Few rappers have fallen as fast, as far, and as hard as Ja Rule. From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the Queens native released a string of top 20 Billboard Hot 100 hits and earned four Grammy nominations along the way. He was featured on tracks with Jay Z and DMX and toured alongside Method Man and Redman. Rule rose from a guest appearance to one of the hottest acts in radio rap. Then another Queens native came along and quashed it all.
Life was good for Ja Rule until 50 Cent came into the picture. Within a couple of years, Ja was feuding with Eminem, Dr. Dre, DMX, the whole D12 and G-Unit crews, and even Busta Rhymes. Despite all the hits under his belt, he didn't stand a chance. The beef bulldozed his career. And though a bunch of rappers seemed to voluntarily enlist on both sides, none of those involved took the time to explain to the public the crux of the feud.
A few of Ja's associates from his former label, Murder Inc., have since opened up and claimed that 50 Cent was upset about Ja's success and decided to take shots at Ja on his debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Who knows what 50 was pissed about; he probably doesn't even remember. What people do remember is the disses escalated into an altercation in Atlanta where Ja confronted 50 in a hotel lobby.
According to Ja's memoir, Unruly: The Highs and Lows of Becoming a Man, 50 swung first; Ja dodged and began to beat him back with a toy bat. "Bam! I dropped the bat. I pulled the shirt over his head. I started catching him left, right, uppercut... We proceeded to whip his ass." The event, Ja comically writes, ended with him slamming a big speaker over 50's head as Ja's associates chased 50 into an elevator.
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Ja may have won that cartoonish battle, but he would lose the ensuing war. By that time, 50 Cent was the biggest force in hip-hop, with considerably more street cred than the rom-com couplets Ja Rule frequently spit with longtime collaborator Ashanti. It would take a much bigger bat to put a dent in 50 and the bullet-torn persona he had cultivated.
Ja Rule's 2004 album, R.U.L.E., debuted at number seven, went gold, received lukewarm reviews, and was the last time the rapper contributed anything substantial to his discography. Soon after, Ja dropped off the musical map. Seven years later, he ended up imprisoned for gun possession and tax evasion. Hardly anyone paused to ask, "What ever happened to Ja?"
The IRS and G-Unit ruined Ja Rule back then, but the rap beef had collateral damage: poor Ashanti. In the early 2000s, she and Ja were seen as a sort of king and queen of hip-hop and R&B. In 2003, she won a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album. Her subsequent albums were subpar, and the queen of R&B moved on to play Dorothy on Broadway, never to reclaim her sovereignty.
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Since being released from prison in 2013, Ja has seen — or at least attempted — something of a renaissance. He collaborated with N.O.R.E., Lil Wayne, and Birdman on a record that year. He published his revealing memoir in 2014. He and his family starred in their own reality show, Follow the Rules, on MTV in 2015. Ja and Murder Inc. boss Irv Gotti have banded together again to create a TV drama series focused on the label's troubled past, which they say will appear this year around the time the rapper releases his next album, Coup de Grâce.
Still, the Ja Rule of the early '00s is long gone, and that's a shame because one gets the feeling he wasn't quite done. 50 Cent ushered in a sort of new era in gangster rap that Ja Rule and others like him weren't ready for. When Ja was at his peak, the hip-hop beef wasn't something most prominent MCs needed to be concerned about. But when Ja's guard was down, 50 struck. Could both styles have coexisted? Possibly. Unfortunately, Ja Rule was blindsided by an unstoppable force before he had been given a chance to adapt.
In an interview with Hot 97 two years ago, Ja Rule spoke about his evolution as an artist. "I'm gonna keep doing what I'm doing to be successful," he said. "It entails a lot of things: creativity, phone calls, meetings. Setting up new opportunities for myself. Reinventing myself right now as a different artist from what I was when I first came out." Meanwhile, 50 Cent is still out there bullying kids in airports and filing for bankruptcy. It's still unclear who exactly won in all this mess.