The artist whose mom knows him as Jeff Atkins has carved out a nasty niche at the rougher end of the hip-hop spectrum -- but from the sound of his third solo set, Ja Rule seems to be more interested in movin' on up (to the pop side) than keeping grounded on the gangsta grid. To be sure, Rule's scraggly voice and epithet-fueled rhymes can still send shivers up the spine on punishing tracks like "Dial M for Murder." And yes, he's still got a feel for head-bobbing hedonism, as he proves on the low-slung "Smokin' and Ridin''." Trouble is, he's having trouble focusing on the darker side of life -- as anyone who's been spending spare time with J-Lo and Mariah Carey well might. His side trips to aural St. Tropez (as captured in the feather-light "Livin' It Up") might be a ball for him to experience, but his brittle flow doesn't really convey it, sounding starkly out of place in the glitzy surroundings. When he shakes the stardust from his boots, he still exudes plenty of intensity -- see the smoldering "X" -- and a good bit of in-your-face grandiosity ("Never Again" finds him likening himself to Jesus Christ). It's tough to keep one foot in the 'hood and one in the 'Wood (as in Holly), so Ja Rule is at a telling fork in the career road -- and he's not tipping his hand about which way he's gonna go.
(October 2, 2001)