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In the derby to succeed Biggie Smalls as King of New York Hiphop, the members of the LOX have always finished as also-rans. Though the now-hated Jay-Z always stood in their path as hippop’s most talented MC, in many ways, the LOX’s albums have been their own undoing. Money, Power & Respect, the Yonkers, N.Y., trio’s 1998 debut, contained three reputable songs at best. Otherwise, it was Puffy-inspired filler, a mélange of shiny production and Rod Stewart samples that clashed mightily with the LOX’s hard-edged asphalt persona.

Fed up with Puff’s flamboyance, the LOX fled his Bad Boy Entertainment and entered the Ruff Ryders stable. There, it was argued, the group would be able to fully rejoice in its underground roots. Unfortunately, although its second album, We Are the Streets, eschewed gloss, it also eschewed decent production. Ultimately, Streets was less repulsive than the LOX’s debut, but no more endearing.

Thus, despite having secure musical careers and the respect of their hippop peers, the guys in the LOX still don’t have the one thing that marks great rap groups—a classic album. Apparently, the trio has decided that the quickest path to immortality is the solitary one. Hence, Kiss tha Game Goodbye, the first solo album from the LOX’s most striking MC, Jadakiss.

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Like his bandmates, though, Jadakiss is more potential than product. His reputation has been built not on complete opuses, but on singles, cameos, and bits of freestyle. What he does have are the rudiments of a unique voice. He is a measured and precise MC with a disconcerting knack for delivering violent lyrics without emotion. “Now I know ya’ll couldn’t wait to hear Kiss over Premier/Kill you on tape then watch it over a beer,” he deadpans on Streets’ “Recognize, “‘Cause you ain’t nothing but a movie with expensive footage/That’s the reason they gonna leave you with expensive bullets.”

The king of ghastly and grim, Jadakiss is Rakim crossed with Mr. Pink. Even when he offers a note of sarcasm or wit, it is always tinged with images of death, as illustrated by his commentary on the Y2K scare from the same track: “Niggas runnin’ round talkin’ that Y2K shit/Crackheads is still gonna want that gray shit/That’s why I’m-a always cop the yeh quick/So I suggest alla ya’ll stay off J dick.”

Despite his compelling delivery, Jadakiss is not quite a finished MC. First off, he lacks the versatility of a Biggie or a Jay-Z. Second, and perhaps most important, Jadakiss has yet to move from being a great technician to being a great artist. More to the point, he has yet to cut a song that demonstrates he is more than just a very well-practiced MC. These two weaknesses prove to be the tragic flaws of Game, a mediocre album that at once surprises and disappoints with its potential.

Game’s soundscape is about as eclectic as you can expect for hippop, and often to good effect. From the pulsing horns on “Jada’s Got a Gun,” to the chopped drums of “None of Ya’ll Betta,” in more places than not the music works. “Cruisin’,” though harmed by an inept guest appearance by Snoop Dogg, succeeds by enlisting mellow key riffs. And though the Ruff Ryders-posse track “It’s Time I See You” won’t win any awards for MC-ing, it still has a credible nod factor.

Chalk the album’s decent production up to Jadakiss’ decision to not hand over the lion’s share of the sound-shaping to longtime Ruff Ryders producer Swizz Beatz, who gets only one cut. Otherwise, the production is handled by a motley crew ranging from the Neptunes to DJ Premier. To be sure, there are a few prominent, Skip-button-tempting missteps—”I’m a Gangsta,” “Nasty Girl,” and “Un-Hunh!”—but in an age when so many popular rap producers are deferring to the simple and the syrupy, the diverse, hard-edged production on Game is a shocker.

Lyrically, the album is a distorted portrait of black urbania. In the world of Jadakiss, every woman is sexually available, every man heavily armed. Game is packed with cartoonish violence offered without a hint of remorse or irony. On “Show Discipline,” for example, Jadakiss brags, “I make your grandmother get on the floor/Tie you up then beat you to a pulp, say, ‘This is a war’/Iffin’ the four, mackin’ the pump, actin’ I dump/Throw you out the window then act like you jump.”

It also goes without saying that Game is replete with misogyny, boasting no less than five songs apparently penned expressly to denigrate women. “I don’t believe in hos explorin’,” explains Jadakiss on “I’m a Gangsta,” “no matter how bad you are you gone in the mornin’.” When the sexism is not blatant, it simply becomes bizarre. On “Nasty Girl,” a song that is ostensibly a ballad, Jadakiss praises his lady of the moment by noting that he doesn’t ask her for blow jobs: “Since she a good girl that attend college/I don’t let her gimme brains, I just let her gimme knowledge.” Hmmm.

In terms of turning phrases, Jadakiss does the job on Game. And his deliberate, monotone flow adds an element of believability, if only because it is stripped of the pseudo-passion exhibited by so many other MCs. But the album never moves beyond wordplay and clever metaphors into anything greater. At its core, Game is really just a guy creatively bragging about being a violence-prone misogynist.

Perhaps that’s what hiphop is these days, but the truly great practitioners of rhyme offer something more than technique. They are able to move beyond self-aggrandizing and humanize themselves. Jay-Z’s wit and sarcasm, Biggie’s self-deprecation, and early Nas’ bluesy aesthetic have added something to their legacies that simple rhyme skills cannot. Jadakiss has yet to make that leap from simply stringing together words to expressing some deeper truth about himself. Until he can, his place as an MC will remain among the apt technicians of the art, but not among its great interpreters. CP