October 4, 2001

Between Gangster and Pop Star

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On his new album Pain is Love, Ja Rule makes an attempt to avoid sounding like a generic rapper who revels in his extravagant ghetto superstar lifestyle. He experiments with some interesting, futuristic sounds reminiscent of cutting edge hip-hop producer Timbaland’s style and trying to move beyond the shallowness of Beamers and scantily clad women. He does this by, as the album’s title suggests, promising to vulnerably share all the pain of being a product of the projects. Despite his good intentions, though, Rule’s overall effort is a very uneven one.

The messages of the songs seem to contradict one another, and his inexperience as a producer is evident in the very abrupt and illogically placed beats. Worst of all, he doesn’t live up to the promise of revealing a more 3-dimensional outlook on the gangster world. Instead, he ends up seeming like another run of the mill tough guy, ostentatiously throwing his Benjamins around and spending them on his harem of adulating admirers.

Prior to this album, Rule was already treading the precarious waters of maintaining street credibility while amassing popularity in mainstream radio. Many criticized him for playing it too safe and getting too poppy on his sophomore album Rule 3:36, foregoing his raspy rapping talents in favor of ear friendly R&B singing duets with featured female artists — as on the hits “I Cry” and “Between Me and You.”

On Pain is Love, Rule tries to please both rap and pop audiences, continuously switching between the traditional heavy background beat and the catchy hook. Rule’s transition from the somber to the happy is a bit awkward and confusing. He unintentionally trivializes his “hard knocks” life experiences with these frivolous tracks, and the whole goal of sharing the message of his pain seems to have been lost.

The beginning of the album starts off very promisingly. The intro “Pain is Love” dramatically incorporates foreboding sirens and newscasts, along with Rule’s voiceover, to create an intimate atmosphere of intensity and despair. The transition into “Dial M For Murder” is smooth and stays consistent with the theme, using the eerie electronically-enhanced beats to convey the serious mood. But for the majority of the latter half, he drops the whole hardened-but-vulnerable act to play the role of the lascivious ladies’ man.

Although the middle pop-sounding part of the album disappointingly deviates from the initial strong start, this is where Rule’s abilities as a producer shine. Already an expert at composing irresistibly catchy hooks like his famous one for Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A…,” Rule continues the tradition with tracks like “Livin’ It Up” and “Always On Time.” He is able to find that perfect combination of a memorable catch-phrase with a light-hearted, repetitious background melody sure to easily embed itself into the listener’s head.

This section of the album, like his previous release, also has plenty of R&B duets with female artists. His collaborations with J. Lo on “I’m Real” and rapper Chuck in “Down A** B**ch” are both excellent, playfully revealing the complexities of male-female relationships through his gruff rasp and the women artists’ softer yet attitude-filled voices.

Rule does somewhat successfully combine experimental sounds and memorable pop hooks while rapping about something meaningful. For instance, he addresses his urban life on “Worldwide Gangsta” and “So Much Pain.”

But moments like these are very few, and he too often falls into the extremes of either being too pop-sounding or relying on some novelty gimmick to make him seem a hip trendsetter. Most importantly, he neglects to delve into his personal life and pain for the listener to get a sense of who Ja Rule the individual is.

Perhaps the future will see a more mature Rule refocusing on his rap to share a private side of himself instead of presenting the typical tough, flashy gangster. There are some tell-tale signs on Pain is Love of a performer who has the potential to share, experiment, and sell all at the same time.

Archived article by Sherry Jun