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The Champ Is Still Here: The Greatness of Jadakiss, the Gravel-Voiced King of N.Y.

Last week’s Verzuz between the Lox and Dipset crystalized what’s been true for two decades: On a bar-for-bar basis, Kiss remains virtually peerless

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A little over 20 years ago, Alchemist, the Beverly Hills–bred producer who at that point was best known for his work with Dilated Peoples and Mobb Deep, began chopping up the break that comes three and a half minutes into a Samuel Jonathan Johnson song from 1978. He didn’t think his flip was perfect: The handclaps he’d added weren’t exactly right. So when DJ Premier dropped by to hear what the younger producer was working on, Alchemist wasn’t sure how the legend would react. But when Preemo gave the beat his highest compliment—“Yeah, I can rap to this”—Alchemist knew it was time to shop it.

There was the time at Baseline when he played it for Jay-Z. There was the session where he actually tracked it for Nas, who was then working on the QB’s Finest compilation, and led Alchemist to believe it would be one of his solo songs on that record. (When the beat got passed to Millennium Thug, the producer backed out.) Ras Kass, who was working on what would have been his third album, the famously shelved Van Gogh, actually recorded to it. But when that LP got held up during the Priority-Capitol merger, Alchemist moved on—this led to a much-publicized feud between the two that was later papered over. There are innumerable versions of this story, where the beat eventually gets buried deep on an album by a rapper who has it foisted on them by an A&R, or another producer gets to the same sample while everyone is waiting around, shuffling buyout agreements. And yet this is one of those rare, serpentine industry tales where the beat ends up exactly where it should.

You’ll find people who argue for either Pac’s opening ad-lib or the beginning of his verse proper on “Hit ’Em Up”; there are those who might take Chuck D’s “I got a letter from the government, the other day” from “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” or even Pimp C’s “The game’s fucked up, I ain’t got no friends” from “Akickdoe!” There are throw pillows embroidered with “It was all a dream.” But the most unforgettable opening of a rap song ever committed to wax is on that Alchemist-produced song, Jadakiss’s “We Gonna Make It”:

“Fuck / the / frail shit.”

The first three words hit with the kick drums. From that point, the song never stands still—it has the breathless momentum of the fleeing friend Jada instructs, at the end of its first verse, to pass him a dirty gun. “We Gonna Make It” was the lead single from Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, the album that was supposed to isolate Jada as the breakout solo act from the Lox, the Yonkers, New York, trio he’d founded with his childhood friends Styles P and Sheek Louch. But the first two verses of “Make It” find Jada and P trading bars like always: about prototype Bugattis, about Cayman vacations, about the way Jada’s stash spot has the sort of security measures usually reserved for Scooby-Doo villain lairs (“My bathtub lift up, my walls do a 360 …”). It is, like the best Lox music, both absurd and not, its cocaine measured on “the scales that they weigh the whales with” and its motivational maxims totally sincere.

While “Make It” is staked largely on the chemistry between the two rappers, Styles P disappears for the song’s third verse. This is a necessity—Jada’s supposed to become the star—but it also serves the song. The third verse is where you hear cracks in his composure, his frustrations with enemies in New York and in the record industry bleeding through. (There’s even “You know dead rappers get better promotion,” a quip that, given Jada’s close relationship with Big, is in its way even more audacious than Jay’s “And if I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closest one” from the same year.) Jada is, as always, an inimitable vocalist, like if you put gravel and Giuliani-era law enforcement in a blender; hear the way “crack your back” and “manufacture crack” are made to sound purely percussive. But there’s only so much time for craft—he’s settling scores. “I’m the reason niggas got deals the last few years,” Jada raps toward the song’s end. “‘Sound anything like Kiss? Then sign right here!’”

Last week, a full two decades after “We Gonna Make It” dropped, Jada took over the W at Madison Square Garden during the Lox’s Verzuz battle with Dipset. Cam’ron et al. reached higher commercial heights—they seemingly ruled New York after 9/11—and have been memed to hell and back as relics of early–21st century rap. But the Lox, and Jada in particular, were better prepared for last week’s Verzuz, more engaged, and at times downright vicious. It was a rout, so much so that Jada’s streams have reportedly increased by 200 percent since the battle ended. And Kanye West, ensconced in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as he (allegedly) finishes his new album, immediately arranged for the Lox to fly to Atlanta to contribute.

It is strange that a rapper whose tastes and talents skew so anti-commercial is so defined by his relationship to the record industry. Jadakiss is a product of New York in the 1990s, of rap’s explosion as big business, of the sometimes irreconcilable tension between those two things. His reputation as a bar-for-bar rapper is virtually unquestioned, even among those who are unmoved by his studio releases. Trying to confine Jada’s talent to a single CD is like trying to carry water in your hands. This is perhaps why Verzuz was such a good format for him. When the experience of hearing rap songs is divorced from Billboard charts or R&B choruses, and returned to the realm of “Yeah? Well how about this …,” he is nearly peerless. But in many ways, it’s his uneasy navigation of the professional world that’s given his career shape, stakes, a constant foil.

Jada was so undeniable from the beginning that even the friends he dropped from his group felt obliged to help. He, Sheek, and Styles formed an early version of the Lox when they were still in high school. That iteration—the Bomb Squad—also featured a kid who happened to be cousins with Mary J. Blige. When the core trio had moved on and redubbed themselves the Warlox, they passed him their demo, and he handed it to Mary; before long, it was in Puff’s hands. The Bad Boy impresario made them drop the first half of their name and gave them a deal.

The Lox vaulted from Yonkers into the middle of New York rap’s second golden age, the youngest and meanest in a scene that was getting younger and meaner. (They cut their demo in a studio room next to the one Jay was using to make Reasonable Doubt, though Jada was born six years after Jay.) Puff put them on “It’s All About the Benjamins” and a remix of Mariah Carey’s “Honey”; they teamed with fellow Yonkers native DMX to steal Mase’s “24 Hrs. to Live.” Big had taken them under his wing and gave them a showcase song on his sophomore album. But things were about to change in that small empire: The first time Jadakiss set foot in Los Angeles was the trip that ended with Big’s assassination. That was March 1997.

The group’s debut album, Money, Power & Respect, came out in January of the following year. Its title track and biggest single, which features X and Lil’ Kim, suggests a debut that would fit the Lox’s steel-tipped image. And the album does draw out the three rappers’ humor and venom in similar measure, though not always, and not exclusively. It is bloated, and dulled by the kind of half-hearted crossover attempts and maudlin mid-tempo plays for softer radio programmers that plagued rap albums around the turn of the century. (To be fair, it also has some songs that masquerade as the latter but are decidedly not.) The short version of what happened next is that the rappers, unhappy with their deal, started a “Free the Lox” campaign to get released from their Bad Boy contract. That effort, grassroots or not, was successful, and in 2000 they dropped the vastly superior, Swizz Beatz–led We Are the Streets through Ruff Ryders.

Which brings us back to the solo career. The first two Lox albums, which were both released in January—normally a graveyard for records that aren’t label priorities—had gone platinum and gold, respectively, and Streets had aligned Jada with Ruff Ryders, which was paying out like a broken slot machine. For Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, which turned 20 last week, Interscope gave Jada a budget that would be staggering by today’s standards, though was de rigueur at the time. (It “had to be a million and some change or a couple million,” he would tell XXL a decade after the fact.) He rented one of Al Capone’s old mansions in Miami and happily accepted the reels that were couriered there nearly every day, containing beats by Timbaland, the Neptunes, Swizz, Preemo, and so on.

The album sounds something like that. It’s relatively shapeless and interminably long. At points, Jada is simply irrepressible. Aside from “We Gonna Make It,” there are the two Lox collaborations, “It’s Time I See You” and “None of Y’all Betta,” each of which is positively skull-rattling. There are the moments—like on “Knock Yourself Out,” when he brags that his house is so big he once missed probation while trying to answer the door, or the shots at Beanie Sigel on “Un-Hunh!,” his low growl of a duet with DMX—when the wit and ship-in-a-bottle construction of Kiss’s verses finds some synthesis with what’s been built around them. But then there is ill-conceived filler like “Cruisin’” and “Fuckin’ or What?” and what feels at times like it was drawn up in a boardroom—see “I’m a Gangsta” and “Nasty Girl,” which are sequenced back-to-back, right in the album’s soft middle.

One of Jada’s great assets is his poise. His voice and dogged focus make him sound credible even when he’s grafted onto bubblegum—he seldom seems knocked off balance. But he is also, far too often, made to sound like this surprise guest on his own albums. Throughout Kiss Tha Game Goodbye and its slightly tighter sequel, 2004’s Kiss of Death, the listener is left with the distinct impression that Jadakiss has been cast against type, which makes listening to either LP feel uncomfortably like industry reporting. (“What if we got Mariah again?”) None of which is to say that Jada is not adaptable—he is, which is why he got to make that second, similarly expensive album. (While Kiss of Death paid off that faith in him, opening at no. 1 on Billboard, industrywide record sales would crater before he finished a third album, leaving a temporarily decimated major label system.) But it is hard to shake the sense that all the resources thrown at the artist got in the way of what made him singular.

That was apparently not lost on Jadakiss. Kiss of Death’s first single was the Scott Storch–produced, Nate Dogg–featuring “Time’s Up,” a smart attempt to split the difference between Jada’s comfort zone and the national rap radio programmers who were still chasing 2001. But it was the album’s second single that would become Jada’s biggest solo hit, all while grappling with the infrastructure that spawned it.

Why” is the sort of song that should not work. A lesser version of it is prescribed to major-label artists every day: the guest singer on the hook, the easily legible concept, the sheen of an Important but inoffensive social message. Here, everyone is overqualified. That hook bleeds out of Anthony Hamilton; the beat is the poppiest thing Havoc has ever made. And Jada digs in his heels from the beginning. The song is written, naturally, as a series of questions; its second is “Why is the industry designed to keep the artist in debt?” He laments a friend’s near-fatal motorcycle accident and mourns Aaliyah. Often he assigns blame—to the Oscars for making Denzel play a crook before they’d pay him attention, to Bush for 9/11—which makes it all the more harrowing when he doesn’t: “Why did crack have to hit so hard?” The questions lurch from the trivial (“Why I can’t come through in the pecan Jag?”) to the surprisingly frank (“Why I say the hottest shit but be selling the least?” and “Why my buzz in L.A. ain’t like it is in New York?”).

Neither of those first two albums, nor the three comparatively minor ones that have come since, effectively capture what makes Jadakiss so universally revered by fans and his peers. (In some ways, his signature solo work is the 2010 Gangsta Grillz mixtape The Champ Is Here 3, which is unmoored from any budgetary concern, with Jada free to jack beats and unobliged to deliver a hit.) His appeal is best distilled into mixtapes, feuds—like his trouncing of 50 Cent or his stalemate with Sigel—or the guest spot, which might be his ideal form. There is nothing unorthodox about Jada as a rapper; you don’t bring him onto a song to throw it into chaos, or sneak it into club sets, or get it played on Dallas radio. He’s there to rap, 16 for 16, the control version of the art form. Is “Gangstas don’t die—they get chubby, and move to Miami” the most memorable line on the album that made Jay-Z a superstar? During the Verzuz last week, Cam disparagingly referred to Jada and the rest of the Lox as the “best peas and gravy … side dishes,” but they, and Jada in particular, cut their teeth by stealing songs from the most celebrated rappers on earth.

There’s a reason that Jada can say, as he does on the remix to Nas’s “Made You Look,” that he’s “top five dead or alive—and that’s just off one LP” without eliciting scoffs. This is especially impressive when you consider that the LP he’s referring to, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, is no Ready to Die or Illmatic (or even, as we argued during many a lunch break, no A Gangster and a Gentleman).

Jadakiss exists outside of those rubrics, has no need for a formalized résumé. My single favorite Jada verse came out the same year as “Why,” though it wasn’t on Kiss of Death. It’s his turn on “Run,” which is over a frantic RZA beat and tucked near the end of Ghostface’s The Pretty Toney Album. It’s an extended vignette about running from the cops in which every image, every sentence is packed with color: the clear bags of crack that “look like stuffed shells,” the pants that keep falling down during the escape because his belt is “in the crib, on the floor by my two-way.” If the cops catch him, he figures, they’ll either kill him or “give me a number I can’t do.” An asthmatic, he has to dip into the crevices between buildings to catch his breath. You picture Jadakiss: the baby face, the baby fat. He can’t be the most elusive target. Yet every time the cops come looking, he’s gone, just out of their reach.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.