Despite its street-level money, power and respect rhymes, almost all of it feels divorced from reality, free of any kind of narrative grounding or personal disclosure.
Jadakiss’ first LP in over six years had its title as far back as 2010, when “Top 5 Dead or Alive” appeared on The Champ is Here 3 as a teaser for a record due later that year (and then in 2012). Like the original Champ is Here mixtape, 3 proved far superior to Kiss tha Game Goodbye and Kiss of Death, but it was bittersweet all the same for highlighting Jadakiss’ strengths (spitting raspy punchline bars over someone else’s beats) and admitting to his weaknesses by omission (putting actual songs together, getting those beats for himself). Impressive first-week sales notwithstanding, no one expects Jadakiss to be a commercial force anymore, which would presumably work to his advantage. Without the temptation to cater to a non-existent audience clamoring for him to make pop songs, you’d figure the boundaries between “album” and “mixtape” would no longer exist. This is kinda true of Top 5 Dead or Alive; the problem is that one of the world’s best and most frustratingly aimless rappers ends up in the same no-man’s land he always does.
The good news is that Jadakiss’ typical means of scoring a chart hit is completely outmoded in 2015, so there aren’t any chintzy Neptunes beats, unctuous R&B hooks or blatant attempts to recreate “Why” in its entirety. Yeah, Future shows up on the “street single”, but he did the same favor for Uncle Murda this year—don’t confuse his appearance for a guarantee of any kind of chart success. While Jadakiss can wild out on his own terms, the gothic turn-up of “You Can See Me” is a long way from the Tunnel; for not a single second are we led to believe that We the Best producer Lee on the Beats, Future and Jadakiss were ever in the same room, let alone the same frame of mind here.
Otherwise, Jadakiss continues to show why he was a perfect fit to do player introductions for the Brooklyn Nets back in October—Top 5 Dead or Alive is likewise an intermittently entertaining, but dead-end collective of big-money heavyweights long past their prime. Puff Daddy’s yelling spree on “You Don’t Eat” might as well have been sourced from a Bad Boy conference call in 1996. On “Kill,” Lil Wayne continues his path towards tragicomic, Neil Hamburger-esque performance art: “She a Cancer, I hit her with that chemo dick” would be a prime candidate for Weezy’s preeminent sad trombone line of 2015 if he didn’t just quote Smash Mouth on No Ceilings 2. While Jeezy occupies a similar “veteran hardhead” ground as Jadakiss at this point, “Critical” doesn’t try to find common ground; instead, it’s the kind of hyperactive hi-hat beat that predates Thug Motivation 101 with Jada on a double-time Dirty South flow that interrupted “who’s the best MC?” discussions during the late 90s in New York.
Despite its street-level money, power and respect rhymes, almost all of it feels divorced from reality, free of any kind of narrative grounding or personal disclosure: “you can call me Paul/ long as Peter pay,” “If you ain’t in the circle, for a square I’ll get you lined” are typical punchlines that generate a smirk and disappear completely, mildly impressive feats of wordplay that only have meaning within the format’s strictures. You might as well be watching Jadakiss solve crossword puzzles.
There are brief indications that Top 5 Dead or Alive was workshopped within the past three years. There’s a track about smoking weed and, wouldn’t you know, Wiz Khalifa is on it instead of Redman. The chorus of “Jason” gives brief mentions to Eric Garner and Ferguson. Otherwise, Jadakiss has to remind you of a time when “top 5 dead or alive” was something fans of mainstream rap actually discussed: “Synergy” is the requisite give-n-go tandem rap with Styles P and it’s flagrantly modeled after “We Gonna Make It”, right down to the cadence of the hook. Even if there isn’t the requisite track here in the style of “Why,” Jada can’t help but invoke its most infamous line (the one about Bush knocking down the towers). In the most desperate recall of his glory days, Jadakiss spits, “you heard my name on the last verse of ‘Ether,'” which is technically true but feels like the equivalent of a boxing judge taking credit for Ali/Frazier.
Beyond muddled aims, extremely confusing and tone-deaf skits also seem to be a constant on Jadakiss projects. “Ahaa Interview” is a Madd Rapper-style Q&A where a salty veteran claims he’s going solo over his resentments towards Jadakiss. You’d swear this was a scorched-earth attack on Sheek Louch, except the guy shows up two tracks later. I mean, Puff Daddy is here too, so I guess he didn’t take “Rape’n U Records” skit to heart either. More importantly, a patron who sure sounds a lot like Busta Rhymes starts complaining about how heads don’t check for “bars” anymore and now it’s all about dancing and wearing blouses. You’d swear this was a diss against Young Thug, who’s frankly been packing more inventive wordplay into a single verse these days than Jada does on the entirety of this “rapper’s rapper” album.