Jadakiss has been vying for the undisputed hip-hop championship since 1998, when he and his longsuffering colleagues Styles P and Sheek Louch released their debut, Money Power & Respect, on the label that B.I.G. built. Frustrated by Bad Boy's increasingly glossy imperative, the (war)Lox launched a successful grassroots campaign for their freedom. A quick initiation into the Ruff Ryder brotherhood shored up their eroding street cred, while their D-Block affiliation further corroborated their commitment to street life and the incarcerated fate it anticipates. But Jadakiss has always ridden the prison fence, spitting intermittently about kilos and Cristal, love and lust, infamy and integrity.
Jada's solo debut, 2001's Kiss the Game Goodbye, appealed to everyone's bottle poppin' side with the summertime smash "Knock Yourself Out" and grimy grindin' side with the street mantra "We Gonna Make It." But still the album underachieved. Fresh from about a million guest verses, Jadakiss's follow-up, Kiss of Death, promised to be the soundtrack to Jada's overdue coronation.
"Why?," Jada's adroit inquiry into Hollywood's persistent racism, pushing weight, the prison industrial complex, riding spinners and other things that make him go "hmm," demonstrated a topical variety seldom seen in the segregated shelves of hip-hop. But awkward, tired and uninspired contributions by the Neptunes ("Hot Sauce to Go"), Kanye West ("Getting it In"), and Eminem ("Welcome to D-Block") make a strong case that the album should be Jadakiss's much needed swan song.
High-profile Ruff Ryder beat technician Swizz Beatz doesn't escape unscathed. His sole offering, "Real Hip-Hop," evokes late-'90s DMX. The intensity of Sheek Louch's guest verse is illogically equaled to in the confidence of its delivery proving once and for all he is the Lox's version of recalcitrant Fugees' underachiever Pras. Butt-stabbing Lox member Styles P does duty on one of the six songs that save Kiss of Death from the bargain bin.
The title track almost erases Kiss of Death's extensive transgressions. Red Spyda's spare stutter-stop snares and growling synths lay the foundation for Jada's aural attack. Throwing caution and commercial demands to the wind, Jada delivers a series of one-liners you'll wish you'd said. The metaphorically gifted one testifies to his viciousness, "I Head crack so much it's hard to ace," and lyrical prowess, "I ain't gotta spit I could cough and still eat ya," in a track that will rock tape-decks, CD players, iPods.
"By Your Side" and "Bring You Down" are also timeless. On the latter, the raspy rapper declares he's on "top of the food chain" in the first line before later confessing, "Right now, I'm on the ladder." A few rungs from the top can be the most psychologically crushing position. Stardom lies but an arm's length out of reach; the dark depths of obscurity lurk one slight misstep away. Climbing on the come-up has visibly shaken this confessed "Gemini nigga with mood swings." The real Jada, the Renaissance man with street cred, too often falls back in favor of the schizophrenic, demographic-pleasing Jada. Kiss of Death's multiple lyrical personalities and humdrum hodgepodge of brand-name beats may keep fans, the history books and that gilded crown at bay.