Album Review: Jadakiss “Top 5 Dead or Alive”

Written by Angelo Gingerelli

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“Top 5 Dead or Alive and that’s just off one LP” -Jadakiss (2003)

Since making this bold proclamation on the remix to Nas’ “Made You Look” Jadakiss has relentlessly campaigned for a spot in fan’s “Top 5 Dead or Alive” list of MC’s.  The argument has raged for years with endless debates, countless articles and more than a few friendships ruined over who belongs on the list and what order they belong there.  Billboard magazine recently published their list of the Top MC’s of all time that “Broke the Internet” for Hip-Hop heads the way a naked Kim Kardashian did last year for reality TV fans and Chris Rock released a movie last year centered on the idea that a person’s “Top 5” can tell you all you need to know about them.  A few years ago I wrote a piece on why a list of this nature is not only foolish but actually impossible that can be read here…

“Your Top 5 is Wrong…and so is Mine”

However, Hip-Hop is a competitive genre and without arguments like this the entire culture suffers.  So, the question remains, after starting the argument over a decade ago… does Jadakiss belong everybody’s “Top 5 Dead or Alive”?

“Everybody so mad at the South for? Learn how to switch your style up and go southpaw” -Jadakiss (2006)

Jadakiss debuted as a member of The Lox in the late 90’s and immediately established himself as one of NYC’s best young MC’s, however as the 2000’s progressed it became clear that he would fall into the category of many rappers of his era that were undeniably talented and would see great success with singles, mixtapes and guest appearances, but would struggle to put out a career defining album (Cam’ron, Fabolous, Canibus).  It’s unclear why this was the case (changing production methods, the influence of other regions/styles, the rise of digital music, etc.) but it’s pretty commonly accepted that the East Coast rappers of the late 90’s never matched the album quality of their early 90’s counterparts (Nas, Wu-Tang, Redman, etc.).

Jada’s approach to albums has always been to cast the widest net possible with the idea of appealing to the biggest possible demographic.  While this somewhat alienated fans on his first few solo projects that were used to his decidedly East Coast-oriented work with The Lox it eventually became the accepted approach for not only ‘Kiss but most New York rappers (it can be argued this scattershot approach to albums is what’s responsible for NYC’s fall from Hip-Hop’s summit, but that’s another argument all together).

This idea of embracing styles from across the spectrum is simultaneously Jada’s biggest asset and most crippling weakness.  While his versatility has allowed him to collaborate with hardcore rappers like Nas & Joe Budden, pop divas like Jennifer Lopez & Mariah Carey and everyone in between, his inability to commit to one aesthetic on his own albums might be the very thing that keeps him out of the “Top 5” conversation.

Top 5 Dead or Alive finds J-A-D-A in peak lyrical form as he drops gem after gem about the streets, the industry and life as an adult rapper.  The album has 18 tracks and there’s barely a weak line on the whole project.  Whether or not Jadakiss can rap has never been a question, the man has rhymed with all time greats like Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas on multiple occasions and always held his own if not stolen the spotlight.  “T5DOA” even sees him switch his classic flow up a few times and deliver verses in new cadences that are not only a refreshing change of pace, but prove that his evolution as an artist is far from over (“Cutlass” and “You Can See”).

The songs on the album fall into two categories.  On about half the songs Jada gives long time fans the clever bars and witty punchlines they’ve come to expect over the typical NYC production that made him a hero in the Five Boroughs (First 48, You Don’t Eat, Synergy).  All of these songs work and considering how many East Coast bangers the man has released over the years it’s safe to say he’s got the formula locked down.  The other half of the tracks are collaborations with newer artists in blatant attempts to appeal to a younger demographic.  The highlights here are “You Can See” with Future and “Ain’t Nothin’ New” with Ne-Yo and Nipsey Hustle.  While nothing here is outright bad, a lot of it seems like it will be forgotten over time.

“I’m only scared of God and the man in the mirror” -Jadakiss (2015) 

Jadakiss is nothing if not confident on “T5DOA” and it’s this East Coast Swagger that makes Jada so endearing to his fans.  Hearing a supremely confident MC in 2015 when much of the Hip-Hop landscape is populated by artists constantly questioning themselves and trying to be relatable to fans is extremely refreshing.  So, the question remains after countless memorable verses, punchlines that are still being quoted close to 20 years after they were written and 4 solo albums, is Jadakiss a “Top 5 Dead or Alive” rapper?

“It goes Reggie (Redman), Jay-Z, Tupac and Biggie, Andre from Outkast, Jada, Kurupt, Nas and then Me” -Eminem (2002) 

In 2015, Jadakiss’ lyrics, longevity and versatility are beyond reproach, he’s an incredibly talented MC that has a catalog that will stand toe-to-toe with most rappers in the game.  However, considering he’s never released an undeniably classic LP and the somewhat scattershot approach to all of his solo albums including this one, Eminem is probably closer when he puts him at #6 all time on “Til I Collapse” from 2002’s Marshall Mather’s LP.  Also, considering that since that song was released we have seen the rise of 50 Cent, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, TI, The Game and Kendrick Lamar, in all fairness the album probably should have been called “Top 20 Dead or Alive.”

Best Songs: Cutlass, You Don’t Eat ft. Puff Daddy, Rain ft. Nas

Perfect For: Listening to in your headphones riding the subway through NYC

Score: 7/10