It was a mostly quiet conversation with Schoolboy Q until the national anthem protest of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was introduced. That point of contention snared the Los Angeles rapper’s attention.
“I never stood for the national anthem,” Schoolboy Q offered. “That’s how I was raised.”
Schoolboy was in town in September on his Blank Face tour, supporting the album of the same name that has brought him his biggest national exposure. His beloved 49ers had just won their season opener, but a quarterback’s silent protest of police brutality overshadowed the team’s victory.
“My mom and my father both served in the Army, and my momma won’t stand for it either,” says Schoolboy Q, born Quincy Hanley. “She told me [not to stand for it] as a little kid, even when I played sports.”
This past year — one in which more minorities fell victim to police shootings, followed by more protests and polarization in reaction to those protests — seemed tailored for Schoolboy Q’s style, a method equal parts blunt, brash, political and provocative. On “Blank Face LP,” he says law enforcement has a shoot-first, ask-questions-never approach to dealing with the black community. And he relates to the year’s chaos because he grew up in similar circumstances.
Over the course of his first three albums — 2011’s “Setbacks,” 2012’s “Habits & Contradictions” and 2014’s “Oxymoron” — Schoolboy Q’s music reflected the anarchy of his surroundings and remorse over his engagement in its worst elements. Each title denotes an awareness that vices have impeded his progress: For every stride, there’s always something holding him back. But this year, there were no such obstructions.
“Blank Face LP,” which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and recently earned a Grammy nomination, embraces his signature dark overtones and finds the rapper at his most pensive. The 30-year-old has advanced by way of his own insight. As “Blank Face LP” exhibits, his music has evolved with his worldview. And like Kaepernick, his evolution has made him one of the year’s most compelling figures.
Despite rarely cracking his laid-back California monotone when speaking, Schoolboy Q is fascinating to observe. His sense of humor is disarming, as he pivots from comical to solemn in a split-second. He’s the type to make you laugh, then ask with a stone face what you’re laughing at — just to mess with you. He regularly hides his eyes with sunglasses when indoors, and after years of sporadic haircuts and shaving, has returned to a semi-clean-cut state. Schoolboy Q’s also noticeably slimmer than he has been in recent years, laboring to make his physique mirror that of his days as an athlete.
Sports, especially football, held Q’s attention for most of his childhood. “I was always good at everything I tried to do, from sports to school,” he says. “Even when I was gang-bangin’, I was the only n---- that was able to get a job.”
Q says this with nonchalance, but tragedy lies in the lure of the South Central Los Angeles gang culture that derailed his life and those of countless other young men. “John Muir,” on “Blank Face LP,” details the formative loss of innocence that ultimately landed him behind bars following a 2007 arrest.
It’s one of the album’s standouts, impressive because Schoolboy Q says he freestyled the entire song. “It just came out of me, and I’ve never done that before,” he says. That he relayed it with such proficiency is a testament to one of his most valuable attributes: He makes rap seem easy. This charm ropes people in.
“Since I was a kid, people always gravitated toward me,” he explains. “Everybody wanted to come to Q’s house.”
Q found mainstream success when “Oxymoron” debuted atop the Billboard 200 and scored his first Grammy nomination, for best rap album, in 2015, but the album was a slight regression from the sleek, incisive “Habits & Contradictions.” After touring, Q laid low, even from social media, where his wry sense of humor has helped him amass close to 2 million followers.
A two-year gap between albums and limited social media presence gave the impression to many that Q had disappeared. The reality is that he was at work on “Blank Face LP” — and being a father to his 7-year-old daughter.
“It takes a lot out of me when I work on an album, because I’m dealing with my daughter, then myself, my daughter, myself,” the self-professed “soccer dad” says. “I have to go to the studio, but I have to be up at 7 in the morning to take her to school. I have to sleep, then wake up at 2:30 to pick her up from school.”
His focus on life’s range of responsibilities, primarily parenting duties, has made Schoolboy Q more contemplative. His music reflects this development.
“Blank Face LP” paints life as a funnel from one system to another: school to jail. On “Tookie Knows II,” the album’s ominous closer, there’s a resonant apathy that makes death or jail an accepted reality rather than a possible consequence. “Blank Face LP” nails that ethos. It explores how environments whittle away at the soul and morals of the underserved. This is reflected through the obscured faces of killers, the stoic defiance of suspects refusing to bend during questioning, the emotionless defendants in courtrooms, and the John and Jane Does unidentified on morgue slabs. It’s as dense in nihilism as Schoolboy Q’s past work, but with a difference — the sliver of light.
“That comes with age,” he says. “That’s probably what matured me: not caring about what anyone thinks now. This is me; this is what it is. I’ve seen so much and done so much. I’ve done bad things and had bad things done to me. Now I’m at the point where this is how I feel and this is what I’ve always wanted to say.”