Even if Jadakiss isn’t in your top five, “Top 5 Dead Or Alive” proves that he’s still doing exactly what he should be at 40 years old.
People have really been into ranking their all-time top MCs lately. About a year ago, Chris Rock revealed his in the trailer for his film “Top Five”: “Jay, Nas, Scarface, Rakim… and then I might let Biggie get in there. My sixth man is LL Cool J— Before The Show!” (That last one was understandably met with some ridicule from his co-stars.) More fresh in our minds is Billboard’s recent “10 Greatest Rappers Of All Time” list, which sparked more controversy than your average subjective ranking, with The Game and Tyga among those who felt the need to submit their own corrections to it. We’ve all been making these lists forever, but it seems like they’re more frequent fixtures in an era when controversy leads to clicks, @’s and comment section fervor. Capitalizing on this, Jadakiss just released an album that boldly proclaims himself Top 5 Dead Or Alive on nearly every song.
The inimitably-voiced Yonkers veteran is an underdog choice for other peoples’ lists– which he seems to recognize– but he’s got just the sort of underground hustler’s clout that many people (who might also be putting NYC-area guys like Joe Budden, Big Pun and Big L on their lists) consider legendary in the game. He’s spent the better part of a year reminding us that he can destroy other MCs’ records with a Friday morning freestyle series, and now on his first album in six years, he proves that he can still carry the majority of a full-length. He rocks “grizzled veteran” better than anyone in the game right now, his gravelly delivery and stoic demeanor lending themselves to a old-man-on-the-porch outlook on and presentation of hip hop. On first two tracks “First 48” and “You Don’t Eat,” he remains couched in old NY tropes (Money, power, respect; referring to himself as “the don”; “Ten Crack Commandments”; “Ether”) while turning up his nose at the new generation (“Fresher than a young nigga”; “First the skinny jeans, now they wearin’ blouses”; “You red shirts might be ready by next season”). While it’s kind of insufferable when people younger than 35 do this (Troy, Joey, looking at you two), Kiss would seem disingenuous if he wasn’t doing it. The man has a voice that sounds like ashtray filled with broken glass and Newport butts– thank god he isn’t trying out autotune or the Migos flow.
His crotchety steez is endearing, if not impressive, over the course of T5DOA, still shining through even when he does collaborate with the blouse-wearing it-rapper of the moment and one who’s basically the physical manifestation of skinny jeans. The message is clear: it’s not about hate, it’s about keeping himself honest, and not ending up looking like someone’s washed uncle who’s still trying to be hip. This results in as many collabs with relics of the past as ones with young bucks (although the actual Young Buck who shows up on “Realest In The Game” is probably a member of the former category at this point), so at many points throughout the album we’re partying like it’s 2005 with Akon, Swizz Beatz, Just Blaze, Bangladesh and Ne-Yo. The ensuing vibe usually hews closer to 25 year high school reunion than “back in my day…” deli convos, which is a relief, especially when it produces moments as exuberant and pulse-quickening as “Kill.” Reuniting the “A Milli” team, Jada swaggers over the finest beat of the album, and it’s shockingly the only time any guest comes close to dethroning him, with Lil Wayne reminding us why no one batted an eyelid when Bilboard put him on their list.
Moments this turnt are a rarity to begin with, but become even scarcer in the album’s back half, where the all-too-brief “Confetti” is the only respite from increasingly overwrought subject matter. Perhaps to convince us (and the other old heads in the barber shop on “Shop Talk”) that song concepts have taken a backseat to dances and fashion, Kiss spends two entire tracks fixated on metaphors that should have sputtered out after a bar or two. The Nas and Styles P-assisted “Rain” is one thing, making it seem like cramming as many references to inclement weather and water as possible was Kiss’ sole mission when writing his verses, but “So High” is just straight up clichéd in its elementary “elevation=smoking weed=stature in the game” equation (Get it? He’s high in three ways!!). Jadakiss is too good and too experienced to devote entire album tracks to “concepts” that are actually just lazily revolving metaphors, and doing so in T5DOA‘s second half only adds to a sequence that’s somewhat bogged down by empty language (what does it really mean to be “critical” or “real”?).
Still, there’s moments on every track in which Jada proves that he hasn’t overstayed his welcome in hip hop, and at 40 years old, that’s a huge coup. He’s more consistent than regular Top 5 fixtures Jay and Nas have been in recent years, and clearly more confident than younger rappers who say they won’t be doing this when they’re 35+. Jadakiss will be doing this until his last “Ahaa!”, and if that means we get four more albums as uncompromising as T5DOA, his longevity will be one of the few subjects that the internet won’t be able to argue about.