The first 24 words on Schoolboy Q’s debut album are “gangsta.” It’s a slap-in-the-skull reminder that whatever anyone else might say, Q is, above all else, tough. That’s what we’ve learned about him so far, anyway. Born Quincy Hanley in South Central L.A., Q linked up with the Crips at age 12 and made cash slinging Oxycontin, the story goes. Nevermind that his nickname, Schoolboy, stemmed from his nerdy glasses and academic aspirations. Now, Q’s major label debut attempts to reconcile these two personas. Sure, Oxymoron is a hard album—references to cash, drugs and sex trickle throughout—but Q’s thick-headed flow nestles itself with intense mathematic precision in a world that might seem apocalyptic to the outside observer.
Because the release of Oxymoron was delayed multiple times and subsequently hyped for months, the chance for it to fall flat was pretty high. Collard Greens was released back in June 2013, and could’ve been just another easily forgotten earworm jam with a looming expiration date. But with TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar lending his nasal-clogged flow to a rapid-fire Spanish-riddled verse and Q’s staccato stutter, the track still has legs. The only difference is that now, that plucking, hollow water-drop beat is instantly recognizable. TDE reps again on Oxymoron when Jay Rock shows up on “Los Awesome” to move the track in a metronomic back and forth direction, his half-manic flow dancing through Q’s effectively stunted wordplay.
The 2 Chainz-featuring What They Want loops a 2001: A Space Odyssey infrasonic beat ripple while Schoolboy rides the lower octave wave under 2 Chainz’s semi-screech. Hoover Street has Q on his own again, vibing on a nursery rhyme, trap-fueled beat as he waxes on about growing up and family trouble. The best moments we get from Q are when he finds a way to merge his street-ready narratives with his club-ready, spazzed out beats, like on the two-part track “Prescription/Oxymoron.” Elements of suppressed boom-bap and a young girl’s vocal samples soundtrack a story of Q’s pill addiction and ignoring calls from his daughter. It’s almost tragic—a lonely, foggy-headed monologue—but the jumpy, shivering second-half of the song brings the listener back to present day, with money talk, goofy crank whines and slow-mo “woops.” Things are looking up.

Studio is the foil to the album’s yawning, yapped singles, Break The Bank and Man Of The Year, and it features one of Q’s best verses on the album. BJ The Chicago Kid adds hornball sex-appeal while Q’s words are sliced up and spit out, like his rhymes are too hard to rethink. That’s not to say the rage-mania of Break The Bank and the hormone-fueled, stuttering beat of Man Of The Year aren’t two of the most essential moments on the album. But ultimately, they all seem essential. It’s not that Schoolboy Q is the best lyricist (“So much pussy that my mustache pink”); and there’s not an immediately profound life lesson here; there are no mind-boggling internal rhymes; but Oxymoron is amazing mostly because it attempts to heal past bruises with more bruises. Schoolboy hides nothing and everything leaves a mark.
Much of Oxymoron functions under the the ability to prove people wrong. When Tyler, The Creator and Kurupt jump in on “The Purge,” it could’ve easily been an off-putting grouping, but as a maelstrom of sirens blare in the background, the rappers’ weirdly disparate styles just work. The Raekwon-featuring Blind Threats could’ve pushed Q’s snarl into the background, but instead it’s like the two have been working together for years. Is Oxymoron better than good kid m.A.A.d. city? They’re very different albums. But does it put up a hell of a fight? Yup. It may have taken Schoolboy Q a while to float to the top, but it doesn’t look like he’s leaving anytime soon.