In the early 1990s, New York City singlehandedly crafted a sound that turned hip-hop ó which had by then become the extreme pop music embodied by MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and Tone Loc among others ó on its ear. From every borough, a new griminess emerged: Onyx from Queens, Wu-Tang Clan from Staten Island, Black Moon and the Boot Camp Clik from Brooklyn. These groups promised authenticity in the face of dilution, but what they really proposed was an altogether new æsthetic: hip-hop as thug pose. There had been gangster rappers before ó LA had been grooming them for years, and late-í80s NYC and Philly legends from Schoolly D to Kool G Rap indulged in their share of violence. But the early-í90s movement wasnít concerned with hustling as a means to success. Its adherents loved the íhood, and they wanted to stay there.
Within two years Biggie Smalls, with the production assistance of Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, had spurred rapís evolution even farther. His street tales were gritty, in keeping with the times, but he wasnít afraid of being nouveau riche; he sipped champagne in his very first video. Thanks to the crossover moves of Hammer et al., Biggie had a greater shot at fame than, say, Big Daddy Kane. And so, just as quickly as the streets took hold, they lost their grip, seemingly never to recover. Now that R&B and hip-hop have fused, giving the former much-needed cred and the latter an audience not limited to posturing dudes, the unreconstructed thug is as much an anachronism as the politically conscious rapper in the major-label system.
To his credit, then, the LOXís Styles has made a solo album redolent of the era before Biggie Smalls, a time when the LOX were just nogoodniks on the streets of Yonkers ó small-time hustlers probably sticking up their noses at Puffyís early work. Of course, it was Puff who brought them into the game, after fellow Yonkerite Mary J. Blige passed him a LOX tape. The trio may have worn suits, but they never seemed fully at home on Bad Boy. And so they fled to the more rugged confines of the Ruff Ryders camp, whose people were also round-the-way folk from Yonkers, with an Interscope distribution deal and a catharsis superstar named DMX.
After the LOX had delivered a dutifully dirty album as a group, 2000ís We Are the Streets (Ruff Ryders/Interscope), the stage was set for the solo debut of Jadakiss, the crewís most distinctive MC. Kiss tha Game Goodbye (Ruff Ryders/Interscope, 2001) was a gold-selling success buoyed by the seductive Neptunes production of "Knock Yourself Out," a track aimed directly at the fairer sex. Coming out second, and benefitting from reduced expectations, Styles makes no such concessions. Indeed, thereís almost nothing on the new Gangster and a Gentleman (Ruff Ryders/Interscope), apart from lingo, to indicate that heís listened to any new hip-hop in 10 years. Heís still living the í92 dream, and heís delivered an album thick with íhood drama and gangsta melancholy.
What he does add to this blend is a profound grasp of human frailty. "Gotta pray for a better living," he raps on "Listen," "even though I think Iím better dying." Eulogizing his dead brother, as he does at the end, only makes him more certain of his own passing. Aggressively minimal production on "Lick Shots" and "And I Came To" renders them morose. On the title track, Styles answers an imagined inquiry into the roots of his hurt thus: "Iím leaving out a lot of shit, nigga, itís too real/My alcoholic background, the welfare motels/Abuse that I had to take, struggle that my moms went through/How the fuck Iím gonna bond with you?"
There are, perhaps, two songs on which Styles nods to the hip-hop world at large. "Daddy Get That Cash" features Lilí Mo in a Bonnie-and-Clyde set-up that sounds like a murderous take on Ja Ruleís recent duet with Charli Baltimore. And "Soul Clap" is Stylesís "dance-floor" song, with a hook that features the sound of a gun barrel cocking. Otherwise, itís as if Daddy-turned-Diddy had never existed, either in the career of the LOX or in the hip-hop world as a whole.
Indeed, the only Puff residue on this album is in the liner notes. Each song lists Justin Combs Publishing in the credits ó meaning that Diddy still sees money off every Styles album sold and every Styles song played on radio. (The same is true of Jadakissís solo debut and the LOXís most recent album.) Itís a cruel irony that this hip-hop classicist should see the fruits of his labors go into the pockets of the man who made his kind extinct a decade ago. But you wonít hear Styles complain. As he states on one of the albumís many skits, "Itís about being humble but at the same time letting niggas know whatís real."