Schoolboy Q is hungry. Metaphorically? Well, OK, yes, metaphorically. It’s a mid-December afternoon in New York and his new album, Oxymoron, will be out in less than two months. Oxymoron is not only his major-label debut, but also the first release from empire-building Los Angeles label Top Dawg Entertainment since Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City blazed into the pantheon. Q got his start as Kendrick’s hype man, earning $200 a show, until he decided to cop the spotlight for himself — and then actually briefly surged ahead in the internal TDE arms race. In 2012, Q’s gloriously reckless “Hands on the Wheel” was getting radio spins while Kendrick was still a mixtape wiz. Then Good Kid dropped, and the debate became moot.
Ever since, Q’s been up next. It’s an unfamiliar hip-hop narrative. Traditionally, one dude gets in the party, then props open the backdoor for his buddies. Sometimes, a buddy works hard enough to get to hang out for a while;1 sometimes, a buddy damn near steals the party.2 More often than not, though, the buddies eventually get laughed out of the room. For rap nerds, these failed backdoor-enterers live in infamy, their names bandied about for fan cred: I have a signed Tony Yayo laminated photo! I celebrate Gudda Gudda’s entire catalogue!
But that’s not what’s happening here. Q and Kendrick came up together, just another couple of MCs in America dreaming of domination. That Kendrick actually got there now seems preordained. How could a talent like this — who makes the English language his plaything, who reimagines his come-up as banger after banger — end up as anything other than his generation’s Jay Z? Q’s got a different viewpoint, though. He appreciates his friend’s innumerable talents, of course. But he’s been right there the whole time. He might not have Kendrick’s salesman mentality; he might not care as much to clean up his act. But still: How can he not see this whole “rap superstardom” thing as imminently reachable?
Over the past year, in interview after interview, Q has been unable to escape the specter of Kendrick. Not that he’s shied away, either. Again and again, he’s said, in so many words: I want what Kendrick’s got. I will have what Kendrick’s got.
So, yes, Schoolboy Q is hungry, metaphorically. But also: It’s 10 a.m. in Manhattan, he’s just gotten off a red-eye from L.A. — and he skipped breakfast to go straight to his buddy Brocky Marciano’s place in the East Village to get high. Now he’s on the 25th floor of a midtown high-rise, reluctantly fielding questions about Black History Month from a fellow with a dress shirt tucked into jeans and a graying soul patch. And Schoolboy Q would really just like something to eat.
Q is at the offices of the music-video streaming site Vevo to record some plugs. The setup is ransom-video spare. Just Q — in blue Jordans, his trademark bucket hat, and a green hoodie with an artful amount of excess fabric bunched around the neck — on a stool in front of a camera on a tripod. In person he looks a bit scruffier, a bit more dinged-up; also, with the focus on his face, his little “Q” and treble clef tattoos (one near each eye) are that much more noticeable. “What’d you have for breakfast, Q?” Lorrie, the camera operator, asks by way of getting him warmed up. “Nothing. Starving.” “What would you eat if you could?” He thinks for a beat, then answers, almost dreamily: “Chipotle.”
Lorrie reads from the prewritten promo lines: “Can you say, ‘I’m Schoolboy Q, and you’re watching Vevo Flow’? And, ‘Here’s what’s new on Vevo TV’? And, ‘Here’s some old-school jams’?” Q’s game, but Vevo is passive-aggressively particular, and so whenever he flubs a word, we start back at the top. He lets out an “Aaaaargh!” out of frustration, before riffing: “Here go some jams from the old school! The new school! Yo school, my school, junior high school. Middle school! Come fuck wit’ me.” Afterward, he patiently explains: “I’m hungry.” Also: “I smoke a lot of weed.” And so by the time Interviewer Jim shows up, with his aforementioned soul patch and month-themed question list, it’s maybe not going so well. “Not to be rude, but I don’t know shit about Black History Month,” Q tells him.
Later, in his chauffeured car, Q really goes in on Jim. “Fuck he know about Black History Month? I know Malcolm X, King.” Pause. “Kobe. That’s what it was growing up: Kobe. Jordan. Jerry Rice.” His road manager, Keem, a tall, friendly young man in a well-worn TDE hoodie, chimes in from the back: “Dude was creepy!” But maybe despite himself, Soul Patch Jim got Q to open up, especially when reminiscing about Nas and other East Coast hip-hop legends who inspired Q as a kid.
“My age group, coming up, nobody was into lyrics,” he explained to Jim. “I was different.” As an 11-year-old, he loved Tha Dogg Pound and Westside Connection, but was also drawn to the music that required a little life experience to fully grasp. “You had to get pussy to understand that,” he says, laughing. “You had to get depressed a little.”
So: burritos now? No, not yet. With a couple of hours to kill before he’s due at the day’s next press obligation, at BET, Q hits up Brock to let him know he’s rolling back through.
“Whaddup, Brocka? Twist up a stunna.”
By the time Schoolboy Q found rap, there wasn’t much else he thought he could do. “Athlete, gang member, drug dealer,” he says, as the SUV pushes past Times Square Elmos and Despicable Mes and through grinding midtown traffic. “I did everything. I’d been fired from the railroad. Was on my second year without a job. All I had left was try to rap. Or I was about to be a fucking loser. And I ain’t want that.”
Q, short for Quincy, was born in Germany while his parents were employed at the U.S. Army base in Wiesbaden. When they split up, his mother gave him a new last name — Hanley, picked at random — and a new home: South Central L.A. For nearly his entire life, there were two constants: football and street life. His crew was the 52 Hoover Crips. “We all was born into it,” he explains. “Once a n—- get put on, everybody get put on. He fighting, I’ma fight. He got a problem, I got a problem. This my homey.”
Football taught him discipline, respect, patience, and an appreciation for rules. It kept him from tipping over the edge. “Even though I was doing wrong,” he says, “I knew what I was doing at all times.” Meanwhile, he enjoyed a stable home life with his grandmother and his mother, who worked for 18 years as a AAA dispatcher.
“My mama was one of the only ones on the block that had a job,” he says. “I’m an only child, so I was spoiled coming up, even though we was living in the ghetto. I had the toys, the video games. My mama used to keep me in the fresh gear. I was giving people clothes to wear. I was that n—-.”
But his mom worked mostly night shifts — “being at work from midnight till eight in the morning, then waking up with me, getting my ass on the bus” — and that meant he didn’t ever really need to sneak out of the house. “I was out there, thuggin’,” he says. “Anytime something happened, all the homeys came straight to my door. And I’m putting my shoes on.”
He started selling drugs in high school, but it was mostly a lark then. “I didn’t have to sling. I was bullshitting, playing around with my life.” Still, he managed good grades, and ended up playing football at West Los Angeles Community College. “I knew I had to get my grades up [in high school],” he says. “But college, I wasn’t going to [class].” I ask Q his major. “It was ‘go to football practice.’ Shit, I don’t know. Whatever you needed to stay eligible. It’s ironic I named myself Schoolboy. School never was for me.”3
When he got older, the hustling became more than a side gig. “Shit got real for me.” He shrugs. Simultaneously, though, another way revealed itself. An old football friend named Ali had gone on to become a recording engineer,4 and started working with a group of guys who were calling themselves Top Dawg Entertainment. They had a studio in Carson, some in-house producers, a few artists: the stolid Watts MC Jay Rock, the loopy Ab-Soul, and Kendrick Lamar, then still known by a stage name, K. Dot. TDE cofounder Terrence “Punch” Henderson says he was intrigued from the very first time he heard Q rapping. “It was over this trash beat,” Punch says. “The beat was terrible. But the raps he was spitting was crazy. It was introspective.” Q was invited, cautiously, into the fold.
In 2007, he was arrested on a felony charge that he keeps mum about. He spent six months in prison, half on house arrest, according to L.A. Weekly. The label was a saving grace: Registering studio time at TDE as his official employment, Q was able to venture out and continue working on music.
Then he had his daughter. As he gleefully explained to the Weekly, “I told my girl we were gonna have a baby as soon as I got outta jail and to stop taking her birth control pills. Got out, we had Joy-Joy. One try.” But then, needing even more cash, he got into selling the potent prescription painkiller OxyContin. “All the bad things I was doing,” Q says, “was just to do good for my daughter.”
For a couple years, he seesawed between hustling, day jobs, and the studio. At one point, trying to game the system, he came up with the idea for the supergroup Black Hippy, which would collect all four core TDE signees. The thinking was, the more dudes in the group, the less he’d actually have to do: “I was just kind of saying it so I could come through, lay a verse, and leave.”
Eventually, he became Kendrick’s hype man, and when Q got his first little bit of rap money, he saw an inkling of the future. “That shit went a long way for me,” he says. “That $200? That was everything. Shit, I was so broke. That was everything.”
Brock’s place is cozy and well manicured, not a KAWS doll or vintage Appetite for Destruction vinyl out of place. Most important: It has weed. Brock — a white dude with a full beard and a nearly shaved head — rolls a blunt, which he and Q graciously pass along while exchanging highly individualized pothead-technique details. (Brock’s pro tip: “Take a Backwoods and soak it in water, then let it dry off a little bit. Put ’em on paper towels. Get all the shit off.”) Q gets comfortable, dumping a jumble of 5s and 10s out of his pockets, then chases a hit of the smoke with a puff on his asthma inhaler.
BET is taping its New Year’s Eve special today, a few weeks early, and Q’s not particularly psyched about it. “BET thirsty,” he says. “They be doing side interviews and shit, shit you ain’t even planned. Treating you like you Jay Z or something. Everybody coming up to take your picture. That shit burned.”
He calms down quick, taking more drags, making small talk about Xanax and Adderall: “Be staying on that Stadderall in the studio. Weed tolerance crazy. Outsmoking everyone.” He mutters Migos’s “Versace,” fleetly rapping, “Medusa head on me like I’m Illuminati” with a fast flow.
He fields a phone call about his bucket hat, a custom-made blue number approximating the mapping coordinates of his home corner, 5200 Figueroa. They’re including it with preorders of Oxymoron, and Q is quite pleased. “That’s gonna be a lot of hats [cousin] gotta make,” he says. “Everybody gonna buy it just ’cause of the hat.”
And, best of all, he finally, finally gets some food, delivery from a lunch spot nearby: a juicy, much-deserved turkey burger, and a side of gooey mac-and-cheese.
Q remembers a specific day, in 2009, when music — after two wavering years — suddenly made sense to him. “I don’t know what happened to me. I just knew what I wanted to do: the cadences I wanted, the beats I liked. It just happened.” In 2011, he put together his first proper Top Dawg Entertainment album, Setbacks. “I never accomplished anything like that [before],” he says. “I didn’t know that it was that hard, and I didn’t know that it was that fun. I never got that feeling. I never got that rush. Music did it first for me.”
Then came 2012’s Habits & Contradictions and the complete emergence of Schoolboy Q. To hear him talk now of going years without fully committing makes sense, not because his music is slapdash or half-baked. It’s because, for the most part — and this is meant, truly, in the best way possible — Q still doesn’t really give a fuck.
“Hands on the Wheel” was the first revelation; its swaying loop and rat-a-tat flow make living your life a quarter-mile at a time seem like a fantastic idea. In one of Q’s verses, he raps, “Meanwhile my n—- drunk as fuck / A n—- fucked up / We all fucked up,” ringing out like some winking battle cry. But it wasn’t all about sparky nihilism. Q could be angry, or bored, or sometimes not even quite all there. He could stay light on his feet, even when he was about to teeter over. The pleasure was that it was evidently him, unbridled.
And so if we are to continue drawing out the comparison to his buddy on the throne, it should only be to point out that it’s invalid: Kendrick is meticulous, his every move — sometimes even mid–emotional meltdown — a carefully calculated strike. Q? Q’s just out here crushing up pills with the butt of his phone, flipping over cars, getting druggy and fuzzy and weird. In the casual extremes of his abandon, he is thrilling.
And a guy like that, you might not be surprised to hear, doesn’t quite fit snugly inside a major-label structure. In 2012, TDE announced a partnership with Interscope. But that never got Q buzzing. “None of us was like” — he busts out the fake hysterics — “‘We just signed a deal!’ We signed that bitch and went home.”
Communication stayed one-way: “I don’t like the [major-label] ideas. Pssh, shit, I don’t talk to nobody. I just rap and send the music over.” And there were more practical concerns. On Oxymoron, Q had to compromise for the first time. He’d planned on only one radio-friendly song on the album, jamming the rest of the track list with his raw goods. But Interscope demanded three singles before he could get the green light — which, perhaps, is why it’s taken more than two years since Habits & Contradictions for Oxymoron to see release. At one point in the car, Q’s single “Collard Greens” comes on the radio, and the DJ announces, “We finally have a release date for that album.” “N—-s is killing me,” Q scoffs. “Finally! Finally!”5
“I mean, I still wrote the songs, so of course I still like them,” he says. “But this is what I signed up for. Major artists don’t just sign a deal to keep doing independent shit. [Maybe] I thought I was just gonna be able to slip through the cracks. It didn’t work like that.”
Thanks to the smoke session and the lazy pace of the SUV looping back through traffic, Q’s nearly dozing off midsentence. But he remains supremely confident in his product. “My album is crazy. I’m so unique, I don’t sound like nobody. I don’t rap on beats that the average n—- like me would rap on. I get not just black people to bump my music, but some of the whitest — the whitest of the white! Sometimes Korean and Japanese people walk up to me — they barely know English, but they know how to say my name.”
His peers agree.6 A$AP Rocky calls Q “basically my favorite rapper — there’s no other rapper like him.” Action Bronson explains that Q’s secret is managing to mix “modern melodies” with “raw street lyrics” for a match “made in thug heaven.” Also of note: “He’s getting fat cuz he eatin’ well. Problems that bosses have.”7
Once, he brashly promised, Oxymoron would be better than Kendrick’s Good Kid. So, is it true?
“I mean, of course I’ma say that!” he shouts. “I’m not about to say that n—- had some better shit! But reviews? I let the people in the high chairs worry about that.”
Outside the BET studios, excitable pockets of high school girls are lurking, some more casually than others. (Girl A: “Hi, Schoolboy Q!” Girl B: “You stupid!”) Inside, a Russian guy eating a deli salad calls out, “How you doing, Q?” between bites of arugula, then picks up a giant camera and starts snapping with flashes.
A few minutes later Bow Wow — cohosting this fake New Year’s Eve gala — shows up half-dressed in tuxedo pants and shiny shoes, announcing, “I came to recoup n—-s before the show!” Dudes in chains and expensive crewnecks mill about, yukking it up like old sleepaway-camp friends. One fellow announces he’s considering venturing into rapping himself, then reveals, to general murmurs of approval, his potential rap name: Fresh the Aggregator. (“It’s all about collecting information.”)
Eventually, it’s time for Q to tape his performance of “Collard Greens.” He swaps his hoodie for an Oxymoron T-shirt, wryly noting that he needs to pull it over his fledgling gut, before heading out to the seizure-inducing stage. It’s littered with premature noisemakers and confetti, and flanked by a petite audience in dumb fake New Year’s Eve regalia. Bow Wow leads the pack: The silver bands around his biceps and his silver tie make him look, more or less, like a baccarat dealer in an alternate universe where everyone is a cartoon cat.
Q shakes off his look of perma-slumber and offers a punchy rendition of his slippery, bouncy lead single. Then, afterward, he says good-bye: “’Ay, I’m Schoolboy Q, and I’m ’bout to go to sleep.”
For someone potentially about to get a lot more famous, Q is already weary. He doesn’t believe everyone who approaches him really is a fan; usually, he waits for them to say something to prove they don’t just happen to know his face from TV. Of his throwback bikinis-and-butts-in-the-face clip for second single “Man of the Year,” he says, “I don’t care about the booty shit. If I could do the video just me, I would have.” He dismissively refers to politicking with music-industry figures at BET as doing “my rapper shit.”
When he talks about drugs, it sounds less like a debauched rock star and more like a self-medicator. There’s the Percs, the Xanies, the Addies. Plus the weed, of course. And there’s also, on and off, lean. “I’m not really into it no more,” he says. “I still relapse some on promethazine. Then I’ll stop. Then I’ll get back on it. Then I’ll stop. But for the most part, I’m not doing it more than I am doing it.”8
He misses being regular. He wishes he could still walk around “fucking Six Flags. Eat and chill. Not even taking the fast pass. Waiting on line for two hours to get on that motherfucker.” When fans approach, they want “that dude from the record,” even though he’s not necessarily “that dude at that moment.” Up close, that’s abundantly clear. In person, Q projects an Everyman schlumpiness. “I still respect them, still look them in the eyes,” he says of fans. “They tell me they love me, I say, I love you too.”
Q’s daughter, Joy, is seemingly the only thing he can talk about without frustration. “I’m her daddy,” he beams. “She don’t wanna do nothing wrong around me. I never had a pops in my life, but I can understand the difference when your daddy is mad at you or when your mommy is mad at you. And she really doesn’t do nothing too much wrong. Besides nag me. And ask a whole bunch of questions. And write on things.”
Q featured his daughter in the video announcing Oxymoron’s release date. He also outfitted her in his bucket hat on the cover of his album. It’s all conscious: She’s his motivation, and, often, his creative inspiration; he wants to expose her to everything.
“This is life,” he says. “And she gotta see it from the jump. I never played that Santa Claus shit with her. I take her to the store and say, ‘What you want?’ You can’t with none of this fairy-tale shit. I’m gonna give her the real shit. She know daddy smoke weed. She know I cuss. It’s 2014. Life is just too advanced now to be hiding shit from your kids. This is reality.”
Recently, a boy called Q’s daughter “bitch” at school. Q told her the next time he does it, she should kick him in the nuts. And if the principal asks why she did that, she can say her daddy told her to. “That’s what my mama told me,” he says. “You fight every time. Defend yourself at all costs.” But he had to laugh when he heard about the incident. That little boy running around getting in trouble, yanking on braids, calling little girls names? The one you find in pretty much every preschool? Q says, smirking, “I was that boy.”