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Ghetto blasting
Jadakiss takes his shots on Kiss of Death

The other day, I was stopped at a red light on Clevelandís East Side when a large, silver SUV pulled up booming Jadakissís new hit album, Kiss of Death (Ruff Ryders/Interscope). Given the setting, the scene was hardly remarkable. Clevelandís East Side is something like Bostonís Roxbury, the South Side of Chicago, or the hood that Eminem sings about on "Welcome to D-Block," his cameo cut on Kiss of Death: "The sun donít shine here in this part of town/But we all got a town thatís similar to this too/Because every cityís got a ghetto, every ghettoís got a hood/Take a good look around you, cuz thereís a D-Block near you."

"Welcome to D -Block" drapes a noble cloak over the grim deprivation and depravation it describes, with strings and acoustic guitars laying down menacing, minor-key figures over a slow heartbeat rhythm. As Eminem suggests, itís all too depressingly familiar. But I remember the tiny SUV incident because, for the most part, Kiss of Death isnít familiar at all. As the odds would have it, the track booming out of the SUV wasnít Eminemís cameo but a more characteristic cut, the Neptunes-produced bob-along "Hot Sauce To Go." At the light, as the uncommonly nimble bass line bumped against Jadakissís mischievous boasts ("Picked her up in the maroon Lincoln/Blew her back out until the moon sinkiní "), I glanced up and noticed the driver doing something I usually donít see young African-American men do while blaring gangsta rap in the hood: grinning.

Thatís "grinning," not "smiling." Smiles are for shiny happy pop music. Jadakiss, on the other hand, avows early on in Kiss of Death that heís "everything: controversial/Underground, gangsta-rap slash commercial," and true to his word, he tries to do it all at once, never straying far from the nastiness no matter how nice he makes. But excluding the requisite gangland "Intro" and the rap-metal bloodbath "Shoot Outs," the opposite holds true too ó all that depressingly familiar gangsta terrain is revitalized with unexpected beats and rhymes, ideas and moods. The discís second half has the gripping extended metaphor of "By Your Side," the warped Middle Eastern strings of "Gettiní It In"; even "Welcome to D-Block" is brightened by the contrast of Eminemís bold, bouncing delivery against Jadakissís raspy, steady flow. And the first half is better than that, with nine solid cuts offering the most inviting run of thuggish raps Iíve heard in years. Ghostface Killah may be more imaginative, but Ghostface also coasts on his eccentricity; 50 Cent may be more "real," but thatís just because heís really a two-bit con; M.O.P. is definitely rougher, but the duo are stampeding elephants next to Jadakissís stalking lion.

That doesnít mean Kiss of Death vindicates gangsta apologists who argue that musical might always makes æsthetic right. Jadakissís craft and wit stand in contrast to his brutality, thereby tempering it. More important, the other contrasts in his music ó the "slash" that he lays between "gangsta rap" and "commercial," between the hood and the world ó create meanings that go beyond the rapperís stylistic command. When he raps, "Iím a man of the Lord but still canít shake the devil/Moved away and still canít escape the ghetto," it resonates because that struggle plays out in almost every track.

Jadakiss first tasted the serpentís fruit as a member of the Lox, a trio whose 1998 debut, Money, Power & Respect (Bad Boy), was a well-honed, utterly cynical dose of received thugitude. But now, the 29-year-oldís second solo album proves that cynicism can run both ways. Despite all the explicit talk of drugs, violence, and sex, the album has been criticized in the mass media for only a single line: "Why did Bush knock down the towers?" Buried deep in the current single "Why," itís one of a litany of unanswerable questions that delineate Jadakissís ambitions and limitations ("Why they selliní niggasí CDs for under a dime?/And if itís all love, daddy, why you come with your nine?").

"Obviously itís only a metaphor," Jadakiss told the Washington Post of the towers line on July 16. "Ultimately, at the end of the day, heís the boss. The buck stops with him." The Post suspects "media coaching" because on July 9, it reports, Jadakiss told Billboard.com, "I just felt he [Bush] had something to do with it. Thatís why I put it in there like that. A lot of my people felt he had something to do with it." Maybe that claim is more deprived and depraved than anything youíll find on Kiss of Death, but whereas the Post calls Jadakissís reinterpretation of it "coaching," you could also call it "learning." After all, the best thing about Kiss of Death isnít that Jadakiss welcomes you to D-Block but that he fights to escape it.

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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