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.

4 comments: said...

Great piece Abe.

I came onto the Styles P bandwagon late (probably '05-'06). I agree that his biggest crime is sometimes too much music, not enough quality control, from his LPs to his mixtapes.

What are you thoughts on "Super Gangster, Extraordinary Gentleman"?

Abe Beame said...

The snippets I heard don't compare. Styles is a lethal guest but honestly his last solid album in my opinion was his damn near classic Ghost in the Machine mixtape said...

I liked it pretty much for something to rock in the whip for a week then forget about for a year. I have to take a shower in holy water after listening to Styles' mixtapes--it's usually 25-30 songs straight of death threats, beatdowns, and gangsta shit. As much as I love his voice, flow, and I guess "cerebral" approach to street hop, it wears me out after a while.

And "Time is Money" should've stayed shelfed, so "Super Gangster" is a serious upgrade by default.

Abe Beame said...

Ghost in the Machine is so fucking solid. Styles basically explains his whole style in 4 lines on Ghost P: "I aint tryin to hear shit but I need too/I'm thugged out but I motherfuckin read too/I'm conscious but I like to blow weed too/So I'm complex, I'm on the armrest, life ain't right yet" That's straight memory to give you an indication of how much I burned that shit when it dropped 2 years ago. Not exactly G Unit Radio 9. Maybe my favorite mixtape of all time besides Mood Muzik 2