Tuesday, May 6, 2014

album review: 'phantom and the ghost' by styles p

So I'll be the first to admit that as much I've learned about hip-hop over the course of the past several months of reviewing albums, I still have a ton to learn and explore, especially in the underground. Now thanks to the Internet, we probably live in the easiest time to get access to underground hip-hop, but at the same time, it also means my backlog has started to reach startling levels. And thus, given my own preferences, I tend to keep my eyes open for underground MCs that catch my eye based on my own preferences in rap music - a smarter, lyrical focus, real charisma, and the ability to talk about other concepts than standard gangsta rap.

So it wasn't long for Styles P popped up on my radar. Now I remember him a little bit from the charts in the late 90s and early 2000s, mostly due to his affiliation with The LOX, a rap group I mostly like but don't love. Now granted, my ambivalent feelings towards The LOX mostly extend to frustrations I have with Jadakiss, but that's a whole other issue - to me, Styles P was the least direct and outwardly aggressive of the trio, which I found interesting. Most recently, he dropped a verse on 'No Hesitation', a track from the Alchemist & Evidence collaboration project Lord Steppington - and I'll be blunt, it's probably my favourite song from that album. His flow and wordplay have only improved, as has his stage presence, so I made a point to look up his new album Phantom And The Ghost, which was getting positive buzz for being a more thoughtful gangsta rap record. So, how was it?

Eh, it's pretty solid. If you're looking for a fresh fix of good gangsta rap, Styles P delivers well with this record. I wouldn't say it's anywhere close to the best gangsta rap album I've heard this year, but it's by no means the worst and has a lot of elements that set it above most gangsta rap you'd hear in the mainstream, even if it does render the album a little old-fashioned, albeit in a good way.

Let's start with Styles P himself - and I'll say this, he's only gotten better as a rapper over the past decade. His flow and meter can still get a little jerky at points, but his rhymes tend to be solid and he's got a fair amount of stage presence. I won't say he's the most dynamic or expressive rapper or has the most charisma - when Sheek Louch and Chris Rivers show up they both stand out a little more than him - but with a knack for more clever wordplay and a complete disdain for the cash and sex jams that tend to dominate mainstream rap, he does stand out. And he did manage to surprise me by handily outstripping Jadakiss and Rocko on their track 'Sour', and while it's one of the weaker tracks on the album, Styles P's verse doesn't disappoint.

So what about content? Well, like Schoolboy Q and Freddie Gibbs, Styles P is playing the whole 'thug with a conscience' angle, and he's not bad at it. What sticks out about Styles P - bizarrely - is his sense of old-school honour. He might rap about hustling drugs and knocking off his rivals, but his real disdain is marked for guys who abandon their crews for easy luxury rap or betray their loyalties. That camaraderie, plus well-balanced contemplation regarding death, religion, his legacy to his son, and the hard fact that he grew up with people who he now has to target, adds a real grounded feel and nuance to the Mafia-esque story here in a way Rick Ross could never achieve. All of this is balanced with plenty of weed rap, but to his credit, Styles P spends most of this time searching for some form of transcendence or to communicate with a higher power, which manifests best in probably my favourite song 'Other Side', a song about the members of his crew who passed away who he's trying to connect with through mind-expanding drugs. I won't say it's an in-depth examination of spirituality or anything from a gangsta rap point-of-view, but it was a welcome change and it added some distinctive flavour.

The other element I did like that added a fair bit of flavour was the instrumentation and production, which tended to focus more on subtle, ominous piano or keyboards melodies with only hints of more processed synths. The melodic focus definitely helps more songs stand out, although throughout the earlier tracks of the album, you do start to wish there was a little more instrumental diversity. This pays off most with the addition of guitar in 'Other Side' and the ominous twang of 'For The Best'. If I were to criticize the production, it'd be in one of two areas, the first being the somewhat lackluster beats and percussion - it's not bad but it's nothing special - and the second being in the clear songs for radio promotion, 'Sour' and 'We Gettin'. The beats and production on these songs are oily and in contrast to the chilling piano and keyboard riffs that populate the rest of this album, they don't feel as cohesive with Styles P's style as a more old-school gangster. This is honestly where I feel Styles P stands out the most - he's not as concerned with the debauchery and wealth and women or hollow displays of masculinity and instead has a bit of a more refined sensibility that he mostly plays low-key. Which, honestly, I really liked - it showed a degree of class you don't often see in gangsta rap and that was a welcome change.

So in the end, I'll recommend Phantom and the Ghost by Styles P. It's a defiantly old-school slice of gangsta rap, especially in its content, but it's well-presented enough to earn it and it never feels like a throwback. For me, it was a solid, enjoyable listen and gets a 7/10. And while I'm fairly certain the presentation on this album won't make a comeback in the mainstream any time soon, it'd be nice to see some of the class and nuance Styles P puts on display return to the spotlight.

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