Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a long-overdue reimagining of a genre whose holy trinity—Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg—now make headphones, PG comedies, and identity-crisis reggae albums, respectively. After decades of Tony Montana worship, gangsta rap is now closer to Michael Corleone: music that’s less id- than ego-driven, where triumphant kingpins give way to complicated men with pain behind their eyes.
This is the climate in which Lamar’s Black Hippy crewmate Schoolboy Q makes his major-label debut. And while Oxymoron comes armed with a clear concept, immersive production, and a handful of killer singles, it feels a bit like a Scarface fan living in a Godfather world. When at his best, Schoolboy makes the most of the implications of his album title, reveling in contradictions—an artist longing for his lover during a recording session, and a pimp that doesn’t care if his girls get pneumonia. And his influences are just as compellingly antithetical: the opening track, “Gangsta,” comes complete with an N.W.A callback, but the beat is all “Shook Ones (Part II),” a languorous piano figure that’s looped just imperfectly enough to sound dangerous; the Pharrell-produced “Los Awesome” is a skeletal, synth-string-and-bass-hits banger that Mystikal would’ve shredded in 2000; and “Break the Bank” is marked by the nasal melodicism of Cypress Hill.
In spite of how good it all sounds, there’s a rehearsed quality to Oxymoron, the sense that the artist is checking boxes instead of just letting it rip. For every moment that transcends Schoolboy’s towering influences and talented producers (like the gripping storytelling of “Hoover Street,” where an addict uncle taps a young Q for clean urine), there are a dozen by-the-numbers swinging-dick boasts. The back half of the album is dragged down by languid dance-crossover attempts like “Hell of a Night” and “Man of the Year.” And the ambitious “Prescription-Oxymoron” is a stab at high drama that tries too hard; when the comatose narrator’s daughter says, “I love you, Daddy,” the effect is too manipulative to appreciate as truly tragic.
It’s hard to say how this album would come across in a pre-Good Kid, M.A.A.D City universe. During a radio interview last month, Schoolboy admitted that Lamar’s album pushed him to “perfect” Oxymoron. Musically, this attention to detail is evident: These are nuanced, inspired, fresh-sounding productions (such as the propulsive reggae bass line on “Collard Greens” and the chilly, chopped-up Portishead sample on “Prescription-Oxymoron”). But lyrically, Schoolboy spends too much time on gangsta-rap autopilot. He has the instincts of a good storyteller, and maybe even the potential to be a standard bearer for his art form, but when he falls back on tired “pimps and hoes” narratives, he sounds firmly, frustratingly rooted in the past.