The L.A. rapper and Kendrick Lamar crew mate tells raw tales of being a young black man in America, and it couldn't have come at a more crucial time.
"It's funny, I wanted to be a cop -- until I started running from them," says Schoolboy Q. Seated at a corner table in a Manhattan steakhouse, surrounded by his manager, publicist, bodyguard and two other friends, the rapper is explaining one of his many tattoos: "F-- LAPD," with one word across each shoulder. It's a little more than one week before the release of his hotly anticipated album, Blank Face LP. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile hadn't yet been killed by law enforcement, and Micah Johnson hadn't yet opened fire on the Dallas Police Department. But by the time Q's album arrived July 8, violence had reignited America's long-running struggles with race relations. "On a day I'm supposed 2 Happy I'm sitting Here f--ed up about everytHing goin'," he tweeted.
The same day, Q released a remix of first single "That Part," in which he rapped "Gangbangin' like we stand for somethin'/When Alton Sterling gettin' killed for nothin'/Two cowards in the car, they're just there to film/Sayin' #BlackLivesMatter should've died with him."
For the remix, Q teamed up with his cohorts in Black Hippy, the crew he founded in 2009 with fellow Top Dawg Entertainment signees Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar. Like a latter-day N.W.A, the foursome is writing a new chapter in the hip-hop history of Los Angeles. Though Lamar since has become one of the most influential and singular voices in rap, they all have found solo success, with Q currently claiming bragging rights. His last release, 2014's Oxymoron, debuted atop the Billboard 200 and was nominated for a Grammy. His latest, in which the 29-year-old spins true-life tales of gangbanging and drug dealing into dark but turn-up-friendly tracks, is both deeper and darker (even with Kanye West rhyming "Chipotle" with "Kobe" and "O.J."). "Not to talk about Kendrick, but this is like the flip side to his story," says Top Dawg president Dave Free of the album. "Q is someone who was good at sports and good in school and still fell into that system." Where "good kid" Lamar tells stories about what he has seen, Q mines his past to rap about the things he actually has done.
Growing up with a single mom in South Central Los Angeles, Q (real name: Quincy Matthew Hanley) did have ways out: His grades were good enough (a 3.3 GPA in high school) to earn him his nickname; his athletic prowess (a 4.46 40-yard dash) allowed him to play football at West Los Angeles College. Q cites "a thing with listening to authority" as the reason he -- despite his promise in class and on the field -- started hanging around the Hoover Crips at age 12 and dealing drugs by the end of high school. "The gangbanging lifestyle started catching up to me," says Q of why he ultimately dropped out of college. "When you're in high school, you get monitored. In college, you're just hanging out all day. I didn't give a f-- about football no more. I didn't give a f-- about anything."
A 2007 arrest and subsequent six-month sentence for a crime he's still vague about (in a Reddit Q&A, he said it was related to a home invasion) served as a wake-up call. "I got too much sense to be around these people," the then-21-year-old Q recalls thinking. "These are ignorant motherf--ers and I'm in here with them, which makes me just as ignorant." Music, he decided, was a way out, despite zero experience. Q even got a treble clef tattooed below his left eye as a reminder.
Football helped, if indirectly. One of his former teammates, Derek Ali, was an engineer for the nascent Top Dawg and introduced Q to his future label. Within a year he would release his first mixtape, and soon he was pursuing music with more rigor than he ever showed on the field. "I look back on my years of football and baseball -- I didn't want that shit. I was going off natural talent," he says. "With rapping, I loved it way more. I've never worked as hard in my life."
But getting "straight" was a process. An addiction to prescription drugs (Percocet, Valium, Xanax and the ever-popular lean) wound up as Oxymoron's inspiration. "Prescription drugs, I fell in love," he raps, after an interlude in which his then-5-year-old daughter Joyce cries, "What's wrong, Daddy? Wake up! Wake up!" -- a sequence inspired by real instances of her finding him passed out. He quit cold turkey around 2012, and now sticks (mostly) to weed. But he remains one of the few MCs in the drank-happy hip-hop world to address the pitfalls of drug abuse.
It's these Setbacks, Habits and Contradictions and Oxymorons -- to cite his first three album titles -- that make Q's music so compelling. "He can be raw, emotionless and emotional, all in one fell swoop," says Free. "He's borderless." Blank Face LP is his most expansive collection yet, packed with A-listers both on the mic (West, Jadakiss) and behind the boards (Swizz Beatz, The Alchemist). Q himself is reluctant to describe it as anything other than "gangsta Crip," but the project ranges from thug life how-to "Ride Out" (featuring Vince Staples) to bedroom banger "Overtime" (with Miguel and Justine Skye). "I'm too talented to be sounding like another n--a from 20 years ago," he says of his sound, and not getting pegged as an "L.A. rapper." "I want to sound like Schoolboy Q."
Lamar shows up (uncredited) on several tracks, but fans of Black Hippy will have to be content with the "Black Thought" remix. "I don't like rapping with them n--s anyway," says Q. "Let's just be best friends and shit." Smiling from beneath an army-green fedora (the replacement for his long-trademark bucket hat), Q explains their musical bond has evolved, not disappeared. "I don't put no album out without Dot, Kendrick or Jay Rock or Ab-Soul hearing some of it -- we all want approval from our brothers. But I've stopped going to the studio with them, because I want to just be a fan."
After going from football star to drug dealer to drug addict to Billboard-charting rapper, Q seems to have set aside his many ups and downs, leaving family and fans, in that order. "I stopped rapping, just to be around Joyce more," he says of his post-Oxymoron hiatus. "I was all the way out, not taking pictures with anybody. It felt good.
"I definitely don't see myself dropping seven albums," he adds. "It takes too much time away from your family. If I were single with no kids, I'd be doing this until I'm 80 years old." So what will he do when he actually retires? "Would love to get into some sports shit -- I've been interviewed on ESPN twice," he says. "But that's down the road. I'm too young; them n--s is old up there. I ain't got time. Not right now."