Murder Inc / Def Jam, 2000
R&B starts to invade Hip Hop. The sung choruses are becoming more and more present among the rapped verses of the rappers. A trend that was initiated by Puff Daddy already on Notorious BIG’s albums, and more particularly on Life After Death. Commercially, it’s a very good move by Puff Daddy since it makes the songs more radio friendly and allows to reach a new audience while touching the Hip Hop audience. Musically, it’s more questionable, it can take away some authenticity in Hip Hop which is usually more hardcore.
Rap/R&B will be the trend of the early 2000s, carried by artists like Ja Rule, Nelly and also 50 Cent. Ja Rule will be one of the major figures, with the commercial success that goes with it. However, before becoming one of the major stars of rap/R&B, inspired by 2pac and Biggie, Ja Rule didn’t seem to take this direction.
In fact, a group called Murder Inc. with Jay-Z, DMX and Ja Rule was to be born, under the impulse of Irv Gotti. Some tracks reuniting the trio were released, such as Time To Build by Mic Geronimo on The Natural in 1995 or Murdergram on the soundtrack Streets Is Watching in 1998. Although some tracks were recorded for a common album, the conflicted relation between Jay-Z and DMX will prevent the project to materialize. Jay-Z will continue with his own label Roc-A-Fella under Def Jam, DMX on Ruff Ryders and Ja Rule will sign for a first album on Murder Inc. with Irv Gotti. Although all three artists went their separate ways, they would become some of the biggest names in New York rap in the late 90s and early 2000s, both commercially and musically.
With Irv Gotti as his manager and producer, Ja Rule released his first album Venni Vetti Vecci in 1999, which was highly acclaimed by the critics and became multi-platinum, especially thanks to the success of the single Holla Holla. Ja Rule, still at this time with Jay-Z and DMX by his side, slipped directly into the top rappers of the moment. However, Ja Rule’s musical identity was not yet totally defined, and this first album sounded more like a second DMX with his hoarse voice and his a bit gruff style, which the latter would reproach him.
Once the final break between the three members of the presupposed group, Ja Rule will start to define his own identity, a style halfway between raw and hardcore Thug rap and a more sensitive and emotional lover R&B. A very interesting contrast inspired by 2pac that he will start to exploit from his second album Rule 3:36.
With this album, Ja Rule makes his character of murderer with a gangsta and violent rap, while integrating many sung choruses and softer tracks. Ja is a thug lover, who is not afraid to confess his feelings, sometimes even his weaknesses when it comes to love. It’s the contrast between the harshness of some of the lyrics and the gruffness of the Queens rapper’s gravelly voice with the smoothness of the R&B that is very interesting here. With his deep and sizzling voice, the sung passages are very convincing especially combined with the different female artists who accompany him on the chorus, notably Vita, Christina Milian or Lil Mo.
Even if the intention is clearly mainstream with a pair of radio-friendly hits, notably Put It On Me or I Cry, other harder tracks come along. The productions shared between Irv Gotti and Lil Rob keep you on the edge of your seat with slow and overall dark rhythms. Die is a track as violent in the interpretation as obscure in the beat, Extasy brings the funky touch and Between Me & You makes travel with its slightly oriental sounds. The guitar rock of Watching Me brings its share of brutality where Ja Rule is free to express himself with his gangsta ego trip, while he is more sincere on I Cry with a very soft and melodious beat. The false schizophrenia of Love Me, Hate Me is interesting in its construction.
Ja Rule will be one of the major actors of the RnBification of Hip Hop in the early 2000s, and it is with this album that he starts the process. Halfway between the hardness of Venni Vetti Vecci and the rap/R&B of Pain Is Love, 3:36 is a nice balance between ferocity and softness. Sure, it’s commercial, but Ja Rule has that extra edge with his rocky voice and sing-songy choruses that make his identity.