eleasing an album a year is almost standard practice in hip-hop, but few can boast several consecutive years of back-to-back releases, and even fewer can hope to compete with Jay-Z's eight year streak. Though few will admit it, Ja Rule is one of the few who did come close, with six albums in six years and several million sold. But in contrast to Jay's almost unanimous acclaim and popularity, Ja Rule is possibly the most hated multi-platinum artist of the past decade this side of Creed, reviled by critics and underground hip-hop heads alike, as well as probably a fair number of the people who bought his albums.
This isn't entirely Ja Rule's own fault. Plenty of rap stars have taken their fame for granted and insulted their audience's intelligence with brainless love raps, but few took that approach to the bank more successfully and relentlessly than Jeffrey Atkins Represents Unconditional Love Existence. In 2002, after three albums, each of which sold roughly twice as much as the last, mounting anti-Ja sentiment found a very vocal spokesperson in the form of rising superstar 50 Cent, who waged a savage and frequently hilarious smear campaign against his Queens competitor. But contrary to popular belief, 50 Cent didn't halt Ja Rule's career. It was already crumbling. The Last Temptation and its single "Thug Lovin'" featuring Bobby Brown flopped a couple months before Get Rich Or Die Tryin' was released or most people even really knew who 50 Cent was. He just accelerated Ja's downfall.
In a move that can be either be seen as admirable or suicidal, Ja Rule never retreated, even as his fanbase retreated from him, continuing to release albums in 2003 and 2004 that each struggled to reach Gold status. But as 2005 came to a close and his good friend and Murder Inc. label boss Irv Gotti was still embroiled in a money laundering trial, Ja Rule finally broke his album-a-year streak by releasing a greatest hits collection, Exodus, in lieu of a new album. So now, while Ja still seems to be hanging onto the hope of a major comeback, seems to be a good time to look back on what happened to his career in the first place.
Exodus may not be an enticing listen for most, but there's no getting around the fact that it features roughly a dozen of the biggest hip-hop radio hits of the past few years. Although the selection is sometimes muddled by the inclusion of a few new tracks and non-hits, and the conspicuous absence of some major hits, it's nonetheless nearly a complete picture of one of the biggest pop rap franchises of this decade.
Ja's first solo hit, 1999's "Holla Holla" is preceded by two new tracks. "Exodus (Intro)" is a stark reminder that Ja's cookie monster growl really can sound fantastic over gritty New York hip-hop, with an uncharacteristically hard beat from 7 Aurelius, the producer responsible for many of Murder Inc.'s softest, slickest R&B; hits. And then there's "Me," a dull attempt at a new club anthem. But from track three onward, the middle 2/3rds of Exodus is a straight up hit parade.
Some of Ja Rule's most sugary pop confections, particularly the Ashanti collaborations "Always On Time" and "Mezmerize," might leave a sour taste, but beyond those, Exodus exhibits a body of work that holds up surprisingly well. ""Livin' It Up" featuring Case and "Wonderful" featuring R. Kelly and Asanti are slick radio jams of the highest order, and "New York" featuring Fat Joe and Jadakiss is one of the East coast's strongest street records of the past couple years.
But even on some of the collection's better songs, the criticisms leveled at Ja Rule are legitimized. Ja was frequently accused of imitating 2Pac and DMX, but on the mournful, sincere "I Cry," he shows range by imitating Scarface. And "Clap Back," the sole inclusion from Blood In My Eye, the 2003 flop released at the height of his beef with 50 Cent, is one of Ja's hardest singles, but also shows how poor he is at hardcore rap without the kind of expert assistance he later got on "New York." "Clap Back" begins with over a minute of Ja ad-libbing, sometimes with multiple voices layered over each other into a paranoid, incomprehensible babble before the hook even starts. And once he does actually rap, it's a venomous, unfocused mess.
"Put It on Me" featuring Vita is one of the greatest, if not the greatest love rap of its era, a dramatic, gamelan-driven masterpiece. But unfortunately, the album version is featured on Exodus instead of the superior single mix in which singer Lil Mo's melodic ad-libs cover up Ja's shortcomings as a hook singer and bolster the song's emotional impact. The disappointing omissions don't end there unfortunately. Rule 3:36's lead single "Between Me And You" featuring Christina Milian is strangely missing, as is the Pain Is Love hit "Down Ass Chick" featuring Charli Baltimore. But while the "I'm Real (Remix)," his 2001 smash with Jennifer Lopez is absent, the superior J. Lo collabo, "Ain't It Funny (Remix)" does appear.
Between Exodus's most recent hits from 2004 and the closing new track "Exodus (Outro)," Ja slips in three non-singles from his first three albums to fill out the CD's 78-minute running time. "Never Again," "Daddy's Little Baby," and "Love Me, Hate Me" are each slightly more serious and lyrical than Ja's best known songs, and go a little way towards showing that Ja Rule made more than just pop jams. But if you want to hear that, the albums themselves are lining used bins everywhere. When you put on Exodus, you want to hear the hits, and for the most part, that's what it gives you.