The dirty little secret about G-Unit’s 2002 breakthrough mixtape, 50 Cent Is the Future? That Lloyd Banks, then the group’s second-in-command, had the best flow on the whole tape, a sprawling, four-minute eponymous “Workout” that connected the dots between “hearts made of marshmallow,” and “exit wounds the size of hockey pucks.” The dirty little secret about New York newcomer A$AP Rocky’s breakthrough LiveLoveA$AP? That on Banks’s own simultaneously released, Rocky-featuring mixtape, The Cold Corner 2, he proves that, in this city, he’s still the man to beat, as effortlessly menacing as ever. Catch him with Jadakiss and more special guests at the annual Hot 97 Thanksgiving extravaganza.

Thu., Nov. 24, 10 p.m., 2011


Jadakiss Makes Menacing Kissy Noises

Jadakiss isn’t normally considered as a candidate for the Rappers You Wanna Be Loved By list. A sneering, venom-spitting leftover from the mid-’90s—when rappers snarled at one another like teenage snakes—the Yonkers native struts the stage with what may be the most sinister larynx in the whole of show business. Even though tristate hip-hop is known for its raps, not its rasps, Jadakiss endures, cooing at a nation with the phlegm-drenched New Yawk drawl of a club-alley ex-pusher, punctuated by the cackle of a cigar-smoking crocodile.

Jada’s hiss is the kind of noise you’d expect to emanate from a dumpster during the first five minutes of a Law & Order rerun. Instead, it comes out of a rapper as technically taut as you’d hope to hear in our 140-letters-a-thought moment. Nearly every carefully posed polysyllabic threat highlights his skill; his internal rhymes pack all the purposeful precision of a surgical incision, as he clicks whole rhyming paragraphs together like dominoes.

His veteran status comes not just from his expertise, his two decades in the field, or the inner steel from having survived the great rap industry purges (the rise of the South, the fall of the compact disc). He also possesses a numbness to violence with verses that speak of bloodstained frenzies, and are recited dispassionately by an ex-goon who studied under Biggie Smalls, but chuckled less. He writes from a dark corner where stabbings come before and after quarter-century jail sentences, and dissects each tragedy with chilling brevity.

Which brings us to the 36-year-old’s fourth solo record, a preposterous half-hour fan-appreciation gesture tenderly titled I Love You. It is consistently funny, though not consistently fun. Meant as a stopgap release to sustain interest in Top Five Dead or Alive, an album that’s been clogged in some industry pipeline for months now, the project comes off as somewhat parodic; there’s an Uncle Fester feel as Jadakiss—cocaine strategist, troll—bares the heart you’re never sure he has.

The album starts with the intro: “To show my gratitude and appreciation, I just wanted to let you know I love you,” he offers, punctuating his gratitude with what will be just one of at least four kiss noises on the record. His lips will later smack on the sentence-ends of some of the most felonious utterances you’d ever wanna get smooched after.

And it continues with “In the Streets,” a soap-opera-like cut from the Ghetto Gospel template. “My heart’s beating, but I’m still out here, lifeless,” he says as a wah-wah pedal bawls. The track finds its obvious conclusion with a nod to Jada’s “man-ses, out there taking penitentiary chances. What. I love you.”

I Love You is a bromance record, even when it isn’t. While in flirt mode, Jada says the sorts of things one would typically put across to a fellow con. On “How I Feel,” he salutes a girl who gives good dap: “We got our own special handshake—[kiss noise!]—and she knows how I like my pancakes,” he garbles, but not before adding: “I feel so beautiful.”

Let him feel gorgeous; just don’t let him around your son. “You can get further in life by using manners,” Uncle Fester counsels on “Lil Bruh” before immediately recommending that kids convert their grandmother’s residence into a crack warehouse. “You can never feel love without knowing the pain,” he laments, while trumpets pay homage to some really sinister advice—”Make saving one of your habits/Never keep the razors and plates under the cabinets,” for example.

“We all die. The point is to avoid prison,” he muses on “Toast to That,” expounding as brutal a life strategy as you’d predict from a thug analyst who raps as if ducking jail is an existential angle. And then he explains tactics on steering clear of jail—he touches on gang hierarchy, Fifth Amendment rights, where and when to put a bullet. But what’s horrifying is how he seals it all: with a kiss. Mwah.


Rick Ross’s Alternate Reality

Jadakiss once wondered why rappers lie in 85 percent of their rhymes, and here’s the answer: because they don’t have the audacity of Rick Ross, who lies in 95 percent of his. Last year, the Florida don, who’d built his entire persona on his status as a criminal kingpin, was outed as a former corrections officer. For most gangsta rappers, this would be career-crippling, but Ross shook everything off—jeers from the Internet peanut gallery, 50 Cent’s bullying, his own limitations—and released Deeper Than Rap, easily one of 2009’s best rap records. He began rapping more cleanly than ever before, forgoing his previously favored Hall-of-Bosses punch-in echo chamber that made it feel like five fat guys were yelling at you simultaneously. His writing, too, turned startlingly vivid, and the production was incredible—late-’90s grandiosity taken to even greater heights, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy score repurposed for Ricky’s Vice City home. It was like watching the portly kid in gym class suddenly high-step his way flawlessly through a field of tires.

So now Ross is enjoying a weird, wonderful renaissance: Once the very face of undeserved commercial-rap entitlement, he’s now almost an underdog. Not commercially—Deeper went to No. 1, just like 2006’s Port of Miami and 2008’s Trilla before it—but critically, especially among the inner circle of rap-nerd gatekeepers. Recently, Pete Rosenberg, the earnest, affable spokesperson for all-consuming late-’90s New York rap fixation, told a roomful of like-minded followers—during a public sit-down interview with Diddy at 92Y Tribeca—that, in terms of consistency and commitment to craft, Ross was the best rapper working right now. Diddy had to quickly step in to calm the quietly seething masses.

The ridiculously extravagant and extravagantly ridiculous new Teflon Don is certain to only rile folks up further; in its sound, scope, ambition, and arm’s-length relationship to reality, it’s essentially Deeper Than Rap 2: Even Deeperer. The production is only more towering; Ross evidently decided the beats on Deeper weren’t over-the-top enough, so for “Maybach Music III,” the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League furnish him with a full orchestra to rap over, and after verses from T.I. and Jadakiss (plus a hook from Erykah Badu), Ross enters to darkening strings and a key change heralding his arrival. “Cigar, please,” he barks, over a hilarious and awe-inspiring cascade of strings, flutes, xylophone, and Weather Report jazz-funk guitars that recall nothing so much as the scene in James Bond’s You Only Live Twice when the volcano opens up to reveal the villain’s secret lair.

This is the Ricky Rozay aesthetic—lifestyle music for escaping the state police via speedboat—and Teflon Don is even more utterly devoted than its predecessor, which was perhaps saddled with a couple more “ladies’ tracks” than was strictly necessary. Those are gone now. All that’s left are 11 unadulterated dispatches from BossWorld, an imaginary kingdom that only grows more vivid the more Ross visits it. If the cold-water shock of hearing Ross rap nimbly has worn off somewhat, he more than compensates with the new lunatic conviction in his voice: “Quarter-milli for the motherfucker!” he spits on “Tears of Joy” (referring to the cost of his watch), and you can almost hear his gut convulsing. On “Free Mason,” he raps feverishly about ancient symbols, codes, and pyramids over a tangled bed of bluesy organs and a howling John Legend in the background: “I understand the codes these hackers can’t crack,” he concludes. Indeed. Ross the Boss has grasped the key to success: He used to simply refute reality, but now he transcends it.


Road Warriorz

I’ll cut to the chase: If you can’t find anything to like on Run the Road, you might as well give up on grime. Listen to the five best tracks—Terror Danjah’s “Cock Back,” Riko & Target’s “Chosen One,” Jammer’s “Destruction,” Lady Sovereign’s “Cha Ching,” Shystie’s “One Wish”—and if you still feel a bit shruggy, well, strike the genre off your list, ‘cos that’s as good as grime gets.

I’d be perplexed and disappointed if you did, admittedly. Surely there’s something for everybody here? You want to feel the same dark rush the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” gave you? Just listen to the six opening bars of D Double E’s “performance” on “Destruction”—a vomitous self-exorcism that sounds barely human. Conversely, if you’re jonesing for nursery rhyme tunefulness, there’s pasty-faced Lady Sovereign’s delicious faux patois. Grime can do quasi-orchestral grandeur (swoon to Target’s “Chosen One” and Terror Danjah’s “One Wish” remix) as superbly as Anglo-gangsta (check Bruza’s astonishing 27 seconds on “Cock Back,” equal parts Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday and Jadakiss). But what pushes Run the Road into the first-class compilation zone is the second-tier tracks: Durrty Goodz’s double-time and ravenous “Gimmie Dat,” EARS’ plaintiveelegy for lost innocence “Happy Days.” There are only a couple of outright duds.

Grime sometimes gets treated as merely “the latest fad” from the trend-hoppy U.K. But the grander movement of which it’s an extension or mutation—London pirate radio culture—has been going on since at least 1991. From hardcore rave to jungle to garage to grime, underlying every phase-shift there’s an abiding infrastructure based around pirates, dubplates, and white labels sold direct to specialist stores. The core sonic principles are also enduring: beat science seeking the intersection between “fucked up” and “groovy,” dark bass pressure, MCs chatting fast, samples and arrangement ideas inspired by pulp soundtracks. The bpm have oscillated wildly, particular elements wax and wane, but in a Northrop Frye sense this is the same music. You could even see it as a conservative culture, except that its credo is “keep moving forward.”

One of the few recent innovations in the scene’s production-and-distribution has been the vogue for DVDs (which Americans can mail order from companies like Independance). This syndrome seems symptomatic of grime’s impatience for fame. Tired of waiting for the TV crews to arrive, they decided to DIY. Typically consisting of promos, live footage, interviews, and quasi-documentary material, the production values lean toward cruddy. Nonetheless, these DVDs are fascinating capsules of subculture-in-the-raw. For American grime fans, just seeing where their heroes actually live—projects a/k/a council estates in low-rent areas like Peckham and Wood Green—ought to be revelatory. Some of the videos in Risky Roadz are shot on the concrete pedestrian bridges connecting different blocks of flats. Compared to American rap promos, the camerawork and “choreography” look positively third world.

In Risky Roadz, Dizzee Rascal is interviewed on an actual road—Roman Road, to be precise, a crucial thoroughfare in grime’s topography, home to legendary record store Rhythm Division. Dizzee offers sage advice to aspiring MCs: “Do you. Do you well.” Another interview is with Riko—a future star, everyone agrees, so long as he can stay out of jail. “I want to get my zeroes,” says Riko of his hunger to get signed. When the subject of mic battles and MC feuds comes up, he fires off the usual threats to anyone stepping forward to test, then checks himself: “I don’t mean ‘shot,’ I mean lyrically shot.” Looking at Riko standing there, you might well think, “Here’s someone with the charisma glow, the sheer physical beauty, and—’cos these things count, for better or worse—the bad-boy backstory, to be, ooh, as big as DMX.” It’s quite likely that’ll he’ll remain just a local legend. The excitement of this moment in grime’s rise is that that unjust outcome doesn’t feel inevitable.


Overdetermined to Win

When you buy a guest rapper you rent an image. So when Jenny came from the Block, she kept it real with Jadakiss’s crew the Lox. But she coulda brought the D-Block or the Ruff Ryders, coz Jadakiss collects posses like his girls keep jewelry. Better, he collects his posses like punchlines—not as his purpose, but just as a side effect. His image bricolage assembles things that are rap: neither funny nor scary nor real when viewed straight on, but spit with a gruff authority that projects uproarious menace when viewed from the corner of the ear.

The Lox got their break signing as Puff Daddy’s token of authenticity (which doesn’t make their authenticity any more tokenistic, or street publicity any less fetishistic) and got their second break campaigning for “freedom” from said contract—but was it the flashy style that got them down or the poor payout? Ask Jada and they’re probably the same thing.

So: still commercial rap then, whether on Bad Boy or later Ruff Ryders, but really good at it. Whatever the beat, whatever the tempo, Jada wants you to kneel with a gun to your temple. Like his message is intense though his rhymes are simple. Moving the units and stories to his kinfolk. So he says he keeps things real, like explaining that people is lonely and they need company coz they miserable. So a gun is real—you can sell that. And a crack rock. And now, “emotional depth” is real and you can sell that too (unless you’re Joe Budden). “Why I can’t come through in the pecan Jag?/Why did crack have to hit so hard?” Gee, Jada, they’re both important questions, and I dunno, but you sound real deep, maaan.

Old-skool is real too—like, hardcore critics-love-that-shit real. Kiss of Death‘s title track pushes things forward with chunky post-grindin’ stutter-funk, but meanwhile Pharrell brings the ’70s groove on “Hot Sauce to Go,” “Shine” is as close to Snoop Dogg rhyming over the “Good Times” beat as we’ll get, and on “Gettin’ It In,” Kanye rocks that discofied George of the Jungle bongo counter-beat that hip-hop all but forgot. Speaking of which, “Real Hip Hop” with two-thirds of the Lox turns Swizz’s Teflon clockwork into primo fanfare, and “Shoot Outs” with a different two-thirds is a clamoring mix-tape noise-wall of Terminator X-ish sonic brutalism.

Do I sound cynical? Sorry. I mean, this stuff sells for a reason, like Jada sez: “shit don’t just don’t happen, shit happen for a reason,” and we know he’s living fulla meaning. See, the man made his image with purpose, and remade it to go for the ring. Just like he kept up his street rep with four D-Block mix tapes, some battles with G-Unit, and innumerable guest slots in the past few years. His story to tell is that he knows how to sell, and in that rhythmic enterprise, even listening is a cut of vicarious participation. Like he sez on “Welcome to D-Block,” “We don’t play with the lizards, we make phrases up and say ’em exquisite.”

Two-thirds through the new album, everything collapses on itself in the haunting “By Your Side.” Monotone synth heartbeats and answer-back diva vocals (Heatmakerz-style) murmur behind the impressionistic narrative. First Jada’s at your side as a friend, then a threat. Then you better have a strong team by your side, then your moms at the hospital by your side, then those who want your cash tryina get there, then your cash itself you should keep there, then he’s dead and his girl’s gotta keep his little man by her side. Images and stories slide through view like a high-concept video; midway in, the beats pile onto one another, the vocals layer and accelerate, then Jada lets loose with an exuberant laugh. It’s soulful, it’s hard, it’s real, and then . . . it’s transcendent. Throw your hands in the air if you sling crack rocks. A wop bop a loo bop a pop pop a glock.


One Mind. Two Million Voters.

On January 19, Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) and syndicated morning radio show host Doug Banks officially kicked off their “One Mind. One Vote” political-empowerment campaign, an effort that seeks to register 2 million voters in the next six to nine months and 20 million in the next five years. In the process they plan to create a national voter-information database.

As onlookers crammed the windows of ABC’s Good Morning America studios to gawk at recording artists that included L.L. Cool J, Rev. Run, Loon, Da Band, and Jadakiss and Styles P. of the Lox, Banks and Simmons stressed the importance of voting and encouraging others to vote, especially in light of the complications arising from the 2000 election. They tied the drive’s kick-off to the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. “Everybody that was [a part of the conference] talked about coming together, mobilizing and doing exactly what Dr. King did 40, 50 years ago,” said Banks. “Here we are in 2004, doing the same thing, except this time it’s to make sure that you get out and your voices are heard.”

The press conference took on the air of a revival meeting when rapper Freddrick of Da Band stood up to speak and then announced his intent to register. Rapper Jadakiss and Israeli-born “Hiphop Violinist” Miri Ben-Ari also signed up during the course of the proceedings. “I just became a citizen a few months ago,” said Ben-Ari. “This is going to be my first time [fulfilling] my right as a U.S. citizen to vote. I’m very excited.”

“One Mind. One Vote” has already come under fire because some of the rap artists involved with the initiative are not registered to vote or have not voted with any consistency. Referring to January 14’s am New York cover story, Minister Benjamin Chavis-Muhammad, HSAN’s CEO, said: “I guarantee that every artist that [am New York] had listed in that article will be registered and they will be encouraging young people to vote. I think it’s disingenuous for the press to start attacking artists when they make a commitment.”


Crack, Commerce, and Conscience

Tupac Amaru Shakur was murdered way back in 1996. Yet to hip-hop culture, its troubled hero is not really dead. Nor is his influence. The proof? The West Coast battler’s latest posthumous release, Until the End of Time, has sold a robust 1.7 million copies since March, according to SoundScan. Truth told, Shakur wasn’t a great rapper. His delivery was about as smooth as a broken brick. Yet he compensated for his artistic limitations with his use of psychology. He lived a chaotic life—he zoomed in and out of jail, got shot five times, and lived to tell about it. He made sure folks could feel him every step of the way. His paranoid musings on mortality (“Blasphemy”) and his guilt complex (“Dear Mama”) could be fascinating, and they won over a nation of aspiring thugs.

Jadakiss, the most talented member of revered Yonkers trio the LOX, was one of those self-anointed thugs touched by Tupac’s bluntness. He wants his audience to feel his gangsta love, too. Unlike Shakur and others who’ve taken Shakur’s lead, however, Jadakiss doesn’t obsess over irresponsibility or death. The 26-year-old makes the ghetto life sound more like a badge of honor than a curse on Kiss tha Game Goodbye, his outrageously good but troubling solo debut. Guns, to him, are the equivalent of gold bars: “Which gun is my favorite?/I got ’em all from the old to the latest shit,” he boasts with his reefer-scraped, menacing delivery on the chilling “Jada’s Got a Gun.” Crack comes across like a PlayStation 2; it’s what’s in demand. If you listen to him, he’s the “Bobby Womack of crack.” He’s not repentant. He’s too busy enjoying the perks. “My watch got so many rocks/ When you look at the time/It’s sort of like you’re watching yourself,” Jadakiss proclaims on “Knock Yourself Out,” the album’s requisite, delicious Neptunes track.

Even Jay-Z and Raekwon, two others with butterscotch flows and bulletins o’ plenty from the crack game, pause for reflection occasionally. Jadakiss’s indifference to what is right, and to whatever lies ahead, make Kiss tha Game Goodbye a startling listen. When he does take time to steer “the Section 8 kids” from the old neighborhood on the gospel-flavored “Keep Your Head Up,” he doesn’t exactly talk up school: “It’s a risk I gotta take/I’m gonna be the nigga with the bricks and the stash and the biscuit out of state. . . . I go extremely hard/Why let up?”

The rapper is at his sharpest when he focuses on women, not drugs. “On My Way” finds him on a nationwide tour in search of the ladies over Swizz Beatz’s laid-back funk beat. In Houston, he catches a Rockets game after getting some play. In New Orleans, he longs for a girl from the Magnolia projects—with “gold fronts.” In Philadelphia, he comes to “crack that ass like the Liberty Bell.” The track drips with charisma, as does “Nasty Girl,” a Timbaland-manned gangsta-love jam, complete with crooner Carl Thomas on the chorus. On these songs, and throughout the rest of Kiss tha Game Goodbye, Jadakiss drives the thug genre deep into platinum irresponsibility.

Jadakiss may get a few of his listeners to feel him, but it’s Shakur who’s been coronated the ghetto Jimi Hendrix. Shakur anticipated his own tragic legacy, and he left enough master tapes lying around to keep whatever from-the-grave machinery rolling.

Until the End of Time is the sixth posthumous offering from 2Pac Inc., more specifically his mother Afeni Shakur and Death Row Records. The two-CD set is a sprawling mess, 124 minutes of raw, generic beats and experiments. Nevertheless, it scatters enough evidence of why Shakur became such an icon.

Granted, the album relies heavily on default lyricism (he was fond of shout-outs to “all my homies” and “all my niggas”) and on low-rent r&b. The eight cuts with his side group, the Outlawz, are clichés—yeah, yeah, you’re down to die for all your soldiers, and all that other crap. The rapper offers two versions of the title track, bland appropriations of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings”—hell, one version even lifts the vocals of Richard Page, the ’80s popsters’ lead singer. Another tired artifact: Shakur calls out Jay-Z and Mobb Deep, up-and-comers in 1996, in a weak attempt to extend the mythical bicoastal hip-hop feud.

Thankfully, Shakur’s fears and—let’s face it—morality sprinkle enough of the record to make it worth purchasing. We get the jarring “Letter 2 My Unborn”: “Will my child get to feel love/Or are we just cursed to be street thugs?/Cause being black hurts,” he ponders. He then answers that question: “If there’s a ghetto for true thugs, I’ll see you there/And I’m sorry for not being there.” It’s heady stuff, and it gives weight to lines such as “In my dreams, I hear motherfuckers screaming/What is the meaning?” from “When Thugs Cry.”

Shakur’s work studied how actions breed consequences. That’s what made it important. Jadakiss, on the other hand, cooks base on the Foreman grill on “Knock Yourself Out.” His ghetto-fabulous routine, as exciting and as original as it is, ultimately rings hollow without the appearance of a conscience. Jadakiss can floss about the fruits of his misdeeds, but Until the End of Time, despite its flaws, bubbles with heart. Side by side with it, Kiss tha Game Goodbye feels synthetic.

Advantage, dead man.