Ever since the early days of hip hop, hungry young artists have seized guest appearances as golden opportunities to create a name for themselves and to grab the attention of the hip-hop world with a memorable verse.
When Jay-Z dropped his commercial breakthrough In My Lifetime Vol. 2, the first single off the album included a previously unknown, rough-voiced MC who spit his way into the consciousness of the rap world with the lines, “It ain’t even a question/how my dough flows/I’m good to these bad hos.” This quickly rising star was Ja Rule, an artist who soon proved to be diminutive only in stature.
Rule took advantage of the strong buzz that he generated on “Can I Get A . . .” to became a successful solo artist, releasing his debut Venni Vetti Vecci to strong praise in 1999. Eventually dropping Rule 3:36 to the delight of not only his hardcore fan base but also to the crossover crowd as well, he attempted to capture some of the fan base that had possibly been left untouched by his debut.
Newly added to his increasingly diverse repertoire were duets with then relatively unknown R&B singers. “Between Me and You,” “I Cry” and “Put It On Me” featured now-popular female singers Vita, Christina Milian and Lil Mo.
These duets used the extreme contrast between Rule’s gruff flow and his R&B counterparts’ sweet voices to create hit songs, acceptable on both sides of his steadily growing fan base. Rule 3:36 went platinum and made the artist a bona fide star in the hip-hop community. With his third release, Pain Is Love, Rule attempts to attain a spot in the exclusive club of reliable rappers who consistently deliver on their loud promises of musical greatness.
On this album the Queens-based rapper moves further away from the tough street tales of his debut and more toward his recent affinity for producing love songs. This summer Ja Rule’s first single off the album, a particularly smooth duet with Jennifer Lopez titled “I’m Real,” became a smash hit, perhaps his largest ever.
While the album does have several songs that are obviously meant to appeal to those who favor the crime tales of his debut, Pain Is Love saves the quality beats for the romantic/party ballads. Be it “Always On Time”, or the Stevie Wonder-sampled “Livin’ it Up,” the direction Rule is taking moves him even closer to becoming a “TRL” staple.
Longtime Ja Rule collaborator Irv Gotti executive-produced Pain Is Love, yet he doesn’t rise up to his usual high standards. The beats get very repetitive, and the majority of the tracks blend into one another without truly grabbing the listener. The production on Venni Vetti Vecci was dominated by dark, soulful beats combined with pounding bass and powerful samples. Pain is Love is without the intense beats of his debut, and the new rap/R&B sound he has employed takes away from Rule’s rough demeanor.
However, the strongest cut on the album is a throwback to Ja Rule’s old sound. “So Much Pain,” a reworked Tupac Shakur song, has a touching beat combined with the soulful voices of the background singers that make the song nearly as powerful as it was when Tupac first did it. While Ja Rule sounds potent on the deeply affecting song, one cannot get past the fact that this was a "Pac track. The haunting samples of the dead rapper proclaiming “They’ll never take me alive” remind the listener that this is not an original composition.
The album has its high points, among them the aforementioned “So Much Pain” and the highly addictive “I’m Real,” which might be the guilty-pleasure song of the year. Lopez and Rule have terrific chemistry, and they perform on the track like they’ve been working together for years. Another standout cut off the album is Rule’s attempt at speaking to all the troubled females that he comes across, “Lost Little Girl.” This song showcases Rule’s versatile ability to use his gruff voice to dually sing the chorus and attack the track with his rhymes.
Ever since he debuted with his explosive guest appearance on “Can I Get A . . .”, Rule has been compared to several other high-profile artists. Initially mistook by many for his Def Jam counterpart DMX, Ja Rule invokes more memories of Tupac than any other MC. Critics and fans alike have drawn parallels in the way that both rappers attack tracks with an undeniably charismatic and unbridled fervor, the deep symbolism that both artists use and the ability that both seem to bring to the table.
With Pain is Love, fans expected a triumph for Ja Rule, a classic album that would put him in an exclusive class of artists. However, the album does not rise up to the standards that Rule has set for himself. Stuck in the region separating rap success from superstardom, the vertically challenged artist comes up short with an album that fails to elevate his status in the hip-hop world.