An eternal practitioner of reinvention, ScHoolboy Q’s career trajectory has skyrocketed beyond many initial predictions. At the top of the decade, early TDE adopters quickly placed their ends on the Four Horsemen of mainstream rap, with a young Kendrick Lamar as the Chosen One. Q’s skill level proved itself soon after: He’s a groovy Figg Crip with a knack for thrilling imagery and upending the darkest memories into passing laughter. In what now feels like a blink, he became TDE’s second critical and commercial powerhouse without compromising an indulgence of his vision, no matter how gritty or glossy. (He’s also partly responsible for the popular resurgence of the bucket hat, selling a few blue Figueroa caps to young white men along the way.) We’ll never see the same Q each time, but he’ll always keep that same energy, give hell or Gang Unit.
2014’s Oxymoron expanded the trouble and torture of his gangsta id while simultaneously netting the radio, while 2016’s Blank Face delved even deeper into the abyss of penitentiary chances and survivor’s guilt. CrasH Talk is notably the brightest Q album yet — as bright as a Q album can get — and Q’s reserved nature perseveres, though his introspective edge is scaled further back into tighter song structures and a brevity that’s evaded the majority of his earlier work. CrasH Talk is the first in ScHoolboy Q’s oeuvre that arrived from almost nowhere, with no real expectations for where he’d take it next. He’s a few plaques removed from stadium status, but clearly massive enough to afford the two-year breaks between albums to be a father, get into golf, troll the planet on Instagram Live. With the Grammys in tow and a general admiration at critical mass, what’s left for Q to prove or accomplish?
Where many of his stature have faltered from this vantage point, Q’s eased off the pedal far more gracefully. Fully cemented in his young O.G. status, he favors a reinvention that’s more down the middle and far less indulgent than before. The rich rapper self-awareness shows: There’s no tangible grand concept at work, and the overall narrative spends more time showing the growth and less time dwelling in the darkness. His highs remain high even in the most uncomfortable frameworks; there’s a distinct difference between how forced a record like “CHopstix” feels with an undercooked nonsensical Travis Scott earworm, and how thrilling “Numb Numb Juice” is once you settle into the high-powered absurdity. Even when a record doesn’t work, Q sounds alive and assured that another platinum plaque will arrive, a true attestation to how electric he remains once he falls into the pocket. It’s one of his most endearing qualities: a fantastic ear for production in sync with the methodical way he pivots between madman and philosopher, hedonist and antihero.
While time feels more sacrificial than effort, CrasH Talk doesn’t afford the listener as much transparency as prior efforts. Noting the (still) recent passings of Nipsey Hussle and Mac Miller, the album met several delays out of respect for their memories and Q’s recovery. (If one expected a performative moment of his sadness, it’s not here, nor should one have felt entitled to such.) When Q’s vocal performances don’t sound weathered by the world, he sounds more tired of rehashing what he’s covered in great depth already. Records like “Tales” and “CrasH” work in the former, bringing Q’s pen back to the forefront as he waxes more poetic of his journey and revels in his progression as a father. “Black Folk” does the latter, the black-people-blow-our-money trope coming off a little stale. When he does return to familiar territory involving addiction, he remains fantastic on either side of the coin: recalling the infamous one-two punch of “Prescription/Oxymoron,” we get the 21 Savage-assisted hypnotic ride out music in “Floating,” followed by the eerie “Dangerous” with a minimal-yet-effective Cudi appearance that isn’t overbearing.
Like every other ScHoolboy Q effort marred by its sense of balance, CrasH Talk suffers not from its variety, but the absence of cohesion. While the whole record rides, the lack of a throughline shows out when the tone shifts too drastically, making the chaotic feel unintentional. This listless sequencing of CrasH Talk is only exacerbated when the features feel underutilized: 6LACK is here and gone on the forgettable “Drunk,” Ty Dolla $ign and YG phone it in on “Lies,” and another above-par Lil Baby verse on “Water” feels almost pointless considering how the record’s wedged between “CrasH” and the album closer “Attention” which both veer toward Q’s introspective side. It’s consistently upsetting to witness how a few radio-intended records end up slapped in the middle of a narrative that could’ve taken the LP further, especially since Q’s had the proven crossover firepower for years now. Any intention to show the faces of Q gone unseen threatens to be drowned out once it comes at the expense of the quality control he’s maintained throughout his career.
The cut corners beg the following questions: Which opportunities did Q abandon in the three records before he finalized CrasH Talk? The album’s title functions as an obvious homage to the notorious LAPD department — Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — that Q’s mentioned throughout his career… surely the long-term effects of this heavily armed state-sponsored effort could have served as more than a passive thematic anchor? Furthermore, why does the album art depict Q in a hoodie with a paper bag on his head? Is it merely for a lick or does it cloak the sadness dwelling underneath? It feels like there’s a greater tale to be told, creeping at the fringes of the pieces of a good-enough album. (Even down to the “Take 1! Take 2! Take 3!” Which transitions did those signify?!?)
Thankfully, CrasH Talk never comes close to going completely overboard. The technical prowess remains strong, the tricks and grit remain intact, and ScHoolboy Q hasn’t dropped a bad album yet, though he’s spent a fair amount of his press run insisting how little of a fuck he gives about my opinion anyway. For what it’s worth, no obvious Jay Rock pun, I’m actually an internet dweeb that’s bought tickets to Q shows — all TDE shows, forreal — for years now. I could never bring myself to buy a Figg bucket hat, though.