Twenty years ago this spring, Warren G released Regulate…G Funk Era, a triple-platinum album that helped enshrine the louche, laid-back sound of West Coast hip-hop—“funked out with a gangsta twist,” as his homey Nate Dogg put it. But that era soon fizzled, and after Tupac was killed in ’96, the California scene met with a different funk: years-long commercial doldrums. Only the Game, a Dr. Dre protégé whose three No. 1 albums are thick with early-to-mid-’90s nostalgia, broke through in the meantime. But the gin-and-juice hangover finally seems to be lifting, as gritty California rappers sidestep or reinvent G-funk and barge back into the mainstream.
Earlier this month, South Central L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q went to No. 1 with his shadowy, ferocious third album, Oxymoron. As the resident gangsta in the Black Hippy collective led by Kendrick Lamar—last year’s most obsessed-over rapper—Q brings a sharp new ambivalence to Tupac’s idea of the thug life. He raps not only about dealing Oxycontin but also about becoming addicted to Xanax, Percocet, and Valium. On the harrowing “Prescription/Oxymoron,” he even splices in a recording of his young daughter trying to wake him from a drug stupor.
If the dazzling shape-shifter Kendrick is on L.A.’s frontier, the gruff, brutally honest Schoolboy Q represents the West Coast’s uncompromising core. “Real Crippy since I hopped off the swing” is how he sums up his early gang links on “The Purge,” which deliberately teams him with ’90s California notable Kurupt and Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator (whose crew remains more underground, breakout R&B star Frank Ocean aside). Still, Q doesn’t take himself too seriously: On “Studio,” Oxymoron’s wry love song, he skips the sex “metaphors” and explicitly mimics what else he can do with his tongue.