Ja Rule traded murda for melody and gave birth to a new era of harmonizing lyricists with his undeniable hit record, “Put it On Me” (2000)
Sensitive thugs all need hugs. But few extend their arms as brazenly as bandana-clad MC Ja Rule. Predating modern-day emo-rap bastion Drake, Ja piggybacked the beginner vocals of his own creepin’ anthem “Between Me and You” with full-blown singing on his mawkish spinner “Put It On Me.”
“I was in the doghouse,” says the 34-year-old rapper, “arguing [with my wife] about stupid shit… I said, ‘I’m gonna go somewhere else with this.’”
It was a needed shift for a niche-less Jeffrey Atkins back in 2000, after DMX dropped dual No. 1 albums in a calendar year (1998’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot; Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood) and Jay-Z made Annie more famous than Broadway could with “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” during the same span. Jigga had glitz. X had grime. So Ja chased the girls. The Queens native vacated his Manhattan Crackhouse Studio, abandoning the indistinguishable machismo of his modest debut, Venni Vetti Vecci, and powering his sophomore effort, Rule 3:36, with hot and horny Los Angeles heat.
With the Christina Milian–guested “Between Me and You” already scorching airwaves, Rule approached his second LP’s centerpiece as he did all his records. As to avoid big-name chasing, executive producer Irv Gotti loaded a disarranged instrumental CD from which Ja would select his favorites—like musical Russian roulette. The slug in the chamber was a jingly head-nodder propelled by clunky keys, one of about 10 tracks sent by Murder Inc.’s new in-house producer Paul “Tru Stylze” Walcott.
“My kids were always around me, so I’m hearing a lot of melodies from them watching [TV] shows,” recalls Stylze, who’d found the theme music to Nickelodeon’s mystery-solving pooch ‘toon Blue’s Clues most irresistible. “I just started building off it.”
Fast-forward six months, an immediately inspired Ja is in Enterprise Studio crooning a chorus—“Where would I be without you/I only think about you”—accentuating the last syllable of each bar. Within the hour, he’d pieced together two verses in his head, spitting raspy rhymes like, “My heart gon’ cry/If you leave me, lonely/’Cause you not just my love, you my homie.”
“Your voice is another instrument,” says Ja.”It needed that melodic flow… That’s what really makes the records hot.” Next, Rule tapped pre-“Pov City Anthem” Cadillac Tah to reference a verse for absent lady lyricist Vita, with whom Tah shared a comfortable ghostwriting relationship. “I wrote thinking, What would [my girl] say about me?” remembers the artist then called Tah Murda, who conjured middle school memories of back-door tiptoeing. When Vita recorded her part shortly after—she says she gave Caddy’s 16 a “sexy, but hard” vibe—the record became a mushy monster too sweet for Def Jam’s taste.
“Everybody was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know how the public is going to receive this one,’” says Ja, of the label’s reaction. “‘This is damn near a love song.’” While schmaltzy, the album’s second single was doused in testosterone—a call-and-response record with no response. Copies of Rule 3:36 were already sliding across registers when Ja called de facto Inc. songbird Lil’ Mo to rep the fairer sex with simple adlibs and hook harmonies. “I don’t like hogging people’s records,” says Mo, who freestyled chorus adlibs before adding an intro and outro at engineer DURO’s suggestion. “What gave it that crossover-pop feel, it needed [another] female voice.”
Balancing Rule’s gruff baritone with choir-ready trills, the revamped hit—adopted by The Fast & the Furious soundtrack—raided urban and mainstream playlists, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200. “[Def Jam] didn’t even have a pop department until I came,” says Ja Rule, still surprised at the song’s massive success. “It changed the way artists started making records.” The song’s video—featuring an orange-jumpsuit-sporting Ja and head-wrapped Vita—was retired after months of monopolizing 106 & Park’s top spot. While Rule is currently rocking real-life prison garb after pleading guilty to 2007 gun possession charges, his first Top 10 smash continues to represent unconditional thug love.
“My wife is a rider… She’s been there through everything,” says Ja, whose gloomy yet masterful seventh album PIL2 (Pain Is Love 2) is in stores now. “It was a real record for her and had real meaning to it. It still does.” —John Kennedy (@youngJFK)