Schoolboy Q is not like everyone else. “I ain’t been right since out the cervix,” he rapped on “Torch,” the lead track on his 2016 Blank Face LP. It’s a stunning achievement. He’s a bruiser on “Ride Out,” a detail-oriented storyteller on “Groovy Tony,” a capable singer on “By Any Means,” and a classic Cali gangsta rapper on “Str8 Ballin.” When I ask Q about Blank Face on a warm, overcast Tuesday in the New York offices, though, he seems bored with it. He thinks the tone is too uniformly dark. He jokes about not wanting to rap like he’s 40 years old anymore. (He is, after all, only 32.) Q sees today’s new Crash Talk, his fifth album, as the correction to Blank Face’s somber mood. It’s the story of his life as a famous rapper — the old albums pulled from his days as a gang member.
Q, born Quincy Hanley, started rapping casually as a teen hustler in South Los Angeles. By 21, he was good enough to get recruited by West Coast producer and label owner Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith for the hip-hop start-up Top Dawg Entertainment. Through Top, Q met Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Kendrick Lamar, members of the hip-hop group best known as Black Hippy. The four rappers bonded in and after sessions at Top’s L.A. studio. Their styles are unique but complementary; each one’s body of work feels like a different planet in the same galaxy. Kendrick raps about philosophical crises, and Q writes about complicated quandaries he’s managed to think, plot, or fight his way out of. Q’s vocal delivery is wild and unpredictable, but his chaos is controlled. His flows and wordplay are ice-pick sharp, and his storytelling makes excellent use of every line. His tenure as a major-label rapper has been a war between his impulses as a West Coast rap David Simon and the higher-ups’ desire to package his talents into hit records. The gap in style from his singles to his deep cuts can be wide. You wonder sometimes how much he cares about radio.
Crash Talk is an attempt to bridge Q’s creative and commercial impulses, his somber thoughts and brilliant comedic timing. It’s the shortest, brightest work in the catalogue. The shift feels radical yet also natural. You’re struck, in songs like “Black Folk” and “Dangerous,” by how impactful a writer he can be in a short space. The singles, “Chopstix” and “Numb Numb Juice,” are much less jarring to the flow of the record than predecessors like Oxymoron’s “Man of the Year” and “Studio.” (Q will have you know that all the singles you hated the most went platinum.) The chaotic neutral storyteller of Habits & Contradictions and Blank Face shows out on “Tales” and “Attention,” but he’s a little more appreciative of a happy ending now, if only a little. “Attention” celebrates gaining the respect of Q’s rap heroes — “Had a couple sessions with Dre, knew I would win / Alchemist my favorite producer, and he my friend” — but it quickly descends into a vivid word about the perils of substance abuse and the unfulfilled promise of an untimely death.
Hearing the album and seeing the videos now, it’s easy to miss the dark circumstances of their creation and release. Q wrote and scrapped two whole albums on the way to Crash Talk. Perfectionism means toiling and failing in ways the public never sees. The album took a backseat as tragedy struck last year, when Q’s friend and frequent collaborator Mac Miller passed away, and again last month when Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed, and Q and YG delayed releases out of respect for Hussle’s memory.
Q is getting back to business now. He’s fighting stress with weed smoke these days, all the while remaining mindful of the fact that as benign as pot can be, potheads tend to overdo it. (Crash Talk’s “Drunk” dramatizes the allure of excess in its hook.) Schoolboy Q is focused on writing and living better. He hears his naysayers, but he’s his own harshest critic. We spoke about stress, creation, and finicky fans; why Q thinks Blank Face is a “one-listen album”; and how TDE is sort of like the X-Men.
When did you know that rap was going to be the career for you? Was it a gradual thing?
I don’t remember what year it really was, but it was around 2009, 2011-ish. I was working on [the 2011 debut album] Setbacks. When I dropped Setbacks, I was just like, “Yeah, this is it. This is what I’m going to do.” I was just getting into rapping. I started to rap in 2007. Stuff just started catching on real fast. I got with a crew and shit, and I just became who I am today. I don’t know how the fuck I got here. I was in the studio every day. Now we in 2019.
For a lot of people outside L.A., it feels like TDE just sort of arrived fully formed one day, like the X-Men. What were the old days like?
Shit, same as now. We were just together way more. I mean now, with our schedules, everybody’s busy. People have their own things they’re doing. At the beginning, we were all just figuring each other out. But as soon we got together, we all clicked at the same time. We was just homies from the gate, like brothers and shit. Nobody was jealous of nobody else. It was just cool. The first person I got real close to was [Ab-]Soul, because he was the only one who smoked weed. Jay Rock don’t really smoke weed. He smoked, but nothing like that. Kendrick obviously a Puritan-ass nigga. He don’t do shit. Me and Soul’s bond was fast. We’d take breaks. Top wouldn’t let us smoke in his house when we first started. Me and him would always walk out during studio sessions, smoke right quick, and go back in. Our bond got tight really fast. Then Jay Rock and Kendrick were probably all at the same time. Then Kendrick made me his hype man. Then it was pretty much over from there.
Is it different now that everybody has their own thing, their own scene?
We all have different fans. It was crazy ’cause we all came up together, kind of making the same kind of music. Kendrick just used to rap about Bentleys and Lamborghini doors and shooting motherfuckers. You get what I’m saying? That’s why he changed his name to Kendrick. He was just capping at the beginning. Just rapping and shit. We all was on that shit, then we all was on some hip-hop, boom-bap bullshit. Trying to be the ’90s and shit. Just trying to figure it out.
Is it difficult with everyone on the roster being talented and trying to negotiate each other’s space when you’re rolling out new music?
Nah, man, the roll-outs just happen the way they happen. We just take long as fuck on albums. It has nothing to do with the label. It has nothing to do with none of that shit. You have to wait in line. Ain’t nobody waiting in line, nigga. I’m a grown-ass man. I’m not waiting in line.
People think that’s how it works.
Yeah, ’cause that’s what it looks like. It’s no line. I mean, Zacari, we just signed him. He just put his album out. I’m about to put mine out. You get what I’m saying? It’s nothing big. Kendrick dropped To Pimp a Butterfly, then gave you Untitled Unmastered right after it. Isaiah [Rashad], he could have dropped his album, but he’s still working on it. He wanted to keep working. Everybody, from SZA to whoever, if you want to drop your music, put it out. We’re not gonna just throw it out on the internet and not tell anybody. If you have your album done, and it’s ready to go, it’s no problem putting it out. Unless it’s just trash, and everybody hearing it is like, “Bruh, it’s trash. Trust me. Don’t do that.”
I remember speaking to Mac Miller. He said that you had finished an album but shifted gears on it. Eventually you came out with Blank Face. Are there just albums sitting somewhere that people don’t know about?
All my albums is like two albums before the album. There was two albums before Oxy. There was two albums before Blank Face. Three albums before Crash Talk. I did three albums before this last album.
What makes you change gears?
Just hearing shit. Some shit just be too introspective. Some shit be too turnt up. I want balance in my music. I’m not a guy that’s just about to give you one sound. That’s so boring and lame to me. That’s my biggest regret with Blank Face. Besides a couple songs, I just made the whole album pretty dark. I regret that so much. Why did I do that? It was dope-ass shit. It was a great album.
I don’t know anybody who has a negative opinion of it.
It didn’t do as well as Oxy either, because [Blank Face] was a one-listen album.
Do you think some of the commercial stuff on Oxy gave it legs? Do you feel pressure from the label to put that stuff on there?
No. I mean, if you’re gonna play ball, play ball. Don’t play around with it. Fuck these little internet dweebs. Every single I drop, don’t nobody like it. “Collard Greens,” they hated it.
That shit grew on people, though! Nobody knows what they want to hear till it hits them.
Yeah, that’s what they do. “Man of the Year,” everybody hates it. “Studio” … We ain’t gonna talk about “Studio.” I remember them saying I flopped with “That Part,” and that shit went quadruple-platinum.
Kanye went crazy on “That Part!”
Oh yeah. [Mimics a whiny voice] “Kanye wasted a verse.” They were saying I paid Kanye. Bro, I never paid nobody for a verse in my life. It’s like little nerd dweebs. It’s stupid little kiddies that hide they face. Or it’ll be some white boy from Idaho trying to tell you about your culture. I don’t give a fuck. They hate every single I drop. I don’t get it. Whatever, the shit always crack. Every fucking single I drop goes platinum. I’m just trying to figure it out. What do you niggas really hate? Stop listening to it if you hate it.
Talk to me about the new album. We heard that you were almost done with something in 2017. Now you’re saying you went through several other concepts. How did that go down?
I was making an album that was supposed to drop when I’m, like, 38. The first album I finished, I was rapping about moms. It was just silly-ass shit. Corny, super-concept–y, trying to cater to somebody, trying to get good ratings. I can easily get a nine out of ten album by just rapping shit that you’re just going to hear one time. I’m not here for that no more. I’m here to make dope-ass shit over and over again with balance in it. I have to scrap all that super-40-year-old rapping-ass shit. I’m not with that. I’m gonna keep balance, bro. I’m having too much fun to just be [making] down music and keeping kids depressed, ’cause depressed kids nowadays love to listen to depressed music. I don’t get it.
It was always like that. I was like that when I was a kid.
But it’s stupid. Why would you want to listen to … I mean, I get it.
On the new album, you’re talking about adult subject matter, but you figured out a way to make it fun. You’re talking about fatherhood and responsibility and money but in a way that is not boring. It shows that you’re thinking about balance.
I always come fresh. My voice is always gonna sound different. My appearance is gonna always look different. My beats are gonna sound different. I’m gonna always have that element in me because I’m me. You’re going to always hear certain shit from me. That’s another reason that I take so long with albums, why everybody in TDE takes so long with albums. We try to make an album that’s completely different from the last album. That’s my whole thing. Whether you fucked with Blank Face or you didn’t, I switched it up. Whether you fucked with Oxy or you didn’t, I switched it up. I’m coming fresh again with Crash Talk. They’re gonna fuck with this regardless. I already know it’s about to go crazy. Then I’m gonna come with something next year, maybe.
Can we hold you to that?
Maybe. But I always say that.
It sounds like you say that, then you really make the album, but we just never hear it.
Yeah, it don’t make the cut.
You’ve said before that you pushed back Crash Talk because of what happened with Mac. Did you take time off for yourself?
The album was supposed to come out last November. Mentally, I wasn’t there, or physically. It just wasn’t supposed to come out. Then Nip died. It was supposed to come out last week. We weren’t expecting Nip to die. I wanted to push it off even further than what I pushed it; I just pushed it back a week. We had so much shit lined up, dude. It was so much. It derailed my whole shit and fucked up everything. I’m not saying it like that. Obviously, what [Nipsey] went through is … [whistles in disbelief]. Yeah, everything was just off. I had to fly places, and I was like, “I’m not trying to go over there right now.” I scrapped a few things because of his death.
How do you mean?
Everything. Not musically, but media and running around.
You felt like you needed to do less and be in fewer places?
I was just like, “I’m not in the mood to do nothin’.”
Are you starting to get back into it now?
Yeah, I’ve been getting back [to being] regular now. Being from L.A. … it hit everywhere hard, but in L.A., it hit really, really hard. I’ve been on flights. I talk to people. People are pretty much back to normal everywhere else, but in L.A., it’s still a little weird.
Talk to me about getting back into a work mind-set.
I’m always working, though. I just don’t tour all the time, and I don’t be posting on social media except Instagram Stories. When I’m not about to drop an album, I don’t do social media at all. I’m never on it. But what real rapper doesn’t rap everyday?
For kids who are growing up listening to rap right now, they’re losing someone every couple of months. When I grew up, we lost 2pac, Biggie, and Aayliah, but there was space in between to process the losses. Now, somebody’s going every three to five months. I’m worried about these young fans. Do you feel like you have an obligation to get them through times like these?
They’re in good hands. Trust me, bro. Don’t let death fool you. What it is, is there’s way more rappers than there were back then. People have been dying since the beginning of time. People are gonna pass. It’s sad to say, but there are going to be people that get murdered. Nipsey-wise … [whistles again in disbelief]. That was some bullshit. That was weak as fuck. I’m just saying, in general, youth gangbanging is at an all-time low. People don’t want to talk about that.
You feel like people are getting swayed by bad press?
Yeah, people only report the bad things, [especially] with rappers. What are you going to report? Niggas ain’t gonna report no good shit. A site’ll post Ja Rule because he owes taxes, but any other time, you ain’t posting Ja Rule. And that’s the people that’s guiding us that’s in our culture. They so quick to play a rapper. That shit ain’t cool. You ain’t never post nothing about this man. He go to jail, you post him. You ain’t said nothing about this man. He dies, and you’ve got a hundred articles.
Sometimes that’s the job! A writer covering the news has to post the news.
No, this is rap, man. This is not how it’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to love our people, dawg. Country motherfuckers ain’t doing that. Rock-and-roll sites … All these niggas ain’t doing that.
You’d be surprised how much hate does exist in those communities. But they also treat their legends a little better than we do.
They respect their artists. Nobody’s perfect. There’s always gonna be a dickhead somewhere out there. Always. You can’t help that. But the majority of other cultures’ dudes don’t get treated the way us rappers get treated. Motherfuckers really think we need them. Nigga, we’re the rappers. We don’t need no fucking website or no publication or nothing, man. They need us to work. They report rap music. Shut the fuck up. Don’t disrespect rappers. That’s all they do. They can’t wait to disrespect a rapper. As soon as something happens. [You] say something wrong, you’re fucked.
With Crash Talk, it seems you’re trying to tap into your humorous side. A lot of your music, as you were saying before, is super-serious, but when we see you on Stories, you’re hilarious. It feels like you’re trying to pull both sides together. Is that what this is?
I’m a funny nigga. I’ve always been a funny nigga. It’s just who I am. When you think of a gangbanger, you don’t picture a nigga that acts like me. You see gangbangers all the time. Crips, Bloods, whoever it is. Rappers … we act a little different. I think I’m separate. Even my music, you could categorize me as a gangster, but could you really? But could you really say I’m a gangster rapper though? Like, yeah, I’m a gangster rapper, but could you really just put that on me, with albums like Oxymoron? Shit, like Crash Talk, even Blank Face?
Whose ear do you trust?
Mine. Fuck niggas, man. I got pretty far by being me. I’m lucky, man. I could disappear and come back, and niggas are still interested. You can’t really cancel me off, nigga. I’m Schoolboy, bro. You always gonna listen. You’re always gonna give it a shot. Even if you don’t like me, you’re going to listen somehow, someway. You gonna be in somebody car, they’re gonna be knocking my shit. You’re gonna be walking down the street, they’re gonna be knocking my shit. I’m one of those artists that I do everything, so you may go into the club and hear my shit. You may go to the strip club and hear my shit. You may go to the festival, and some nigga playing my shit. I give you too much balance. You don’t have to like me. But you can’t avoid me. I’m the nigga, bro. I’ll always be that nigga.
This interview has been edited and condensed.