It’s always an interesting listening experience when we dive into earlier releases from a successful artist’s discography. It’s a chance to see how they were approaching their music at a time when they were still finding their voice and developing their own distinctive style. Looking back at the last decade, it’s hard to revisit Schoolboy Q’s debut LP, Setbacks, without noticing just how far the rapper has come from these humble beginnings back in 2011.
From being a part of the TDE collective where he took a backseat to some of the rappers in the label, Schoolboy Q has now solidified himself as one of the most versatile and unique MCs in the game today, from his unconventional flow and aggressive delivery to his clever wordplay and vivid imagery in his lyrics. He’s even developed a reputation of being a feature killer whenever he hops on someone else’s track.
But while his name holds weight with both hardcore hip-hop heads as well as mainstream rap fans, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today if it wasn’t for his debut studio album, Setbacks. While a bit rough around the edges, it’s clear to see the potential the rapper had even from this early on in his career. All it took was a bit of polishing on his hooks, flows, and subject matter for him to reach the apex of his discography — his critically acclaimed Blank Face LP (2016).
That being said, Setbacks is still worth revisiting. The album features several collaborations from prominent TDE members at the time —Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and even Punch — as well as appearances from BJ the Chicago Kid, Alori Joh, and Jhene Aiko. And the production, while not mind-blowing, has aged extremely well. This is thanks in no small part to the astounding group of producers that helped develop the distinctive TDE sound to what it is today.
As far as the content goes, this is definitely the release of a rapper on the come up. A lot of the songs address Schoolboy’s financial problems and the feeling of desperation that comes with them. You can just feel the hunger in these songs. The opening track, ‘Figg Get Da Money’, sees Groovy Q paying tribute to his old stomping grounds, Figueroa Street, as he vividly describes the hectic lifestyle as well as the necessary hustling that’s required on a day-to-day basis.
The following track, ‘Kamikaze’, continues this feeling of restlessness as the rapper sports a more aggressive delivery over a bombastic beat. He expresses how he has nothing left to lose in a world that doesn’t see much value in him, so it’s only natural that he’s willing to do anything to make some money in this dog-eat-dog world.
‘LigHt Years AHead’ sees him linking up with fellow TDE member — and current rap superstar — Kendrick Lamar. Both rappers deliver some clairvoyant-like verses as they look ahead at their eventual success that’s sure to come. Continuing with the TDE collaborations, the next song, ‘WHat’s THa Word’, is probably the grimiest cut on the entire album. The track features a stellar verse from Jay Rock, who’s rapping with a visceral aggression that’s just unmatched.
After a run of consecutive bangers, the album switches up the tone with some drug-oriented tracks that go for a more easy-going vibe. Things pick up again with the track ‘Cycle’, which sees the rapper take a more conscious approach as he meditates on the cycle of violence he’s witnessed his entire life.
Some of the weaker moments on the album come from the more commercial cuts that don’t really mesh well with Schoolboy’s hardcore style. Take, for instance, a song like ‘PHenomenon’, with its over-the-top chorus and uninspired lyrics that leave much to be desired. Another track that feels forced is the synth-heavy party anthem, ‘To THa Beat’, which feels like it was solely meant for radio play, regardless if it fits in well with the rest of the album.
All that being said, it’s impressive just how refined Schoolboy’s sound was even back then. On ‘Situations’, the rapper sounds as comfortable as he’s ever been on a track, with the production going for a West Coast vibe that’s sure to have any listener bobbing their head. Another clear standout is the song ‘Birds & The Beez’, which features a phenomenal verse from Kendrick Lamar. The track pretty much sums up Schoolboy’s entire ethos for the album — to find success in the rap game even if all the cards are stacked against him.
It’s surprising just how much the album holds up in retrospect. While some of the songs haven’t aged well when it comes to the casual misogyny at the time, there are a number of tracks that comment on the everyday issues that are experienced by a large number of disenfranchised black communities in the US — such as poverty, gang violence, and the corruption found in the prison system— that, unfortunately, still ring true to this day.
The album ends with a surprisingly fun posse cut featuring the main TDE members over a beat that samples the Zombies’ ‘Time of the Season’. This is an odd note to end the album on, but it serves as a nice counterweight that balances out the serious tone of the previous tracks with a more light-hearted affair.
All in all, while some of the songs could’ve used some improvements, Setbacks is a remarkably cohesive body of work that manages to fit in well with the rest of TDE’s consistent run of high-quality projects. But above all, it’s a vivid portrait of Groovy Q’s state of mind at the time, and it serves as a solid base for what’s to come.
Words by Kai-Ming Chow
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