Back in 1997, you could excuse the members of the LOX for sounding like Biggie clones. After all, the Yonkers, N.Y., trio got its first major exposure on the last real album the Notorious B.I.G. recorded, Life After Death. In those days, Biggie was God, so the fact that the LOX’s Life After Death cameo, “Last Day,” was a so-so bit of filler didn’t really matter. It was the group’s first-ever cameo, and it was on a Biggie record, so it was forgivable. What’s less forgivable is that, five years later, the guys in the LOX, like damn near every rapper the hiphop industry produces, still sound like Biggie.

Styles is the second member of the LOX to release a solo album, and A Gangster and a Gentleman is everything you would expect from a mainstream MC. Replete with tales of materialism and murder and a bevy of beats that could have been assembled by androids, Styles’ debut is canned hiphop at its best. Or its worst—depending, of course, on how forgiving you are.

It’s not that Styles is without talent. His calm, straightforward flow is in the tradition of Rakim and EPMD, and it plays well off his outlandish braggadocio. A very effective rap technique, it’s comparable to being able to lie with a straight face. Most successful rappers are able to make pipe dreams seem as real as rent, and Styles’ deadpan vocals go a long way toward making him sound sincere. When he suggests on “I’m a Ruffryder” that “the sickest niggas out is the bitchest niggas out/And I could take ’em on the street or straight whip ’em in they house,” it’s with such matter-of-fact dispassion that you almost believe him. Almost.

But despite possessing the potential to be more than just a decent rapper, Styles is surprisingly unschooled in the science of MCing. Guru’s suggestion aside, a great MC is more than a voice. The truly gifted rapper is able to make his own overblown hype sound more than almost believable. Think Rakim on “Follow the Leader,” telling his competition, “I’m everlastin’, I can go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave deep as X-rays/I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, flip it/Now it’s a daily word.”

Sadly, comparisons between Styles and Rakim begin and end with the voice. Styles seems incapable of investing his boasts with the realism they require. Instead, he glumly states his case and dares you to disagree. On the Swizz Beatz-produced “Yall Know We in Here,” he asserts, “It don’t matter who you are/Or what you say/Ain’t no rapper you name fuckin’ wit’ Styles.” Later in the song, he tells his competition, “I’m-a kill 100 niggas/Right in front of niggas.” Later still, on “Get Paid,” Styles tells his audience, “I’m pickin’ up my automatics, automatically/I got a bad habit, makin’ people mad at me.” Right. In Styles’ world, the Earth is flat, if only because he says so.

Ultimately, Styles’ lack of technique only serves to highlight his lack of content. Gangster exposes Styles as a man with few things to say and even fewer ways to say them. Like most MCs, he revels in tales of stacks, gats, and murdered blacks. But unlike, say, a Jay-Z or a Mobb Deep, Styles can’t mask his banal subject matter with stunning wordplay. About 10 songs into Gangster, you start getting the feeling that you’ve heard this album before, especially when listening to tracks such as “We Thugs (My Niggas),” which is even more cliched than its title suggests: “We ghetto, my niggas…” Styles raps on the chorus. “We gangsta, my niggas/You oughta keep your mouth shut/Watch what you sayin’, ’cause we shank you, my niggas/We D-Block niggas/We don’t play games, we just hit you in your frame, ’cause we pop niggas.”

“Good Times,” an ode to marijuana and the first single off Gangster, is classic Styles: banal subject matter and vanilla presentation. Bragging about addiction is old in hiphop, and it’s been perfected by groups like Tha Alkaholiks. But Styles lacks the dark humor of his West Coast counterparts, earnestly delivering lines such as “A-yo, I smoke like a chimney/Matta fact, I smoke like a gun/When a killer see his enemy/I smoke like Bob Marley did/Add to that, that I smoke like the hippies did/Back in the ’70s…/I get high like the birds and the planes.”

Improbably, the production on Gangster goes further than the MCing. OutKast this ain’t, but within the world of commercial hiphop, the beats are fairly impressive. “Good Times” is actually a smooth track, featuring pulsing keys and distorted vocals. The title song features a nicely quavering synthesizer, and Angie Stone throws in a decent cameo on “Black Magic,” as well as on the album’s standout cut, “The Life,” previously released on Soundbombing III. But at the end of the day, the centerpiece of any rap album is its featured artist. With the possible exception of DJ Premier, no producer can overcome a lackluster performance by the album’s chief rocker.

It is really hard to see how Gangster would have been any better, however. The music industry has always known that something doesn’t have to good to be profitable, so the incentive for mainstream hiphop to improve is small. The days when whack rappers were eventually called out by the music-listening public are long gone. And so, it seems, are the days when someone named Styles would have to prove he actually has one of his own. CP