Ja Rule’s new album “Pain Is Love” is a well-crafted mix of hip-hop, R&B, and the friendly vibe and clean production of pop. Much of the album has a playful feel, incorporating light, synthesized organs and airy, bubbly electronic riffs.
This approach comes off a bit corny at points, and when it does it can seem really plastic, a bit like a chewing gum commercial. At other points, it sounds like a Beverly Hills Cop II theme song or bad Pink Floyd. For the most part, however, the vibe is straight up and fun hip-hop pop. The best case of this is the intensely poppy “Livin’ It Up,” a good wholesome radio song perfect for a playful dance floor — it bumps, but not too hard.
The album’s most lasting achievement for me, however, is the final track and title song “Pain Is Love.” This song transcends the rest of the album and comes across as a heart-felt and honestly-rendered soulful style of hip-hop reminiscent of a ballad.
One thing that’s interesting about “Pain” is how it takes many of hip-hop’s classic tropes and renders them in playschool building blocks. This isn’t all bad as a lot of these tropes are getting so necessarily self-conscious that something has to happen if they are to evolve.
Ja Rule seems more of a singer than a rapper. His voice combines a strong roughness with a sweet melodious beauty. This is the same masculine sensitivity portrayed on the disc’s cover. Ja Rule’s natural mode appears to be a kind of hip-hop ballad, which is why I think “Pain” is the most successful track on this album, though others have received far more play.
The flip-side of this statement about Ja Rule’s voice is that he does not possess the lyrical dexterity, both in terms of writing and performance, of many contemporary hip-hop artists. Listening to tracks by Nelly, Wu Tang Clan, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, and others really drives this point home. The verbal inventiveness that created a whole new language of slang through this kind of music is patently missing in “Pain.” But I think that’s okay for what Ja Rule wants to accomplish. He is trying to create a heart-felt and honest disc that isn’t mired in attitude, which, pushed too far, can seem like posturing.
Nevertheless, the album does not shy away from the controversy common to rap — a quality that makes the genre so vibrant. Plenty of obscenities are used on the album but Ja Rule gives them an unusual emotional shading. Words like “f—” are used in truly romantic contexts, shifting their meaning into something new.
I think “Pain Is Love” will be welcomed as a new take on what hip-hop can do. Particularly due to the music’s modern roots, some people have assumed that the genre is only capable of expressing aggression. Ja Rule is certainly not the first to demonstrate the music’s broader possibilities, but “Pain Is Love” does seem to fill a gap in its mix of sensitive honesty, ballad flavor, and pop-style production.