At first glance, Ja Rule may seem the prototypical hip-hop artist. Mixing hard-hitting, streetwise raps with fluid, more introspective rhymes, Ja has quickly made a name for himself as a multi-talented songwriter and recording artist.
But what makes the Ja Rule story even more impressive is the level of success he's attained with each of his three albums, culminating in his current disc, Pain Is Love, which debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart and was certified platinum within five weeks of its release. In November, he was, in effect, battling himself on the singles chart, with his own "Livin' It Up" and a remix of Jennifer Lopez's "I'm Real" (prominently featuring Ja's vocals) stalking each other into the Top 10. Throw in a burgeoning film career (with roles in last year's Turn It Up and this year's hit The Fast and the Furious), and you're looking at someone who's a multiple threat.
"I stepped into my own lane, and I'm setting standards in how things are done," Ja proclaims. "The music is just coming from my heart. I dealt with life issues, straight up. It's much more personal."
Guest performers on Pain Is Love include Missy Elliott ("A lot of fun to work with") and, via samples, the late Tupac Shakur. "A lot of people make the comparison between Pac and I because they feel the passion of my music like they felt the passion in his," he says.
The hardcore realism that simmers throughout the album is a testament to Ja's commitment. "I got [Pain Is Love] tattooed over my heart," he explains. "It's about all the pains and heartaches you'll go through."
Though his success seems to have almost come from nowhere, Ja did spend several years building his skills. His first recorded appearance came on a B-side by Mic Geronimo in 1995, before a high-profile appearance on Jay-Z's colossal 1998 hit "Can I Get A..." broke the doors wide open. His debut album, 1999's Venni Vetti Vecci, repaid the debt by featuring Jay-Z as well as DMX; a future superstar was born.
Nevertheless, the 25-year-old father of two young children is already forming a somewhat surprising new career plan. "I think I'm going to retire after two more albums," he says. "I don't want to stop making music, because I love that. But I want to retire from the actual job of being an artist. I want to be able to star in movies and do soundtracks just because I love to do it."
Given Ja Rule's track record so far, it would be absurd to argue with him.