September 28, 2016 by NowhereButPop
The most prevalent and successful rapper of my generation is Jay-Z; there’s just no two ways about it. He’s been around since the early 90s and has been along for the ride that my peers and I call life. Hov has a string of 12 consecutive #1 hit albums dating back to 1998. He first went to #1 in 1998, when I was seven, and from 1998-2004 he had a chart topping album every year. Jay-Z’s been smothered with both commercial and critical acclaim, he’s married to Beyoncé, he runs his own record label and his own (successful) clothing line, and he’s worth over half a billion dollars. He is very clearly the definition of success.
Jay-Z has been rapping for well over 20 years, as he was contemporaries with Tupac and Biggie, and upon the latter’s death, it was Hov alongside Nas who were seen as heir apparent to the throne of east coast hip-hop. He’s consistently been putting out music unlike 50 Cent, he’s never been plagued by the legion of demons that hound Eminem, he’s not nearly as socially retarded as Kanye West, he’s no nut job like DMX, and he commands a more visible presence than Puff Daddy ever could. More so than arguably any other musician, Jay-Z has been with my generation almost since cognizance. Not only does he have the longevity, but he’s been building himself up to the point where it seems like he gets bigger and bigger every year. In fact, it’s gotten so far out of control that even his own marital problems only serve to make him a more potent force in our modern day culture. Simply put, Jay-Z is the most dominant and all encompassing force in music over the past 20 years…Tidal notwithstanding of course.
But despite the fact that Jay-Z is a zeitgeist of an entire generation, it’s very difficult to say that he was ever the best rapper at a specific point in time. Most people will tell you that Nas was the superior lyricist, rapper, and artist, no one is bigger than Eminem when he puts out an album, and seducing Beyoncé helped him cross over to the pop realm in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to do alone.
When I think about music in the the early 2000s, the worst period of hip-hop/rap, the point in time when hip-hop really crossed over to mainstream suburban America, there’s really one artist that I feel is synonymous with the times. It’s not Jay-Z, it’s not Eminem, and it’s not DMX. Whenever I think about early 2000s music, the first artist that comes to mind, the poster child who has come to encapsulate everything that music was back then is Ja Rule. Whereas Jay-Z has held a strong presence over pop-culture for three decades now, for three years at the turn of the millennium, Ja Rule had a vice-like grip over popular music in a way which Jay-Z never had. If Jay-Z is like the Tim Duncan Spurs, then Ja Rule was like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers.
Like many other aspects of the early 21st century, Ja Rule’s success didn’t really make any sense. Here was a certified dwarf whose face didn’t quite match up with his head, and a voice too big for his body…kinda like Rick Astley. He didn’t look intimidating, which back then was crucial to the hip-hop scene as the gangsta image was all the rage, and he sounded just like DMX, an already established superstar. Ja Rule looked like someone who had a Napoleonic Complex, someone who purposefully lowered his voice to sound tougher. Despite all this however, he owned the first three years of the new millennium at great cost to Jay-Z.
No matter who they are and no matter what they say, the most important thing mainstream artists care about are sales. If you’re making the right people money, then you have the freedom to do whatever the hell you want. In a literal sense money can buy you freedom in the entertainment industry. That’s how Jay-Z was able to become his own boss, and why Kanye is able to write a song called “I Miss the Old Kanye”. All throughout the 90s, Jay-Z was steadily outselling Nas, his main rival and archenemy which put Jay-Z on a higher platform than Nas since his music was reaching more people. And coincidentally enough, Whenever Jay-Z was about to release a new album, the drop date was always staggered so there wouldn’t be any competition from either DMX or Eminem if they were planning on releasing an album in the same year. But in October of 2000, Ja Rule released Rule 3:36, while Jay-Z dropped The Dynasty, the first battle in their war for supremacy over the burgeoning years of the new millennium.
If I told you that a Ja Rule album outsold a Jay-Z album, there’s no way you’d believe me, and if I told you that Ja Rule outsold Jay-Z in two consecutive years, you’d probably never listen to a word I said ever again. But in 2000, Rule 3:36 outsold The Dynasty by 800,000 copies in the U.S. Despite that fact that The Dynasty was released first, it actually went to #1 on the Billboard Top 200 after Rule 3:36.
In 2001 Ja Rule went for the repeat as his follow-up, Pain is Love outsold Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, an album considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time, by over one million copies in the U.S. Not only that, but Pain is Love knocked The Blueprint off the top spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart. To add further insult to injury, it was Ja Rule and not Jay-Z who was asked to participate in the MTV All-Star cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (also known as the worst song ever) to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. All the biggest musicians on the planet were invited to record that song and Ja Rule was chosen to participate over Jay-Z. It’s also worth noting that during these years both Jay-Z’s record label, Roc-A-Fella, and Ja Rule’s record label, Murder Inc. Records, were both owned by the same parent label: Def Jam Records…the very same record label that Jay-Z would become president of in 2004.
During these two years, not only did Ja Rule consistently outsell Jay-Z, but he became one of the first, if not the first rapper to successfully crossover into the world of mainstream pop music. Between 2000 and 2001, Ja Rule had five top 10 hits and two #1 hit singles, while Jay-Z only had two top 10 hits and no chart toppers. Additionally, Ja Rule’s collaborations with Jennifer Lopez, Christina Milian, and Ashanti were mainstays on both the pop and hip-hop radio stations. The versions of Lopez’s “I’m Real” and “Ain’t it Funny” that feature Ja Rule both went to #1 on the singles chart and are both far more recognizable and popular than the album versions, neither of which feature Ja Rule. Ironically enough, since 2004, after Ja Rule stopped mattering anymore, Jay-Z, seemingly taking cue from Ja Rule, has done collaborations with Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys, all of which have produced #1 hit singles. Without Ja Rule, who knows if “Crazy in Love” or “Empire State of Mind” still happen.
Looking beyond the tangible proof, to the ears of a 10-year-old kid who had just moved to suburbia, it seemed like Ja Rule was always on the radio. The only Jay-Z song that I remember receiving radio play during this time was “Izzo”. Ja Rule had “Put it on Me”, “Between Me and You”, his dual hits with Jennifer Lopez, “Mesmerize”, and “Always on Time”. During these two years Ja Rule was more visible, identifiable, and sought after than Jay-Z has ever been. Hov has been a constant, but Ja Rule owned the first two years of the new millennium. Ja Rule was omnipresent in a way that Jay-Z could only wish to be.
By 2002 however, Ja Rule had apparently run his course through society, as for the third year in a row Ja Rule and Jay-Z put out albums within a few weeks of one another. This time however, Hov outsold Ja Rule by about 500,000 copies. Since 2002 Ja Rule has mattered to music as much as Drew Lachey has. So what could have changed for the man who ruled the music scene just one year ago?
Most people think that 50 Cent’s first hit single was 2003’s “In Da Club”; although it was his first #1 hit single, his first big hit came one year before in the form of “Wanksta”. According to 50 Cent, a wanksta is a fake gangsta, someone who tries to act tough and pretend they’re a thug when in reality they’re all talk. When the song was first released, rumors swirled that the song was a diss track directed towards Ja Rule. In an era where gangsta rap was the dominate brand of hip-hop and rappers sang about how tough and hard they were, image was really the only thing that mattered. If a rapper looked and acted the part than they were considered legit and authentic. For a rapper of this era, the worst thing that could have happened to them was for somebody to question their gang-banger image that they had cultivated for themselves. And that’s just what happened to Ja Rule.
According to Ja Rule’s autobiography, Unruly, 50’s beef with Ja Rule started when 50 started dissing Ja Rule on his tracks to make himself seem tougher by attacking the top dog on the block. This subsequently led to Ja Rule having 50 Cent blacklisted from all the east coast record labels. As a result, 50 Cent signed to a west coast record label, Shady Aftermath, a very controversial move in the wake of the hip-hop wars of the 90s. In retaliation of being essentially exiled from the east coast (and according to Unruly, the multitude of ass-whoopings Ja Rule put on 50 Cent), 50 took the beef from being purely professional to the strictly personal.
It didn’t matter if Ja Rule was a wanksta or not; all that mattered was that someone accused him of being a phony, someone who didn’t grow up on the streets nor lived “that thug life”. That was enough to call his reputation and credibility into question, and without that it didn’t matter that Ja Rule sold millions of records or was the face of rap music. He was instantly seen as uncool because of the accusations. From the fall of Ja Rule came the rise of 50 Cent, which subsequently proved to be a boon for Jay-Z as well.
With Ja Rule’s reputation officially ruined, Jay-Z was able to emerge victorious over his rivalry with Ja Rule. Shortly after “Wanksta” came out, all of the sudden Jay-Z became the hottest rapper on the pop charts as songs like “03 Bonnie and Clyde”, “99 Problems”, and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” became some of the biggest hits of 2003. Without Ja Rule to potentially block him, it was that year (2003) when Jay-Z really started down the path of becoming the icon that he is today.
Even though 50 Cent was the biggest rapper on the planet for a few years (circa 2003-2007), it was still Jay-Z who eventually got the last laugh by indirectly knocking 50 Cent off the top spot, much in the same way as 50 supplanted Ja Rule. In both instances, it was Jay-Z who directly benefited from the top rapper in the world losing their position.
In 2007, 50 Cent released his third album, Curtis. It was his first album not to go to #1 on the Billboard Top 200. The reason why was Kanye West. They had engaged in a very public (if not lighthearted) sales war since they both had albums set to be released on September 11, 2007. West’s Graduation sold twice as many copies as Curtis, and too this day 50 Cent hasn’t really mattered to music anymore. Granted, he has his own production company, Vitamin Water, and a TV show to worry about, but after Curtis, 50 hasn’t been able to replicate his past success as a rapper.
Before he became one of the most important rappers of all time, Kanye West was a producer, more specifically, he was Jay-Z’s producer. Despite the fact that he’s a much better producer than he is a rapper, West always wanted to give rapping a try. However, because he didn’t fit the image of a gangsta rapper, his record label wouldn’t let him cut a record. Once his contract expired, Kanye was about to sign with another record label to pursue a singing career until Roc-A-Fella Records (owned by Jay-Z) relented and gave him one chance to cut an album. That album became The College Dropout and ever since then, Kanye West and the rest of the homo sapiens species have had a very hot-and-cold relationship. In an indirect way, Jay-Z unleashed Kanye West unto an unsuspecting world, while West indirectly helped Jay-Z by taking out Hov’s competition—50 Cent.
The College Dropout was not the only big thing to happen to Roc-A-Fella Records and its parent label Def Jam in 2004. That same year Jay-Z became the president of Def Jam, thus cementing his role as a music mogul and not just a mere rapper anymore. And in 2004, after Jay-Z was promoted, Def Jam cut ties with Murder Inc. Records, leaving Ja Rule without a major label. Without a record label, Ja Rule went on a musical hiatus and then was sent to jail.
Why would Hov do Ja Rule dirty like that? After all, Jay-Z invited Ja Rule to be featured on his 1998 hit single “Can I Get A…”, Jay-Z’s biggest single up to that point. And at one point Ja Rule, Jay-Z, and DMX planned on forming a hip-hop super group together. The official story is that because Murder Inc. founder Irv Gotti was being investigated by the FBI, Def Jam didn’t renew their contract because they didn’t want to be associated with potential criminals. This sounds like a bull shitting though since what record label has ever cut ties with a rapper for illegal activity? If this was the norm then Snoop Dogg wouldn’t have put out a follow up to The Doghouse, Def Jam would have dropped Jay-Z in 1999 and never would have even bothered to sign DMX.
The further Ja Rule drifted away from relevancy, the bigger Jay-Z became, like some sort of zero-sum equation, Ja Rule and Jay-Z could not coexist. One had to fail for the other to succeed. I’m sure there’s an alternate universe out there where Ja Rule won his war with Jay-Z. I can imagine the past 20 year of popular music without Jay-Z, but it’s impossible for me to think about music from the early 2000s without thinking of Ja Rule. He ruled those years like no other artist, even Britney Spears, did. He crossed over into the mainstream by merging hip-hop and pop to create hip-pop, and his collaborations with pop stars served as the prototype for duets that are now commonplace. Despite ruling like a king for two years, when the book of hip-hop is written, Ja Rule would be lucky to be mentioned in a footnote, while Jay-Z will be heralded as the face of hip-hop for an entire generation. And it’ll probably be that way because Jay-Z would be the one to write this book.
After all, to the victor go the spoils.
 Or maybe that when I became old enough to realize it was happening.
 In fact, Ja Rule actually wrote “Can I Get A…” but gave it away to Jay-Z since he begged Ja Rule for it.
 Despite the fact that DMX and Ja Rule had a long simmering feud over DMX’s perception that Ja Rule stole his rapping style, they were willing to put aside their differences to work with Jay-Z. As crazy and ridiculous as this could have been, I think it would have been a huge success.
 Then again, I’m almost certain that we’re living in then alternate universe relative to an orthodox parallel universe.