Ja Rule – cigar ablaze and drink in hand – stares down and caresses a bound and gagged woman with the word "Fame" tattooed across her bare chest. The back cover art for his forthcoming Pain Is Love 2 (due February 28th) is an apt representation of the rapper and how he views his own celebrity: constraining, toxic, but ultimately seductive.
Grappling with fame was the overarching theme as a small group of writers previewed PIL2 Tuesday night (February 7th) with executive producer Seven (7 Aurelius) at Manhattan's Quad Studios. Seven was a fitting surrogate/guide – Ja is currently incarcerated and serving two years at Mid-State Correctional Facility in Oneida, N.Y. for gun possession and tax evasion – having worked with the rapper for a number of years on their collective biggest hits ("Always on Time" featuring Ashanti, "I'm Real (Remix)" with Jennifer Lopez). They recorded PIL2 in two months, finishing the final song "Pray 4 The Day" ironically the day before Ja was locked up.
"Rule and I made history," Seven mused nostalgically before playing the album.
The operative word of course, is "made", as Ja Rule's fall from grace reads like a textbook rolling of heads from HBO's Game of Thrones. Ja reigned supreme in the late 1990s/early 2000s with a myriad of hits that straddled that all-important line, appeasing women without leaving male fans feeling emasculated. His spot was usurped by newcomer and fellow Queens rapper 50 Cent when 50 threw a string of jabs and marked Ja the pariah du jour. In hip-hop, you were either a 50 Cent fan or a Ja Rule fan and there was no in between. Once Ja was completely marginalized, 50 dealt the real coup de grâce, co-opting an identical musical style and garnering tremendous success.
PIL2 is a loose concept that follows this trajectory. Ja swallows one pill ("pil" stemming from the acronym for Pain Is Love) and becomes immensely successful. He then downs another and finds himself on a bad trip, surrounded by haters and superficiality. "I'm crying everyone's tears," moans Ja on the album opener "Fuck Fame" featuring Leah Siegal, which quickly moves into the thumping, angry percussion of "Real Life Fantasy" featuring Anita Louise. "I'm a rock star/Rick James Mick Jagger/Bright light big stages bad habits/Get high got to prison and evade taxes/This is not what I envisioned/when I started rapping," he gruffly spits with the utmost conviction. "Parachute" and "Drown" further outline the despair of a man spiraling. "You should be smarter/don't jump off the deep end", the rapper says on "Parachute" to his fickle fans and then laments, "Only the flyest niggas get to fall."
Seven's adept production adds heft to every track and melds with Ja's still-pristine bark. On "Never Had Time," which samples "The Way It Is" by Bruce Hornsby and the Range that 2Pac famously flipped on "Changes," there are moments when Ja's timbre emits the same vulnerability as Pac. Lush violins, pounding drums; everything sounds bigger at the hands of Seven. "Spun A Web" featuring Amina cleverly intersperses parts of Coldplay's "Trouble" and when the band refused to clear the sample, the producer reinterpreted the instrumentals on his own with stellar results. Features are relegated mostly to newcomers, aside from Kalenna of Dirty Money, because according to Seven, rapper Rick Ross was the only notable who agreed to contribute to the album (Ross' recent health ailments deterred him from actually recording).
The album's concept deviates briefly, specifically on "Black Vodka" and "Superstar". "Black Vodka" is more reminiscent of traditional Ja fare, a female-friendly cut that draws the metaphor between a sexy woman and vodka with lines like "She goes down so smooth." The bouncy "Superstar" is requisite braggadocio about "Living life like a movie star" and "Making love like a porn star." Not groundbreaking exactly, but they're sonically welcome and cut through what could otherwise be 13 tracks of downers.
The concept comes full circle in the end on the introspective stand out "Pray 4 The Day" featuring Leah Siegal. Ja raps plaintively to his fans to remain steadfast during his sabbatical, "Love is pain and all I ask is y'all to keep Rule in your prayers."
This mirrors real life in which, according to a statement, Ja has undergone a full mental and physical transformation in prison including starting college courses, working on a biographical television show concept and penning a series of letters to possibly be published. Whether PIL2 will resurrect the fallen king and return him as a formidable force in hip-hop remains to be seen.