Bub Styles: Outerwear SZN 3

As residential districts fall prey to Bloomberg-era economic policy, New Yorkers have watched their city become a parking lot for foreign capital, a disposable plaything for the millionaire class. Chinatown Sound, a video series from Brooklyn rapper Bub Styles, is a testament to the holdouts and leftovers. Each installment features a lone rapper rhyming a cappella on a sidewalk in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood. The format obviates the rap-battle element of most freestyle showcases, and the environs of downtown’s last ethnic enclave lend solemnity to the late-night setting. Styles spotlights a diverse range of performers—Black, Dominican, Nuyorican, and Jewish artists from across and beyond the five boroughs—yet their similarities are striking. In spite of varying backgrounds, they share many of the same mannerisms, intricate codes of regional speech and dress. As wordy and flamboyant as they are, the subtext speaks volumes: These are the last men standing.

“Imitation of the Rappers You Idolize,” the finale of Styles’ latest tape Outerwear SZN 3, reflects the Chinatown Sound ethic. Fellow Brooklynite ARXV raps the opening verse, his couplets like schoolyard taunts: “Y’all just imitations of the men you idolize/Rockin’ all that Gucci and Dior, but your attire lies.” He rhymes in full sentences, pausing haphazardly in the absence of sturdy percussion, the understated production accentuating his slang and inflection. Styles’ verse, on the other hand, is delivered in a primal roar: “I just popped two triple-stacks like they was Advils/Each meal that I ate this week equaled the weight of an anvil.” His vocals arrive with a subterranean rumble, like echoes from an abandoned IRT tunnel.

Outerwear SZN 3 is a leering triumph of tri-state genre work, its obligatory trafficking narratives embellished with a garish palette. On “Buckfast,” Styles contrasts designer labels and luxury cars with dollar-store squalor. “Smoke Box,” his portrait of a vindictive kingpin, concludes with the exhausted hustler ensconced in a 2006 Nissan Maxima, rolling up his own product. Wealth and seediness are collapsed in a collage of New Era fitteds, greasy deli meats, and paneled North Face jackets. If you can’t transcend your circumstances, you might as well cop new Foamposites.

It’s emblematic of Styles’ world-building that so many references—the brands, the jargon, the sneakers—are 20 or 30 years old. Yet Outerwear SZN 3 isn’t nostalgic so much as suggestive of an empire in decline. Styles meets his neighbors with hostile disdain (“Shit, I’ll poke a hole up in your diaphragm/Dog, it’s lookin’ like it’s only glizzy in your diet, man”); he boasts of a corpulent physique, proof positive of a self-made man. If his persona is larger than life—a street-corner dealer with Scarface ambitions, a loud mouth, and a brash wardrobe—it’s satire of the post-Nems, post-Action Bronson variety. However warped or attenuated, the Giuliani-era hallmarks endure as recognizable shorthand, and Styles translates them into a dour, grandiose lexicon.

The downtempo arrangements from Finn, Ace Fayce, and Revenxnt balance Styles’ menace with a more evocative elegance. His supervillain voice drapes heavy drums and sinister basslines on “Lights Out” and “Glockcoma,” whereas “Smoke Box” and “Cumbia in Cooley High” spell the aggression with resplendent jazz loops. Clocking in at just under 90 seconds, “Holiday” breaks the pace with a blistering double-time showcase. As Styles barrels through his verses, producer Brassxbeard switches out the instrumental layers, isolating the snarling vocals and centering Styles amidst the nervy production.

Outerwear SZN 3’s success lies in its interpretation of genre cornerstones, an insularity that borders on inscrutability. Yet even its hyperbolic elements—the pitbull brutishness, the grown-man pageantry—speak to a systemic winnowing of local lore. When a cultural capital is subsumed by speculators, when ornate masonry gives way to chintzy steel and fiberglass, survival becomes a matter of marking territory. Where operatic mid-’90s classics like Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth and Onyx’s All We Got Iz Us dramatized the lawlessness of precincts left to fend for themselves, Styles’ flashier oeuvre poses a follow-up question: What happens when a city decides to take back its streets?