Two of New York's finest go head to head in this week's installment of "Who Had The Better Debut Album?"
On November 24th, 2017, Fabolous and Jadakiss teamed up to release the collaborative album Friday On Elm Street. East coast purists rejoiced, and while Fab and Jada occasionally dabbled in a more contemporary sonic direction, their roots remained entrenched in raw New York lyricism. In fact, the pair of emcees have always shared common similarities, and the lore surrounding both Fab and Jada is not unlike that of their horror-film counterparts. Many claims made about one can apply to the other. Underrated. Mixtape king. Deadly with punchlines. Dark-horse top five.
Both men have always retained a loyal fanbase, somewhere between a cult following and a legion of die-hards. Commercially, neither have ever done Eminem or Drake numbers, despite having a respectable number of hits in their individual repertoires. Yet they’ve continued to enjoy successful careers, and perhaps more importantly, maintained a consistent level of support from their peers. And while both Fabolous and Jadakiss are still making dope music to this day, they’ve been active as solo artists for over fifteen years. For those of you listening to hip-hop in 2001, you’ll no doubt remember Jadakiss’ Kiss Tha Game Goodbye and Fabolous’ Ghetto Fabolous.
At the time, they were two of the hardest records, during an era where solid albums were the rule, not the exception. When Jadakiss released Kiss Tha Game Goodbye on August 7th, 2001, the rapper was already a proven talent. Kiss quickly made his presence felt on releases from The LOX, who were gaining notoriety from releases like Bad Boy’s Money, Power, & Respect, and sophomore record We Are The Streets. Jadakiss was also an integral part of the Ruff Ryders movement, and had what many rappers could only wish for - a friendship with the Notorious B.I.G. Suffice it to say, when Jada’s debut solo album came around, expectations were high, and rightfully so.
The project featured production from some of the game’s heavy hitters, including Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Just Blaze. Fan favorites like Alchemist and P.K. also came through for a few tracks, rounding out the sonics with that classic rugged and raw vibe. The guest appearances were stacked, with Nas, Styles P, Sheek Louch, DMX, Eve, Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Drag-On, and more, but Jada was never truly at risk of being outshone. The album went on to hit number five on the Billboard charts, moving two-hundred-and-four copies in the fourth week.
One month later, on September 11th, 2001, Fabolous released his debut album Ghetto Fabolous, on the same day Jay-Z dropped The Blueprint. While Fab never had the backing that Jada had in Bad Boy or Ruff Ryders, he did manage to catch the ear of DJ Clue. who happened to be prominent voice in the culture. Clue signed Fab to his Desert Storm label, a label he still rides with to this day. Fun fact: Fabolous, Paul Cain & Joe Budden used to drop some solid mixtapes back in the day. Digressions aside, Ghetto Fabolous spawned a few massive singles in “Young’n,” “Can’t Deny It,” and “Trade It All.”
In another parallel to Jada, Fab’s production roster was cut from a similar cloth. The Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Timbaland all came through, but the majority of the instrumentation was handled by Desert Storm CEOs DJ Clue and Duro. The young Brooklyn emcee had previously raised expectations with a collection of memorable mixtapes, but did he manage to solidify himself as a dominant solo artist? Audiences were divided; Ghetto Fabolous initially opened to some mixed reviews, but it went on to become a commercial success, currently sitting at two times platinum.
Now, seventeen years later, both albums have retained a sense of early-millenium charm, which has in turn helped them age rather gracefully. And in honor of the recently released Friday On Elm Street, this latest installment will put two of New York’s stalwart players against one another. So, between Fab or Jada, who had the better debut album?
Fabolous and Jadakiss have always been lauded as lyricists, though both have consistently faced criticism over their beat selection. In fact, complaints of that nature have followed them for the bulk of their careers, despite having access to some of the most reliable producers. We’ve already established the production roster on each respective album is stacked, at least on paper. But what about in execution? To be honest, neither project is laced with particularly standout production. That’s not to say the beats aren’t generally solid; there are occasional moments of brilliance both album, but more often than not, the instrumentals are largely backdrops for Fab and Jada’s upper echelon lyricism.
However, when the instrumentals shine, they’re truly vibrant. Fabolous’ breakout single “Young’n” boasts an infectious Neptunes beat, encapsulating everything that made Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo so successful in the first place; simple, infectious, clean, and crisp. Timbo’s work on “Right Now N Later On” failed to reach the lofty heights of some of his previous bangers, but it’s a good look nonetheless, especially once the complex arrangement gets the chance to evolve. Rick Rock’s “Can’t Deny It” picks up where The Neptunes left off, with punchy percussion and glitchy synth work. And let’s not forget the ominous Gameboy Color masterpiece that is “Keepin It Gangsta.”
Unfortunately, Ghetto Fabolous tends to bog itself down with forgettable production, especially during the album’s latter half. And while the aforementioned songs are among the album’s highlights, it would be remiss to neglect Fab’s effortless bars, flow and charisma as contributing factors. Perhaps Fab might have benefitted from a more focused vision; especially after hearing the way he came to life over Neptunes production. If the label might have thrown Pharrell that bag, who knows what sort of conversation we might be having.
Does Jadakiss ultimately suffer from the same pitfalls on Kiss Tha Game Goodbye? To an extent, yet his project does tend to feel a little more focused. However, anything that runs twenty-one tracks deep will inevitably suffer from some excess bloat. In Jada’s case, the songs with forgettable production often make for the inevitable filler cuts, and tracks like “On My Way,” and “I’m A Gangsta” are simply too anemic to pack any punch. Conversely, DJ Premier’s LOX cut “None Of Ya’ll Better” is a standout, and the legendary producer comes through with an uncharacteristically sinister beat. Alchemist’s string-laden “We Gon’ Make It” instrumental has become iconic, despite coming with little bit of baggage (it was originally meant for Ras Kass, but Alc allegedly switched up on him last minute). Just Blaze’s “It’s Time I See You” is another highlight, bringing the Roc to D Block for an anthemic, triumphant Ruff Ryders banger.
But while Kiss Tha Game Goodbye does possess moments of instrumental excellence, the various production styles pull Jadakiss into too many directions at once. Sure, he’s versatile enough to pull off several directions, yet it prevents the album from establishing a timeless sound. Consider an album from one of his mentors and contemporaries, DMX; the main themes of It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot are enhanced by the cohesive nature of the production. In Jada’s case, he’s simply flexing over too many different styles, which prevents his debut from earning the identity it may very well deserve.
It has been well established that Jadakiss and Fabolous are what they call “a rapper’s rapper, blessed with the ability to make you laugh, scare the shit out of you, steal your girl, or drop knowledge in equal measure. It’s a reputation that still holds true today, and both debut projects played a crucial role in solidifying that. In a recent interview, Jadakiss broke down their styles using their horror-film alter egos: “Freddy [Fab] always have these one-liners and witty things and he’s a little more known for his hat and his sweater, different things like that. Jason [Jadakiss] was just kind of like hard, didn’t talk and you couldn’t get away from him or around him.”
Even back then, the analogy held true.
Lyrically, Fab was widely considered one of the best punchline rappers in the game, as evidenced by tracks like “Click & Spark” or “Keepin’ It Gangsta.” The Freddy Krueger wit was ever-present, as Fab blended threats with humorous and imaginative metaphors: “these n***s gots to be punched, act stupid, get shells in ya stomach, like you ate pasta for lunch.” His lyrics were equally effective upon dropping the wit, and Fab was often at his sharpest when at his most “gangsta:”
“I lay low on the other side of the globe
Carat's hangin out the side of my lobe
Pull in ya drivers side and unload
They find ya when its time for your ride to be towed
On side of the road
With ya brain on ya passenger side of ya Rove”
However, the old adage dictated that every hip-hop debut needed at least one “song for the ladies,” and Fab had a couple of those in “Trade It All” and “Take You Home.” It was an interesting direction for the rapper to go, and he seemed pulled between two vastly different fan bases. The duality was reflected in his lyrics; the effortless casanova of “Young’n” seemed like he’d never approve of the hopeless romantic in “Trade It All.” Still, Fab’s pen game remained strong, and though he never indulged in any particularly dense themes (except for the introspective “Bad Guy”) he managed to remain clever throughout the entirety of project.
Like Fab, Jadakiss was at his best when he was reflecting on the myriad ways he might kill you. He never enjoys it, but rather approaches murder with a righteous sense of duty; it simply has to be done. On songs like “Show Discipline” and “None Of Ya’ll Better,” Jadakiss is at his pinnacle, a young Jason Vorhees capable of trading bars with Nasir Jones. It helps that his flow is razor sharp, and the following verse on “We Gon Make It” showcases some of Jada’s finest lyricism:
“You know dead rappers get better promotion
Why we don't laugh at death, and cry at birth
Never say you can't do it til you try it first
Be the young n***s eager to pull it
But it's a message in everything, trust me, even a bullet
Go to war with the 8 and the pound
Think you got your ear to the street now, put your face in the ground
Cause my shells is expensive
You'll know exactly why when you yellin' in intensive”
However, Jadakiss also had his eye on the ladies, and while he never quite bared all with the emotional vulnerability of his compatriot, he certainly dedicated plenty of time to his sexcapades. “Knock Yourself Out,” and “Nasty Girl” are pretty much identical, as are “Fuckin’ Or What,” and “On My Way.” That’s not to say Jadakiss isn’t coming through on all four tracks, but the similarities in content does tend to feel repetitive after multiple listens. Like Fab, Jadakiss tends to favor guns and women, yet the LOX rapper does take time to drop some knowledge, particularly in the album’s closing moments. Coincidentally, the one-two punch of “Feel Me” and “We Gon’ Make It’ are among the project’s most powerful tracks; the former finds Jadakiss showcasing some storytelling skills that would make Big proud.
It would be unfair to say that either album had a similar impact to some of the classic debuts we’ve covered in the past. Yet Fab and Jada’s debuts are fascinating character studies of two young lyrical prodigies, caught between the allure of superstardom and the call of the streets. As their careers progressed, Fab tended to skew toward the former, and his sophomore album Street Dreams found him immersed even deeper in a pop-rap aesthetic. Jada’s Kiss Of Death also featured a notable increase in label presence, and in some ways, it remains his strongest piece of work thus far. Still, there’s something enjoyable about revisiting these two projects. Perhaps it’s simply nostalgia, a pining for an era long forgotten. Or perhaps there’s something refreshing about witnessing two talented rappers attempting to find an identity, even if it means exploring every direction imaginable.
You’d be missing out if you skipped either one.