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Who Is the Best Member of the Lox?

Do you ride for Styles P, Jadakiss, or Sheek Louch? Two writers discuss.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s a classic barbershop argument from the late ’90s: Who’s the best member of the Lox? And by that we mean, with apologies to Sheek Louch: Who’s the better rapper, Jadakiss or Styles P?

Last week, the veteran trio released their third studio album, Filthy America… It’s Beautiful. To mark the occasion, Justin Charity and I dusted off ye olde Lox debate to see if we could arrive at a definitive answer to the question. (Unlike The Great J.Cole Debate, which will never, ever end.)

Kiss or Styles, who’s your pick? Let’s dig in. — Donnie Kwak

Justin Charity: I guess we should start by addressing why you and I have chosen to argue about the musical supremacy of Jadakiss and Styles P at the expense of Sheek Louch. Especially considering that the original state of the Lox — which released music as the Bomb Squad in the early 1990s — was just Jadakiss and Sheek, with Styles joining later.

So why are we sleeping on Sheek? I’d argue he’s just too subdued on record and in public life, at least compared to Kiss and Styles.

Donnie Kwak: We don’t talk about Sheek Louch like we do Jada and Styles in the same way we don’t talk about Chris Bosh like we do LeBron and D-Wade. Sheek is unquestionably a solid MC and a good complement to his fellow members. He’s even capable of outshining them occasionally, like on this memorable mixtape verse. But in totality — from his Lox work, to his guest features, to his solo albums — he’s simply not in their class. His voice just isn’t distinctive enough. But there’s no shame in being Chris Bosh.

Charity: Overall, I think a lot of millennial rap fans might balk at your placing the Lox at the level of the Miami Heat. Which is something I’ve noticed as I was trying to gauge online interest in the new Lox album that dropped Friday: Gen X rap fans recall the Lox fondly, but younger fans — people who’d claim stronger generational attachment to "We Gonna Make It" than to "It’s All About the Benjamins" — might remember the Lox as a weight class below contemporary NYC street-rap groups such as Mobb Deep or the Diplomats.

Kwak: First things first, now and forever: Fuck millennial rap fans. We’ll ask for their opinion when we do a debate post on which baby rapper’s hairstyle is "more lit." (Funnily enough, I was going to say earlier that Sheek was the Ron Harper or Toni Kukoc of the Lox; I went with the Heat analogy to dumb it down for the young’uns.)

In all seriousness, what you’re saying about the Lox ranking below Mobb Deep or the Diplomats is somewhat accurate. But there’s an important distinction to be made here. Mobb encapsulated a specific milieu; Dipset was a viral "movement." The Lox, however, have always been strictly known for BARS, all caps. They’re three stocky dudes from friggin’ Yonkers, for chrissakes. Bars was all they had. Before the Lox signed with Puff or even had a music video, mixtape DJs bootlegged "Best of Lox" compilations on the sheer strength of their freestyles.

So, now that Sheek is officially out of this convo: Who do you got, Jadakiss or Styles?

Charity: Jadakiss is the louder guy with the more distinct vocal rasp — that signature scratchiness that makes anything he says sound like the coarsest possible insight — but Styles has always been the more interesting musician on a few levels. He makes better songs. He makes weirder songs. His best bars are hotter; his verse on Jay Z’s "Reservoir Dogs" is some of the most focused, lucid rapping I’ve heard in my life. I actually have a hard time understanding how, exactly, Jadakiss came to assume his unofficial distinction as team captain of the Lox. It’s not like it comes on the strength of any classic solo albums or overwhelming technical superiority, or anything like that. Is it just a personality thing? Help me out here.

Jadakiss and Styles, circa 2005 (Getty Images)
Jadakiss and Styles, circa 2005 (Getty Images)

Kwak: Like Guru once said (millennials: he’s the late frontman of the rap group Gang Starr), it’s mostly the voice (Hard to Earn, Track 15). Kiss was blessed with an amazing vocal instrument — gravelly and rich in timbre, equal parts blunt and Hennessey, expressive and understated. His best lines are both menacing and mischievous: "Probably think I won’t murder you the way I smile / But I’mma take a lotta shots, A.I. style." Even when he’s threatening you, his lyrics belie the audible smirk in his voice.

All that, plus he made the best rap ad-lib of all time.

Charity: You’re hitting an important point here: The Lox are the rare Gen X rap group that you really do have to experience through freestyles, mixtapes, rare cuts, and guest verses in order to really get them. No one is opening with "If You Think I’m Jiggy," "Wild Out," or Jadakiss’s solo albums as the crowning realizations of the Lox’s greatness. Instead, I think of Jadakiss eviscerating 50 Cent over a spare Alchemist beat or any number of Styles P freestyle blitzes on which he’s rapping about ballistic trauma and jail. As old as these guys are, YouTube is surprisingly crucial to their legacy insomuch as it hosts their countless freestyle mixes and classic radio interviews; stuff you’re obviously not gonna find on Spotify, Apple Music, the iTunes Store, etc.

Once you start perusing the archives, it quickly becomes apparent that Styles has the greater share of classic material, if only because he’s been the most prolific member of the Lox for the group’s life span. Jadakiss peaked in 2004, and he released little to no great material beyond that nice, short run of hit singles ("Why?," "U Make Me Wanna"). Meanwhile, Styles P spent a few years building a great mixtape legacy for himself, including all the Ghost tapes and his freestyle compilations, maturing somewhat unexpectedly into his new life as a New York juice mogul. What a run. On songs, Styles and Kiss are both hotheads. But where Kiss is more sardonic and conniving, Styles is this embattled wiseman cursed with flashbacks and nostalgia that actually sound more like a war veteran’s laments. He’s less immediately charming, but he more than makes up for it with an abundance of quirk and stamina that your boy Kiss just cannot match, especially once you concede that his big Hot 100 hits, which would supposedly justify his superiority over Styles, all kinda suck. They’re no "Good Times," that’s for sure.

Kwak: Look, both of these guys have spent nearly two decades in the rap game, piling up freestyles and features and solo albums (of the latter, incidentally, Jada’s are clearly, undeniably better). It’d be futile to even attempt to go line for line or song for song (though Jada’s had six Billboard hits to Styles’s one, and his solo records on the Lox albums are unfuckwittable). Each has made big, impactful records of his own (we’ll note here that "We Gonna Make It" is a Jadakiss song), and together, they’ve memorably traded bars on other rappers’ classics (e.g. N.O.R.E.’s "Banned From TV," on which Jada warns he’ll "bust off and sit the hot barrel dead on your lips." Ayo!). Neither MC sucks, or even comes close to it. This argument is about 1A and 1B — and to that end, it’s about styles (no pun intended), not stats.

I’ve embedded the seemingly random video above because (1) it’s funny as fuck and I’ve watched it a half-dozen times, but, more importantly, (2) it exemplifies the differences between Jada and Styles as personalities — and, furthermore, as rappers. In the 2012 clip, the two Lox members are embroiled in their own debate: Which strain of weed is better, haze or sour? Jada is typically witty and charismatic. "That right there," he says, pointing to Styles’s bag of sour, "is giving you the medicine-ball head. Before evening time." Styles’s reply? Essentially: Fuck haze, I just want to get super high. Which, fair enough. In fact, his deadpan, humorless replies to Jada’s punch lines are what makes them so effective as a duo. But it also reveals Styles’s limitations as an artist.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Styles has one tool. His signature line to me will always be: "I don’t give a fuck who you are / So fuck who you are," from the aforementioned "Reservoir Dogs." It’s blunt-force-trauma rap, purposefully ignorant and over the top. There’s room for it to exist, of course. But if Styles is the Hulk, then Jada will always be Spider-Man — simply a more interesting, dynamic character. With less potent weed.

Charity: Not all of Styles’s songs are blunt-force-trauma bars, though — just like not all of Jadakiss’s solo singles are insipid R&B crossovers! I don’t know how anyone could listen to "The Life" and then entertain the notion that Styles is a one-note, lughead rapper. Spiritually, he’s Beanie Sigel’s cousin from out of town.

It’s funny that you mention humor and charm. Since you bashed millennial rap fans up top, I will now — in true millennial fashion — turn your attention to Styles’s Twitter feed, a font of bizarre tidbits of the rapper’s personal life and his frankly fascinating subconscious. Here’s an instant-classic parable about a skunk fighting a possum. I don’t mean to overstate the importance of Twitter to a Gen X rapper’s legacy. But I do think Styles’s real-time, oddball stream of consciousness is further ammo against your suggestion that Styles is too simplistic and Spartan for his own good. It was arguably true earlier in his career, when he generally seemed like the shy guy of the Lox. At this point, though, I think Styles — much like N.O.R.E. — has aged into a more holistic zone, creatively and otherwise.

Which reminds me: The hardest rap duo of all time, at least in my mind, personally, tonight, as we write this, is Styles and N.O.R.E. on "Come Thru," off the second Violator album. Talk about hardbody.

Kwak: It’s a dope tune, fully agreed, but N.O.R.E. has the better lines on it. And in regards to all the extracurriculars: Hey, great Twitter feed. He’s still not a better rapper than Jadakiss. I said before that it wouldn’t make sense to pit Kiss and Styles against each other song for song — but I lied. I present the following five Jada verses:

There is no way in hell you can conjure up five non-Lox Styles P verses as legendary as those. And, as a bonus, I’ll throw in this Kiss freestyle, which he later recycled for what is still the best BET Cypher ever. His famous "top five, dead or alive" line was only barely hyperbole. It’s why he’s been enlisted to collaborate with so many icons. (Jada spits hotter on sneaker commercials than your boy does on his solo albums.) Styles remains tenable only in smaller doses. Take Jada’s "Kiss of Death," for example: fire bars from Kiss from beginning to end, Styles bludgeoning those nails on the chorus.

Justin, why did Bush knock down the towers? And, by the way: Did you listen to the new Lox album yet?

Charity: I’ll say this much — I listened to the new Lox album before I bothered to hear the new Cudi album, the new Ab-Soul album, and every other young-blood project that dropped last week. And I did not enjoy it at all. It’s very, very ’00s, but, like, in a way that reminds me of GZA’s flinty, synthy Pro Tools album more than anything else. It sounds somehow older than the whole D-Block era of the Lox, which — apart from dozens of great Alchemist and Green Lantern collaborations — gave us peak beef and video footage of disgruntled member J-Hood dragging his chain on project concrete after he excused himself from the group in 2007. With production from Dame Grease, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock, Filthy America… It’s Beautiful somehow sounds older than all of that ancient history. I’ve moved on from it pretty quickly.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. I profiled Taxstone a couple of months ago, and — since you edited the piece — you’ll recall that I closed the story with lyrics that Tax repeated several times over the course of our interviews together. It was a choice bit of Styles P’s verse from DMX’s "Niggaz Done Started Something":

A small dose will still kill you.

Kwak: You won’t ever hear me call Styles wack. (Same song, though, from Jada: "My 16s be so real / You can feel ’em in your vein like Roemello’s pops from Sugar Hill.") It’s no wonder an aggressive loudmouth like Tax would religiously quote Styles. He raps for people who escalate road rage and talk tough to bouncers. As an old college professor used to write atop my term papers: "It’s good as far as it goes."

The new Lox album? The less said, the better. From beats to skits to concepts, it’s anachronistic in a defiantly un-self-aware way. A bit painful, to be honest. I won’t be revisiting it often.

That said, even on this, every time Jada clears his throat, he has my full attention.