his own weed strain and start a podcast. That would’ve been a fine, even good way to play out his career.  But he honed his craft, played to his strengths, and consistently upped the ante of creativity to give us a pretty unimpeachable discography with no real flops.

So while Blue Lips is the best project he’s released thus far, don’t be surprised if he eclipses it in the future. He was serious when he said he was going to go out like B.B. King.

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