A cursory internet search reveals that a pretty substantial amount of folks who have reviewed incarcerated former rapper Ja Rule’s latest record, Pain Is Love 2, appear to have not actually listened to it. Granted, they can’t really be blamed: Ja’s run of rapped/sung hits back in the early 2000’s mainly gained him teenage fans, who, weirdly enough, eventually grew up, and given that he generally carries himself with the swagger of a Tupac Muppet, critics’ preemptive dismissal of new Ja Rule material can be easily understood. Still, the web’s consensus seems to be that PIL2 is a rote retread of it’s 2001 antecedent, a yawning, last-ditch gasp for crumbs from the table of mainstream acceptance, and that’s patently untrue: in fact, it’s generally a downbeat rumination on Rule’s fall from grace and the fickle nature of fame, short on floor-fillers, long on introspection.
It’s an important distinction to make when offering a credible opinion: illustrating that you at least have a passing familiarity with the material that one is passing judgment on. It’s also important to note that nothing I’ve said here actually implies that Pain In Love 2 is any good.
PIL2 is, generally speaking, a fairly dark album; we like to dismiss those who whine about falling out of favor with audiences–rich people problems!–but it’s a pretty terrifying thing to think about, the idea of gaining widespread cultural acceptance and having it unceremoniously snatched away from you. To add insult to injury, Ja Rule’s beef with 50 Cent is generally accepted as the blast that torpedoed his career; on paper, it seems like a pretty even match-up, pitting two of the early ’00s most inexplicably famous (read: awful) emcees against each other, but consider that 50 Cent pals around with Eminem (who willingly leapt into the fray), and it seems a foregone conclusion that Rule was going home empty-handed.
And so, the intro to this record–tellingly subtitled “Fuck Fame”–makes reference to “crying everybody else’s tears”. It’s an interesting sentiment, but let’s be honest: there’s no getting past Ja’s laconic delivery and grizzly singsongs. Perhaps there would be if there was anything compelling, lyrically, to chew on beneath it all. In fact, the most interesting thing to truly be said about PIL2 is that it’s not as flagrantly bad as Ja Rule’s previous chart successes; unfortunately, in a lot of ways, mediocrity is almost worse than blatant incompetence. PIL2 doesn’t even offer Lil’ Wayne lyricism; if it did, we’d at least have a few spectacularly dumb turns of phrase to laugh at. PIL2 comes and goes without a second thought; we’re two months into the year and Ja Rule is already making a bid for least essential rap record of 2012.
I mean, there are mildly interesting flourishes. The bluesy, rootsy instrumental for “Black Vodka” sounds like the sort of track that would be a smooth highlight from any number of artists, and Rule doesn’t quite ruin that–it’s the only track here that revisits his heyday of off-kilter crooning love songs, after all–but he doesn’t do it justice, either. Similarly, the production for “Drown” is appealingly minimalist and appears to set the stage for the sort of stark, icy self-probe that Drake scored big with last year, but all we wind up with is Ja Rule’s amorphous mumble-flow, a few stabs of death-rattle Autotune, and an emcee that quotes one-hit wonders Nine Days. It’s all hip-hop by numbers–a couple of fun production flourishes, sure, but nothing beyond that but a hodgepodge of beats that sound like other songs (listen to “Never Had Time” and Chris Brown’s “Forever” back to back) and hook singers that sound like other, better singers (witness Kalina’s best Rihanna impression on “To the Top”).
So if you’ve read that PIL2 is a carbon copy of Pain Is Love, you’ve been misinformed. Unfortunately, the small but vocal contingent of heads that insist that PIL2 is a shockingly good inversion of the Ja Rule aesthetic have also misinformed you; in reality, it’s a faceless, inessential rap album that doesn’t even do us the good service of failing with gusto. To paraphrase: this record is boring. Eloquence is overrated.