Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gaining Ones Definition: Styles P- A Gangsta & a Gentleman

The Warlox made their major label debut in 1996 on “You’ll see” one of the last in a dying breed of fantastic label posse cuts in which all three members of the Yonkers collective held their own with Biggie over “You’re a customer.” The Lox displayed what would be their aesthetic of choice, a gritty, punchline driven flow, more corner than penthouse. On the track it appears that they were intended to serve as a darker, uncompromising alternative to Biggie’s gangster with pop sensibilities. Of course, Bad Boy and the Lox would lose their big ticket mentor and a year later Puffy would enjoy commercial success with his own solo contribution, arguably the biggest album of 1997. One could assume both of these Hip hop mishaps contributed towards accounting for 1998’s unbalanced, shoddy debut “Money Power and Respect” which suffered from a distracting struggle between mainstream and gutter. While not without its moments, it was a record that lacked the fluid diversity of Biggie’s albums and had Puff’s fingerprints all over it.

A street
backlash followed. The infamous “Free the Lox” Guerilla campaign ended in “The paper work gangsta” awarding the Lox their (conditional) liberty which they used to quickly defect to the Ruff Ryders imprint. The fruit of their union came in the form of “We Are the Streets.” It would appear the groundswell of support in New York went to the Lox’s heads, forcing some sense of obligation to make nothing but the music the “true” Lox fans and grimy hip hop enthusiasts had supposedly been waiting for. Perhaps this motivation is what made “We Are the Streets” such a dull affair. (Save one excellent Primo banger) Almost entirely composed of empty threats and grinding, repetitive Swizz Beats, WATS was mercilessly one note and bordered on parody by the conclusion. Lackluster sales followed, and when Jadakiss’ erratic 2001 solo debut flopped, the Lox appeared in danger of fading into irrelevancy, another group of gangster rappers with nothing original to say and no desire to say it.

Lost amongst this industry folklore was David Styles, the most junior member of the Lox. Styles, with his monotone voice and halting flow, can be easy to miss at a skim in comparison with his colorful Lox brethren. Along side Jada’s trademark gritty delivery and Sheek’s witty, outsized ego, Styles is the quiet, brooding conscience of the group. It isn’t hard to understand what lead Puffy to exclude him from “The Benjamins.”

With all this in mind, Styles dropped “A Gangsta & a Gentleman” in 2002. The album arrived at a time when the Lox seemed to be searching for their niche. Clearly it wasn’t the Jiggy gangsters of “MPR” or the pure thuggery that had served them so poorly on “WATS.” In “G&G”, Styles embarks on a journey to defy genres and carve out an identity on an album all his own, a pursuit that is at times both fascinating and frustrating but always interesting.

The album begins with a song that immediately disrupts its flow, the lead off single and second song “Good Times”. This problem rears its head early and will persist. “Good Times” is by no means a bad song. Swizz cleverly manipulates a Freda Payne sample Styles turned into a memorable get high anthem that hit the charts harder than any other Lox single before it. However, it is given little context, and from the start this gives the album more of a mixtape feel that it is never really able to shake.

A better candidate for track two would have been track four, the title track. It is at once a considerable autobiographical feat and one of Alchemist’s better production jobs. Styles avoids a stereotypical background/mission statement cut on the strength of his prose. He shows his cleverness as a lyricist on the third verse where he concedes the inability for you to truly know him and his story over the course of three brief verses. (“I'm leavin out a lotta shit, nigga it's too real/My alcoholic backround, the welfare motels/Abuse that I had to take, struggle that my mom's went through/How the fuck I'm gon bond wit you?”)

An example of the album’s true schizophrenic nature can be found when comparing “Lick Shots” and “We Thugs.” Within sic tracks, G&G presents nearly identical songs on the same subject with completely different results. Styles and other members of D Block wax on their motivations for thugging it out by dedicating their pursuits to a series of characters and ideals found in their hood.

Swizz’s “Lick Shots” takes a decidedly downtrodden gangster slant. The very title suggests the action of busting a gun and the impetus for doing so. Thug life is presented as an obligation, a dark and harrowing environment that has a way of ingraining itself in you with its dulling effects of daily poverty and violence. Case and point comes at the conclusion of Styles’ lead verse. “Lick a shot for the stick up kids that twist up wigs/That’s the shit that happens when you pick up bids/Lick a shot for the foreign car, American trucks/Old timers that’ll throw a stack of presidents up/Got dice shooter slang, need a pistol to hang/But the P understand cause he ghetto as fuck/Lick a shot for the fiends/That got to go see the minors on the block to get medicined up/Lick a shot for the sake of licking a shot/And everytime I’m far away from home, I’ll be missing my block.”

Dj Clue and Duro’s “We Thugs” on the other hand is one of the more conflicted and brilliant songs in the D-Block catalogue. Over a simple, triumphant piano loop and jubilant horns, Styles and Jada engage in two verses of their, by now, perfected back and forth. Once again, the device is dedication. However, this time the duo chooses to focus not on the prison of the hood but rather the solidarity bred between inmates, the resilient good nature that manages to survive within their community. As on “Lick Shots”, the culmination is thug life, but using this approach it’s a declaration of brotherhood, a survival instinct, a way of getting through today with brighter hopes for tomorrow. Consider: “For the hustlers that’ll front bricks/For the hood rats that want chips/For the stick up kids creepin with they pumps ripped/For lil shorty with his rhymes books/For black girls going to school, carrying like 9 books/For the hood niggas…..That go to work because parole but they tryin to be good niggas/For all the poor mothers…That’s always going through the struggle still screamin that “The Lord Love us”/For the ghetto life….For having to hold your metal tight, lookin for a better life.”

Incidentally, both songs suffer from the same problem, a problem that continually tries its best to kill this album and occasionally succeeds in doing just that. Swizz, Sheek Louch, and the greater D Block collective hang over this entire project like a swarm of locusts. Sheek interrupts the good vibes of “We Thugs” with a maddeningly disposable declaration of D Block unity that manages to break the established chemistry shared by Jada and P on the first two verses showing a complete lack of discipline on someone’s part behind the boards that is apparent throughout the album. Sheek’s creative abilities were at an all time low on this album, mixing designer brand punchlines and predictable gun play in with downright annoying bragging and boasting that does nothing to improve the product in any way.

Whether suffering from boring production: “Styles”, “And I came to”, “Yall know we in here” (Who keeps telling Swizz he sounds good on hooks?) or tired concepts such as the millionth Bonnie and Clyde rap anthem “Daddy Get that Cash” Styles does not take a verse off on this album, even the filler is not without its redeeming qualities. Other highlights include the hopeful, Angie Stone assisted “Black Magic”, the melodic paper chase “Can I get Paid” and “Listen”, the fifth or sixth excellent beat “Love and Happiness” has yielded, serving as a predecessor to Jadakiss’ “Why?”

On “Nobody Believes Me” DJ Shok contributes the album’s best production job. It’s a classic personification cut in which Styles converses with his knife, gun, weed and money en route to a homicide. D Block’s willingness to partake in early 90s semi-experimental east coast boom bap blended with their gangster inclinations results in a tongue in cheek, light hearted nature that rings truer then all the posturing of “We Are the Streets.” While Puffy’s influence on “MPR” was at times ill fitting, songs like these make me wonder what the Lox could’ve done under Puff’s continued tutelage. For all his TRL swagger, he’s never shied away from pushing his artists towards expanding their horizons and refusing to allow them to get too comfortable in any one arena. Sure, “If you think I’m jiggy” was a better suited for Ma$e, but “Bitches from Eastwick” was a certified classic.

And the true final track (“My Brother”) is the best song on the album. Styles interrupts what could be another ode to a dead homie to deliver an existential meditation on death and mortality, reflecting on the loss of his little brother Gary. It is here that Styles’ mastery as a lyricist is apparent, in recreating his grief for us he is able to nimbly jump between his physical reactions, questions regarding the interconnectedness of life and death, memories and dreams of his brother in heaven that blend seamlessly into his disarmingly upfront confession.

A strong spirituality runs through “G&G.” It serves as a kind of rationalization, a “Serenity Now” technique that allows Styles to look past the atrocities he’s forced to bear and imagine an idyllic spiritual realm mixed with Muslim terminology and Christian imagery in which all those who have passed on reunite again to rejoice and observe their loved ones below. On “My Brother”, in a close accounting of this imagined existence a sad desperation creeps into Styles voice, until by the conclusion you’re wondering if he’s trying to reassure us or himself that this is in fact the fate his brother has endured and we all have to look forward to. To me, this makes the song all the more potent and heart breaking.

Suffering from haphazard executive production decisions and some lackluster beats, “A Gangsta & A Gentleman” is not without its flaws. You’d have to believe it would have been better served at 16 tracks with less skits and a touch less “gangsta” than the whopping 24 it comes in at. However, there are few MCs who brought their struggle to the internal depths Styles reaches during moments on this album. He introduces a personal philosophy on the struggle of the street in “G&G”, one that takes a unique position between liberal societal plight and hard nosed personal responsibility. For Styles, the hardships in his past formed a cold nature within him, but it has not erased his humanity, and his album, his struggle, his life exists between these two poles. Styles is not a gangster, he is not a gentleman. He can be nothing but himself, and his ability to do that is what made this album special.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Live From the Bay: Kanye West Glows in the Dark

(*This Post has since been run at Oh Word in a slightly revised form)

To explain what it is I love about Kanye West I submit three tracks for your consideration. The first is “Cause I love you”, a wrought love letter that opens Lenny Williams’ 1978 classic “Spark of Love.” The second is “Nothin Like Home”, a Havoc produced cut off Mobb Deep’s 2001 release Infamy which samples “Cause I love you.” Havoc takes the catchy string arrangement, speeds it up and keeps a chorus of ooohs and aaaaahs on a loop. The song is probably my favorite off the album, a shining example of Mobb at their best post-Hell On Earth and a great Hav beat. The final track is Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity.” From the opening, rich orchestral crescendo it’s clear you’re going to be getting something very different. As Twista gets himself pumped up Kanye brings in Lenny’s most impassioned moment of the song, ushering in mood setting excitement, and then the hook begins, in which West speeds up a sample of Williams’ introduction up to the portion where he holds the I in “you know I love you”. It all sounds very technical but you, along with a majority of the teenagers in the United States know exactly what I’m talking about.

I could go on, the gorgeous piano loop, the double timed bongos, the infectious knuckle crack wood block, Hip Hop Violinist Miri Ben Ari, but the point is that the contrast explains Kanye’s success in a nutshell: He is simply going to work harder than anyone else to put out the best product on the market. While in the past Hip Hop has valued the natural born talent who makes it look easy, (See: Biggie and Jay) this decade has arguably belonged to Rapaholics like studio rat Lil Wayne and Kanye’s uncompromising perfectionism. From diction and delivery to his music videos to his beats, no aspect of this man’s career has been overlooked or slept on. Mr. West is turning himself into a brand, when you hear it attached to anything you can rely on him bringing the same relentless drive he brings to everything else.

On April 19th, Kanye brought his work ethic to San Jose’s HP Pavillion, which for one night was transformed from a hockey arena into a Church of Scientology. Featuring a laughably absurd premise, the show’s minister is Kanye in a post apocalyptic Mad Max get up, a talking spaceship that suspiciously sounds a lot like the automated female narrator from “Midnight Marauders”, a life sized, naked, talking Barbie doll, fire, smoke, a cotton candy lightshow and special effects worthy of Industrial Light & Magic. The stage is meant to simulate the barren face of a foreign planet and features a hydraulic screen at its center. A live band is playing in an orchestra pit beneath.

The Show itself is a tight efficient Kanye West highlight reel featuring several reinterpretations with varying success. (A string heavy, stripped down “Heard em say” is strangely beautiful, a grinding, percussion heavy “Good Life” is not) Particularly effective is a three part group of backup singers who wail and riff on several of Mr. West’s chorus’, giving them new life. Most striking was the use of thundering tympanis to accentuate bass and Mr. West’s punchlines. Kanye featured more call and response than I had ever seen before at a Hip Hop show. This drove home the point that Kanye was able to do this, as in rely on audience participation and pack the arena in the first place, thanks to his inescapable punchlines and hooks that have a way of sticking to your brain. The one place the show was a disappointment was the complete lack of guest appearances, which I suppose in many ways was fitting.

As a performer I was impressed. The last time I saw Kanye was six years ago promoting College Dropout at the University of Maryland, he stumbled over his lines and spent most of the show out of breath. By the third song this evening he looked like Patrick Ewing in overtime, but endured with an Iverson like stamina. (Save a bizarre interlude in which he sits off to the side of the stage and drinks from a canteen while “Don’t Stop Believing” is blasted over the loud speaker. The entire crowd of 80s and 90s babies participated in a sing along which was kind of great, I shit you not) His breath control was impeccable and his enthusiasm was electric. He would get carried away in the moment and sing his own chorus’ off key with goofy yet endearing results and occasionally let out energy in the form of an awkward hop skip across the stage best described as a cross between a crip walk and goose step.

West did a majority Graduation, an album described as arena rap which appropriately translated quite well to an arena. One glaring absence was “Big Brother”, his conflicted tribute to mentor Jay-Z. Perhaps this was a statement. It would appear Mr. West has begun taking cues from another significant artist. At 24, I was the oldest person I saw in the arena not showing people to their seats or selling shit. His outlandish stage show, art house music videos, meticulous preparation and grandiose vision all smack of vintage Mike. Many of Kanye’s detractors disdainfully view his work as more Pop than Hip Hop, a label I’ve always taken knee jerk exception to. On this evening I saw the merit in their insight, and just maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

“Shine a Light”, Martin Scorsese’s concert documentary on the Rolling Stones currently in theaters follows the band performing a two night event in New York in a rare smallish venue. Over the past several decades the Stones have made themselves rich icons as their aging, affluent fan base has continued to shell out increasingly exorbitant sums to watch them perform in packed stadiums. Their children have joined the crush, equally eager to shed allowance and join the spectacle, buying 12$ cocktails and 40$ t shirts to be able to say they saw legends before they hung it up. As I watched Kanye West live, and marveled at his sheer scale and precision, what was truly amazing is that no one had taken this approach to Hip Hop performance yet. I got the feeling that what I was watching was the shape of things to come.