Whoever said gangsta rap was dead had better not tell Ja Rule, whose 2001 CD Pain Is Love is a relentless monument to the beleaguered genre. The CD opens with the sound of sirens and the voice of a dispatch operator, setting the stage for trouble to come. The dramatic sound effects accompany Ja Rule delivering the aforementioned opening “skit”; the words of a world-weary delinquent who continues along his chosen path while yearning for escape.
But that’s the end of the heartfelt moments on this CD. Radio-friendly tracks like “I’m Real”, the poppy duet with J-Lo, are not representative of Pain Is Love, which mainly consists of songs dedicated to the thug life. And, as if to convince listeners that the few pleasant-sounding melodies that show up on the CD really are an exception to the Rule, this recording contains 16 or so tracks that rap on (and on) about selling (and using) drugs, packing (and using) weapons, dissing (and using) women, and generally contributing to the juvenile delinquency factor while riding around in expensive cars. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary—just another day in the life of your average, record-producing thug.
But Ja Rule’s introductory monologue suggests that smoking, balling and popping Cris’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what with the pressures of selling rock and the constant possibility of getting busted hanging over your head. After all, as the man says, he’s got a baby girl to feed. But this apparently is not reason enough to turn away from the joys of crime—or, at least, recording records about said joys.
The songs on Pain Is Love lack the poignancy that listeners such as myself often find redemptive in this type of music; but that fact points to just how specifically (and successfully) Ja Rule has pinpointed his target audience. Pain Is Love is skillfully produced formula for an exclusive crowd; one which requires little more from the music than extended soundtracks for their nightly exploits. The CD has plenty of catchy hooks and mellow beats, and even some inspired riffs that help Ja Rule stand out from the crowd.
The tracks on this album contain the right beats to make listeners’ heads bounce. But more thoughtful music lovers will simply shake their heads at the profuse profanity and misogynistic philosophies Ja Rule perpetuates with Pain Is Love. According to the songs herein, women are good only for being loyal to their men, causing trouble for their men, and providing sexual entertainment for their men—preferably while the women are stoned beyond reason on illegal drugs. The women who contribute to the tracks go along with the whole routine, happily providing the vocals on songs like the popular “Always on Time” and “I’m Real”. The participation of these female vocalists attests to the idea that there are probably plenty of misguided females who would gladly give up their dignity for a chance to be considered a “Down Ass Bitch” (the title of another song on the CD) by a high-profile player like Ja Rule.
Pain Is Love is symbolic of the issues that hip-hop, and other forms of entertainment, raise for conscious listeners in contemporary society. Should influential men like Ja Rule feel any obligation at all to demonstrate respect, toward women, toward other men, toward the audiences whose dollars support their careers? The answer is a resounding no, if recordings like Pain Is Love are any indication. Ja Rule is all about rolling the dough and tea leaves, making videos with scantily-clad women, and making appearances on the music network shows that play said videos. There is no moral mission here, and the language and mentality of the music prove it. Each and every lyric is liberally laced with expletives and slurs, lest we forget that the rapper is “real”. Song titles like “Dial M for Murder” (in which we learn from Ja Rule that “thugs cry”), “Smokin’ and Ridin’”, and “World Wide Gangsta” tell exactly where Ja Rule is coming from—no mistakes and no apologies, Pain Is Love earns its parental advisory.
Still, there is a lot more to Ja Rule than the surface of his music suggests. Beneath the scowling exterior lies the wit and creativity that can ultimately be credited for the man’s success. Like others in the game, Ja Rule has displayed considerable marketing savvy with this offering, selling his brand of danger-ridden street rhymes to the masses with a kind of jaded street sense. Teaming up with Latina chameleon Jennifer Lopez and getting permission from musical giant Stevie Wonder to lay new tracks over “Do I Do” were calculated feats that successfully garnered maximum exposure and ultimate success for Pain Is Love. His bad-boy good looks and gritty, brown-sugar vocals are just a part of Ja Rule’s appeal. He knows just what works, and he’s working it.
In the meantime, one can only hope that Ja Rule is also locking down his bankroll while recording music that he truly feels is meaningful. Interestingly, in the album notes, Ja Rule acknowledges his grandmother, whom he knows “does not agree” with what he’s doing, and thanks her for her love and support. Since pressures from family can often provide the most loving pain of all, Ja Rule can be credited for sticking to his artistic vision.
I hope that Pain Is Love is neither the best nor the last CD we’ll hear from Ja Rule. It will interesting to see if, at some point, this talented artist will start recording lyrics that beloved females in his life, from his grandmother to his daughter, can repeat with pride.
// Notes from the Road
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