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Hip-hop in the 90s was, for the most part, about encouraging others to be more socially aware. Sure, there were club records, songs about gang banging, and fighting the police. But A Tribe Called Quest was wildly popular, as were other acts with a message or story to tell like The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, De la Soul — the list goes on and on. “Electric Relaxation” and “I Used To Love H.E.R.” come to mind. Downtempo, melodic lyrics over jazz-inspired beats.
When the late 90s turned into the early 2000s we saw a paradigm shift in popular hip-hop. No longer were the hit songs about race relations, a better future, or the plight of the destitute. Rims, grills, luxury fashion brands, and ass dominated radio waves of this time period. The old guard (Jay-Z, Puffy, Dr. Dre, and a bunch of record executives I don’t know the names of) ushered in the likes of Nelly, Chingy, Eminem, and 50 Cent. Being from the East or West Coast no longer seemed to be matter. You could be from St. Louis, Detroit, Texas — it simply wasn’t an issue like it was during the boom of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. This early to mid-2000s era of rap music was important, even if you look back now and cringe at some of the songs you were jamming to on your first generation iPod in 2001.
I can remember it vividly now — riding a bus to elementary school in ’02 or ‘03 — everyone either rocking a Discman, an mp3 player, or MAYBE an iPod mini if your parents would buy you one. And everybody was listening to the same fucking song — “In Da Club” by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. A man who would go on to dominate the pop culture scene until right around 2007, when his album Curtis was released on the same day as Kanye West’s “Graduation.” A genius marketing stunt, but this was the beginning of the end for 50 Cent the rapper. He’s now more well known for his stock in Vitamin Water and filing for bankruptcy. It would be interesting to ask a child born in, say, 1995 or ’96, if they’ve ever even heard “In Da Club”.
But that’s not really what I’m concerned about. I was always a big Usher fan in elementary school, vibing to songs like “U Don’t Have To Call” and “U Remind Me.” Okay, maybe it wasn’t that I was such a big Usher fan. I wanted to listen to Eminem, 50 Cent, Baby, and Ludacris like all of the other kids at my school. But my mother wouldn’t buy me any of the CDs with the explicit warning on the front, so I made due with what my parents would allow. And then, seemingly from the heavens, America was introduced to the World Wide Web as we know it today. Sure, households had been using dial-up internet to send email since the 90s, but Napster came on the scene in 1999, just a hair shy of when I really began to use computers. By 2002, Napster was shut down, but a host of copycat websites existed, and every kid who knew how to use a desktop hopped on one of the following pirate ships to download all the explicit music their little heart could desire: Bearshare, Kazaa, LimeWire, FrostWire, Morpheus, Vuze — you get the idea. There were a million of these “Peer 2 Peer” networks with seemingly no regulation.
And then, suddenly, I could be a 50 Cent guy. I could listen “The Slim Shady LP” with no repercussions. But there was one artist that I think people forget about, and who I was especially fond of when I downloaded LimeWire sometime in 2003 or 2004. His name was Ja Rule, a rapper from Queens, New York. A hitmaker and a showman in every sense of the word. I couldn’t get enough Ja Rule. My parents barely knew how to send an email. They sure as shit didn’t know that I was in the computer room listening to “New York” by Ja Rule and Fat Joe.
“I got a hundred guns, a hundred clips… I got a semi-automatic that spits next time if you talk.”
Quite literally, the least relatable lyrics to the life I was living at the time of this song’s release. I’m not sure Ja and company wrote “New York” with 12-year-old white boys from Michigan in mind, but I was nonetheless jamming to it.
Ja’s name seems to be forgotten from the history books. How did a guy who made a million hits with Ashanti — the princess of R&B — get cast aside and thrown in gutter? Deleted from the annals of rap history. I still hear “U Remind Me” by Usher at the bar sometimes. But Ja Rule can’t get any love?
Ja Rule may be the most underrated rapper of the early to mid-2000s. I like to refer to him as the Lord of The Feature. Name a month from 2000 to 2007. It felt like the man was on AT LEAST one top ten billboard hit yelling “RUUUUUULLLLLEEE BABY!”.
Take, for example, the critically acclaimed worldwide smash “Wonderful” by Ja Rule, R. Kelly, and Ashanti. If I was anywhere near puberty at the time of this song’s release, I would have been trying to play this one during a trip to the bedroom. A sexually charged masterpiece if I’ve ever heard one. This, or course, wasn’t even his best song with Ashanti.
I’m not positive, but I’m fairly certain Ja and Ashanti had a thing for a few years because they released hit after hit after hit. And nobody could possibly make that many fantastic songs unless there was sex involved. They were the first of their kind. A rapper and a songstress collaborating to make radio friendly hits for all ages. Following the popularity of the rapper and r&b singer collaboration, we then saw copycats like Bow Wow and Ciara. I know you remember that song “Like You.”
“I ain’t never had nobody show me all the things that you done showed me/and the special way I feel when you hold me.”
Certified trash. Thanks for ruining a good thing Bow Wow. Fucking Bow Wow. Nelly and Kelly Rowland did it with “Dilemma,” although that was a great song so you’re not going to get shade from me for that. “Mesmerize.” “Always On Time.” “What’s Love.” “Down 4 U.” Those are all Ashanti and Ja Rule joints.
But what about Ja’s solo records?
Have you ever heard “Livin’ It Up”? If it weren’t for “Return of the Mack” (extended seven-minute version, obviously), “Livin’ It Up” might take the top spot for me as favorite song of all time. Three minutes and fifty-two seconds of pure, unadulterated bliss. Instant game changer for any situation. Put it on at work and get lost in that raspy ass voice. Forget that you’re sitting in a cubicle and get transported to an island, riding jet skis and smoking blunts with Ja Rule. Are the guests at your daytime party getting a little groggy? Put “Livin’ It Up” on and you’ll have every ass within earshot shaking on the dance floor. The tropical smoothness, accompanied by a sample from Stevie Wonder was Grammy nominated. It also was responsible for catapulting Ja Rule to the top of the pop charts. I can’t personally relate to lyrics like “Getting blown while blowing the doja” but I’ll absolutely dance to it and rap every single word. It slaps, and that’s not up for argument.
So here’s to Ja Rule. The rest of the world may have forgotten about you, but just know you have an incredibly privileged, pasty ass white boy in Chicago who still loves your music. God bless all of you, and please, for the love of everything that is holy, always remember to live it up. .
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