I once saw Ja Rule scream “It’s Murda!” in an elevator. About 12 years ago, when I’d first moved to New York and gone to work for the Village Voice, one of the editors there got the idea that I should go cover the federal money-laundering trial of Irv Gotti, Ja’s producer and label boss, and Irv’s brother Chris. I was a baby music blogger with absolutely no reporting experience, and I went into that assignment with no idea what I was doing. For two or three weeks, I spent every day on the bench in a Brooklyn federal courthouse, attempting to figure out what in the hell was going on. (Michael Clancy, a real reporter who I met on the first day and who later went to work with me at the Voice, was very patient in explaining even the simplest bullshit.) As it turned out, the trial was a real heavyweight match, pitting federal prosecutors with insanely high conviction rates against the finest defense lawyers money could buy. At one point, this hulking guy in a state-prison uniform testified to the judge about how the drug lord Supreme, an associate of the Gottis, had given the order for 50 Cent to be shot; the judge ultimately wouldn’t let the testimony into the trial. It was really something, not least because there were famous people a few feet away from me in court every single day.
Ashanti showed up on the first day of the trial, and when she left, she held her coat over her head and ran away from the photographers outside. Dame Dash was there a lot. Fat Joe showed up once. So did the poker pro Phil Ivey. There was this one amazing moment, when the usually unflappable lead prosecutor was making her closing arguments, when the courtroom door creaked open and Russell Simmons walked in. Behind him, in this beautiful camel-hair turtleneck, was Jay Z, scowling hard and looking vaguely uncomfortable. I wouldn’t say the people in the courtroom gasped, but there was an audible intake of breath. People in the jury were openly staring, and the prosecutor tripped over her words just slightly; it was the only time in weeks that I heard her do that. As for Ja Rule, he was there in that courtroom every single day.
After a few weeks of trial, the jury only deliberated for a couple of hours before declaring both Gotti brothers innocent. Immediately after that verdict was read, I somehow ended up in an elevator with both Gotti brothers and with Ja, and all of them were freaking out. Irv was babbling about how he’d never been in trouble in his life, how he’d never even gotten a jaywalking ticket. And Ja was straight-up howling his own catchphrases at the ceiling. He bellowed that it had been four years, that their time had come and they were going to take over again. When the elevator doors opened, he literally bounced through the courthouse hallway. That was the moment I started liking Ja Rule.
For years, I couldn’t stand Ja Rule. Among rap fans of a particular age, this was a pretty common position. As a rapper, Ja was an unrepentant hit-chaser, a guy who’d hit on a formula and who was going to ride that formula as far as it could possibly go. His whole thing was bellowing coarse sex stuff over silky R&B tracks while women like Ashanti and Jennifer Lopez sang relatively coy sex stuff back at him. His whole thing was that he was a bad boy and that he would give you that wild knucklehead sex, and Ashanti’s whole thing was that she was a reserved good girl who wanted to fuck a bad boy. Those songs sounded one way on the radio, and they sounded like something completely different if you heard the uncensored versions. Ja turned out to be an almost shockingly nasty lyricist when turned loose; to this day, he remains one of the great “wait, that’s what he was saying?” all-stars. The particular duality between Ja and Ashanti, and the chemistry that the two of them brought to it, led to an absolutely dominant years-long string of hits. You couldn’t escape them, and if you so much as heard the hook from “Always On Time” playing from a passing car, it would be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
There were flashes that Ja could be both a very good rapper and a fun personality if he wanted. Most of us had never heard of him when he showed up in Jay’s “Can I Get A…” video, a growling and magnetic DMX/Tupac hybrid with a passionate delivery and a convincingly forbidding aura. For a while, he was part of a loose group with Jay and DMX, which instantly gave him all the credibility that he could possibly ever need; on their posse cut “It’s Murda,” Ja held his own. (He’d done the same thing alongside Jay, X, and Mic Geronimo on “Time To Build” way back in 1995, but most of us didn’t hear that one until years later.) In Backstage, the documentary about Jay’s Hard Knock Life tour, Ja and Irv were endearingly fired-up, unable to believe that they got to spend all this time on the road with these heavyweights. Ja had a fun cameo in the first Fast And The Furious, yelling about menages, and he made a catastrophic career bungle when he turned down a role in the sequel. (That part went to Ludacris, still a series regular.) When 50 Cent finally started brutally dissecting Ja’s entire existence, Ja was able to come up with some stark bangers like 2003’s “Clap Back” in response. The 2004 Fat Joe/Jadakiss collab “New York” is a great razorblade-to-your-face local-pride anthem from a time when New York rap was in steep decline, when the city needed a song like that. Even the 2007 Ja/Lil Wayne collab “Uh Ohhh!,” from the time long after Ja had ceased to be a factor commercially, had a real kick to it, even if that had much more to do with a cresting Wayne than it did with Ja.
But the three-or-so years that Ja was on top were long, and he was so easy to hate. The braying atonal singing! The constant greased-up shirtlessness! The “I Cry” video! The time he dissed DMX, even though he owed both his entire style and his entire existence to the man! The Pauly Shore cameo in the “Livin It Up” video! The entire time I was in college, you could not walk into a party without hearing “WHAT’S MY MOTHERFUCKING NAAAAAME” or “IT MUST BE THE AAAAASSSS.” It felt oppressive. Ja’s entire career played out like a thought experiment: What if DMX, instead of providing a grimy and bone-hard counterpoint to Puff Daddy’s shiny suit era, had gleefully joined in? Ja had no place singing, and he sang on every single song. His breezy love of R&B duets, and the overwhelming success of those duets, meant that every single rapper with aspirations of stardom had to record similar duets; this kept going for years. And when 50 Cent finally emerged, laughing at Ja and publicly calling him a bitch, people like me were delighted to watch Ja’s entire career immolate. (The money-laundering charges against the Gottis didn’t help, either.) 50 would turn out to be, if anything, an even more craven hit-chaser than Ja, but he seemed like a force of impossible vitality at the time, and he absolutely crushed Ja in a few quick and brutal strikes. Ja didn’t stand a chance.
But time has a curious effect. Even for people like me, people who couldn’t stand Ja and who cheered on his downfall, Ja has begun to look like a relic of a more innocent time. Plenty of his peak-era hits are still virtually unlistenable, but they have a bright, overjoyed exuberance that shines through. And in retrospect, they sound like the dot-com boom era, like the moment before George W. Bush and 9/11 came along and turned our collective future into a much bleaker prospect. People who were a few years younger than me, who hadn’t yet turned into music snobs when Ja was peaking, still love those hits, and who am I to say they’re wrong? A few years ago, a couple of friends of mine booked Ja to play a Red Bull-sponsored club show in Chicago, and the city’s scenesters received him rapturously. Last year, Ja and Ashanti did a club tour together, and people seemed to like it. The scene was set for Ja to ride a wave of nostalgia back into our hearts. And then Fyre Fest happened.
Fyre Festival was, of course, some colossally dumb shit: All those hapless rich people freezing in those wet tents, eating their struggle sandwiches, tweeting at the American Embassy to beg for help. I loved it. You probably did, too. It was a perfect storm of viral schadenfreude. And Ja Rule’s presence in every single one of those stories made the whole thing even more beautiful. This story would’ve been a fantastic twisted wreck even without a washed-up rapper showing up to tweet inept apologies. (It also helped that Ja used haphazard caps-lock in his apology, and that you can totally imagine him saying “NOT A SCAM” and “NOT MY FAULT” in his “IT MUST BE THE AAAAASSSS” voice.)
In a way, I feel bad for Ja. This amazing story, from a woman who spent a few days working on the festival, includes an anecdote about Ja giving a toast at an organizer meeting: “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.” That is a brutally dumb thing to say out loud, and it also reminds me of Ja in that elevator, overjoyed at the career renaissance that absolutely was not about to happen. In any case, it seems pretty likely that Fyre was not Ja’s brainchild, that this is a case of a money-grubbing shithead tech-money hustler using a once-famous rapper’s quasi-big name in his effort to get people spend thousands to go watch Major Lazer in a muddy field near some beaches. But Ja was dumb enough to put his name on it, which means he’s getting hit with the same lawsuits as his partners.
Now: It’s not like Ja Rule had much of a career that this thing could’ve ruined. Still, there’s been a real tide of goodwill lately toward the rap stars of the late ’90s — a byproduct, I suppose, of that era’s children growing into adults with spending power. Last year, Puff Daddy reunited much of the late-’90s Bad Boy roster and toured arenas. This year, DMX and Ruff Ryders are doing something similar. I’m guessing that Cadillac Tah and Black Child are somewhere hoping that the same thing will eventually happen with Murder Inc. The Ja Rule era was about due for, if not a comeback, at least some kind of reappraisal. But after last weekend, that’s looking about as likely as Fyre Fest 2018.
1. Westside Gunn – “Raw Is Flygod”
An absolutely masterful 14-minute shit-talk marathon packed with beat changes and samples of vintage wrestling promos: What’s not to like? Ever since he signed with Eminem, Westside Gunn has been on a mission, it seems, to show us that he can get even more grimy. Bless him.
2. Nef The Pharaoh – “Bling Blaow” (Feat. Slimmy B)
There is nothing more beautiful than a perfectly executed Bay Area rap bassline. I also love the line about diamonds changing color like a gecko, mostly because I’m pretty sure geckos don’t change colors.
3. G Perico – “Gets My Staccs” (Feat. Polyester)
It’s hard to pick one highlight from Perico’s new album All Blue, a beautifully realized collection of vintage West Coast head-slap music. But “Gets My Staccs,” on which Perico promises to rifle through your purse after having sex with you, might be the one.
4. Snoop Dogg – “Mount Kushmore” (Feat. Method Man, Redman, & B-Real)
For once, the title here is not an exaggeration. There are absolutely no rappers more famously associated with weed than these four. And I’m delighted to report that Redman walks away with the track in his back pocket: “I’m shittin’ on ‘em, I smell like a winner / Don’t hit the bathroom for like 40, 45 minutes.”
5. MC Eiht – “Represent Like This” (Feat. DJ Premier & WC)
And speaking of cross-coastal collaborations of ’90s legends, here’s one of rap’s all-time top-five producers throwing DJ scratches on a song he didn’t produce, backing up two old guys who still sound exactly as hard as they did a quarter-century ago.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
The internet still remains undefeated pic.twitter.com/oPogPspj9Z
— Black Bulma (@IAMTAYLORHALL) April 30, 2017