Let Jadakiss Show You How To Do This
I thought I’d write about Nas this week. I thought maybe I’d write about the new Kanye West-produced Abstract Mindstate album, too. The parallels were too much to pass up. One one side: a rap deity, coming off of a Grammy win and a whole lot of spousal-abuse allegations, attempting to project composure and wisdom and national-treasure gravitas. On the other: a duo of long-retired dayjobbers suddenly bursting out of obscurity with a new album of Kanye West beats that might as well have been sitting in a drawer since 2003. I know which one I preferred, but these two entities were converging on the same point, attempting to age gracefully and set a good example for the kids. But then Jadakiss, in the middle of rapping his verse from “Felony N***as,” ripped Juelz Santana’s bandana off his head and threw it on the ground in front of a room full of people. Plans had to change.
Last Tuesday night, the Lox and Dipset, two titans of the last great era of ignorant head-slap New York rap music, faced off in a Verzuz battle. This was the first Verzuz battle to take place in front of a paying audience, and it happened in the same room where Suge Knight said that any rappers who didn’t want their label guys all in the video, dancing, should come to Death Row. That room is now known as the Hulu Theater, and it’s not like it’s hallowed ground or anything; I saw Snow Patrol in that motherfucker once. But last Tuesday night, in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Jadakiss cemented everlasting legend status.
For most of the last two decades, it’s been all too easy to take Jadakiss for granted. He’s been out there, cranking out decent records marred by middling for-the-radio singles. Jadakiss always had a handful of verses that could make me clothesline my next-door neighbor, but his presence was the unflashy journeyman type. He was always there. Jadakiss already did one Verzuz battle on his own, taking on Fabolous in the early pandemic days. I didn’t watch that one. On Tuesday, though, Jada wore that workmanline consistency like gleaming golden armor. He just rapped his raps and talked his shit, and he sent heads spinning.
I’ve never loved the Lox the way I love Dipset. With their baroque knucklehead peacockery, the Diplomats, at their peak, carried themselves like surreal comic-book supervillains, stylistic goon futurists who swept the whole New York metro area up in their cosmic joke. The weekend I moved to New York, summer 2005, I saw Juelz perform a 15-minute set at the same Lower East Side bandshell where Charlie Ahearn filmed the Wild Style grand finale, and then I saw him sign autographs and pose for flip-phone pics with screaming, sobbing project kids for 45 minutes afterwards. They were giants. But Dipset shattered and reassembled a bunch of times in the past 16 years, and it’s pretty clear that they now exist as a business arrangement. On Tuesday night, they played plenty of anthems, and they made me smile a bunch of times. But they didn’t come prepared. It was almost like they were up there with the intentional purpose of making Jadakiss look great.
I knew Jadakiss could rap. Everyone knew that. But I never realized what an all-time great natural-born shit talker Jadakiss is. Before that battle, I would’ve put money on Cam’ron being the best shit-talker onstage. I would’ve lost that money. Everything Jadakiss said on Tuesday night was pure gold. What are we doing here? The fight is fixed, New York. He’s supposed to be home, watching The Honeymooners. He should be in bed now. You got him up for this? Was that a new song? He don’t know that shit! Why does Freaky Zekey have a mic, anyway? He’s getting money for free. And why are Dipset rapping over their vocals? They’re lip-syncing! They don’t know the words! Everything was a knockout blow.
A lot of it was stagecraft, showmanship. It was the Lox making sure to really rap their shit over their instrumentals, not letting their recorded vocals carry them. It was Jada standing back-to-back with Styles, like in the “Banned From TV” video. It was the Lox understanding their audience, knowing that they could trust this New York crowd to rock with their deep cuts and mixtape freestyles. (What a crowd, too. There is absolutely nothing like a fired-up crowd at a New York rap show.) It was the Lox’s DJ knowing exactly how to drop the right song at the right moment, coming back with an answer every time Cam or Juelz attempted to goof on their opponents.
But so much of it was just Jadakiss himself, carrying his crew on his back and putting on a clinic, building on decades of accumulated goodwill and everyman excellence. Jada wore a lot of diamonds on that stage, but he also wore Tims and camo shorts. He was the same guy, and he knew he was winning right from the first moments of the battle. Styles P and Sheek Louch have had a lot of great moments over the years, but they were sidekicks that night, and they were happy to play their role. Jada was floating in the clouds, listening to the angels sing. He was tasting glory.
New York rap shows make for a heightened environment. They’re chaotic and sometimes frustrating. The mics are always set to vastly different volumes. The well-wishers always crowd the stage, and the venue security people always beg the well-wishers to get the fuck off the stage. The Verzuz show had all of those problems, and it made the whole spectacle hard to watch sometimes. If the Lox had shown up with the same laissez-faire attitude as Dipset, then it could’ve been a disastrous night, a clear sign that the whole Verzuz phenomenon was a pandemic-era relic that couldn’t survive the transition to crowded rooms. But the Lox showed up hungry, and it’s presumably no coincidence that Swizz Beatz, the Verzuz co-founder who was in the Ruff Ryders with the Lox, knew that he could count on this crew. The Lox in general, and Jada in particular, turned that whole battle into something magical. Even Fat Joe’s awestruck reaction video was required viewing.
Look, it’s fun to hear Nas telling old Suge Knight stories in rap form and bringing in Lauryn Hill to show the world that she can still rap her ass off. It’s fun to hear Abstract Mindstate making the most of their unlikely comeback, rapping with heart and purpose. But both King’s Disease II and Dreams Still Inspire are staid attempts at rap respectability, and both Nas and Kanye West are clearly chasing different forms of image rehabilitation. Not Jadakiss. Jadakiss is nobody’s role model. He’s here to remind the world that he was reckless enough to beef with Beanie Sigel in 2001. He’s here to clown his peers and rap his “Who Shot Ya” freestyle so hard that you can see him sweat. He’s here to bathe in blood on the battlefield. Fuck respectability. Fuck importance. Fuck relevance. For at least one week in this strange and tentative new uncharted-territory summer, Jadakiss simply feels like the best rapper in the world. He didn’t need to rap on a boring Hit-Boy beat to make that case. He just had to be who he is. That’s beautiful.
1. Yungmorpheus & Eyedress – “Georgette’s Tea Room” (Feat. Pink Siifu)
We’re in that late-summer zone where I’m craving some smoked-out serenity. These guys have me covered. That loop is lovely.
2. Solemn Brigham – “Keep The Hope”
A message to all aspiring rappers out there: Please do not put adjectives like “Solemn” in your rap name. It makes you sound boring. This song, from North Carolina’s Solemn Brigham, is not boring. It’s got a hard, hoarse energy, and it connects. Don’t let the name scare you.
3. BabyTron – “Cade Cunningham”
At the end of July, the Detroit Pistons selected Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham with the first overall pick in the NBA draft. A week later, Detroit’s own BabyTron came out with his song “Cade Cunnigham.” Got the video shot and edited and everything. Detroit better hope that Cunningham himself is that productive.
4. DaBoii & Slimmy B – “SK”
SOB x RBE may be gone, but that old chaotic urgency is still here. Can’t wait for the DaBoii/Yhung TO Verzuz in 20 years.
5. Young Old Droog – “Blue Hawaiian” (Feat. Tha God Fahim)
Something about this combination of beat, song title, and YouTube art puts me in an extremely vacation state of mind. I appreciate that.