[25 March 2008]
Super Gangster (Extraordinary Gentleman) is a really silly name for an album. Not only does it conjure up ridiculous images of the perpetually sleepy-looking Styles P in a Superman costume (he could even keep the S) or with his head Photoshopped onto Luke Wilson’s body for a parody version of “My Superhero Ex-Girlfriend”, but it also reeks of the type of ridiculous rap-sheet one-upsmanship that isn’t necessarily a problem in rap, but which leads to things like Dem Franchize Boyz releasing a single where they threaten to stab you if you question whether or not they actually deal coke.
But the funny thing is, Super Gangster (Extraordinary Gentleman) is kind of a fitting name for Styles P’s third album. Not because Styles explicitly portrays himself as an indestructible, Tony Montana, top-of-the-world kingpin type character, like say, Rick Ross, but because it’s reflected in SG(EG)’s music. A Montana comparison might be wrong, actually, as the album reflects the type of archetypal gangster more akin to Tony Soprano—a don who has dudes do the dirty work for him, but who won’t hesitate to step away from dinner at a nice restaurant to break your kneecap while still wearing a $3,000 custom suit.
The album’s first half has an almost stately feel. Its beats are dark (I couldn’t imagine listening to this in the sunshine) but golden, with the dim glow of an empty street lit by flickering lamps. It’s mostly due to his producers’ reliance on grand piano: not only does it cultivate an aesthetic, but it also elevates the album’s class. That isn’t to say that classy equals better (it doesn’t), just that it seems that Styles aims for his album to sound like it should be coming from speakers in a tiled penthouse, and he succeeds.
Swizz Beatz, a great producer, but not one anyone would describe as subtle, manages to reign in his rambunctiousness for the album’s first single, “Blow Your Mind,” rearing his stuttering drums into exclamation points that punch through the jazz piano like firecrackers. Next track “Let’s Go” eschews piano for an itchy guitar sample and synths that blow through like wind gusts. The song feels no less imperial, though its biggest accomplishment is wrenching a listenable hook out of the wretched Ray J. Piano is in order for tracks four through seven, and though both the beats and Styles’ threats get rougher as the album progresses (the sickly coo backing the Ghostface-assisted “Star of the State” is especially ominous), the album still feels like it could soundtrack The Godfather and not make it feel any grittier.
So the beats are relatively gentlemanly (not in a bad way), but Styles purposefully belies the notion that he is a “super gangster”. “Alone in the Street” follows a song about weed and one about Caribbean parties, and it’s a stop-in-your-tracks type thing. On the first verse, a paranoid Styles questions his chosen profession (“I should have been an author or something / Disappear like Hoffa or something / Came back when they offer me something), which life he is living (“Could this be my last life? / Maybe my past life?”), and sheds light on his seemingly unsettling existence (“Headaches why I be meditating / Thoughts is devastating”). The disembodied sample looping the song’s title during the chorus is less unsettling than Styles himself: “One, two, three, four, five o’ clock in the morning, you know I’m trying to see more / All day, all night, you know I’ma be alright” goes his part of the hook.
Things remain in a state of disquiet from there on. On “In It to Win It”, he remembers “cereal boxes with roaches in ‘em” and “being homeless, cold and shivering”. On “Got My Eyes on You”, he lets regret over hood violence creep in (“Another one off in a wood box / Had to get revenge cause that’s how the hood rock / Might’ve been different if he had a good pops / The war go on everyday but it should stop”), and “All I Know is Pain” should be self-explanatory.
It gets tiring, though. Styles, as he always has, sounds weary and world-beaten. If the album isn’t depressed, it’s at the very least depressing. Things get moving, though, on the album’s back half when the guests show up. The D-Block group cut “Gangster, Gangster” is the best song on the whole album, with Jadakiss in tip-top shape, Sheek Louch genuinely sounding enthused to be spitting a verse people might hear, and an exquisite beat that could pass for an Amy Winehouse song.
Back to the super gangster thing, though. The dichotomy between lyrical content and beat theme is interesting because it’s clearly meant as escapism. One would assume it would be meant as escapism for the listener, with Styles letting us into his lavish world for an hour or so. But as you listen to Styles rap, that’s clearly not the case. It’s just as much escapism for us as it is for him. On “Blow My Mind”—the song about leaving the world behind and getting high—he says, “I have dreams of Amsterdam every night or two”. Even when he’s escaping, he’s thinking about escaping.