Jadakiss rose to prominence as a casualty of the P.-Diddification of mainstream rap that followed Notorious B.I.G.'s death. Diddy snagged Jadakiss and his LOX cohorts to give the Bad Boy label street credibility, but the grimy gangsta rappers and the hip-hop mogul proved a poor fit. Following a long public campaign, Jada and LOX were finally released from Bad Boy, only to hook up with Ruff Ryders, where they were saddled with Swizz Beatz's unremarkable synthesizer calisthenics.

Jadakiss nevertheless developed a reputation as one of gangsta rap's greats, based largely on a series of stunning guest appearances and his remarkable voice—a smoked-out, world-weary rasp betraying a life filled with hard times and harder rhymes. Everyone from Bilal to Gang Starr to Ghostface has called on Jadakiss when in need of laid-back gangsta fatalism. But Jadakiss' own albums have been frustratingly inconsistent.

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Like his underwhelming debut, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, Kiss Of Death plays host to a staggering array of rappers and producers. Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, The Neptunes, Nate Dogg, and Mariah Carey all turn up, but Jadakiss retains control even as the album segues from G-funk to soul to pop to Neptunes-by-numbers to Eminem's gloomy synthesizer-gothic. On the anthemic single "Time's Up," Jadakiss provides an indelible description of his effortless flow when he rasps, "Fuck riding the beat, nigga, I parallel park on the track."

Part of what makes Jadakiss so compelling on Kiss Of Death is the contrast between his thugged-out drug-dealer bravado and his brutally pessimistic take on rap economics. Of course, by now it's a cliché that the rap game is—as B.I.G. himself noted—a lot like the crack game. But Jadakiss is particularly incisive about the plight of rappers who can sell half a million albums and still be in debt to their labels. He gives the impression that being a major-label rapper is, for all but the most popular artists, essentially a glamorous legal scam rigged to keep the rich rich and the poor struggling.

Kiss Of Death is uneven: Like Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, it suffers from an apparent desire to satisfy every demographic at once. But of all Jadakiss' albums, solo and with LOX, it comes closest to capturing the brilliance and intensity of his best guest turns. Jadakiss exudes stoic toughness, but he's the rare gangsta for whom being smart is just as important as being tough.

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