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The resurrection of Ja Rule

He was one of the most maligned rappers of the past decade, but that all changed in one Verzuz battle

If you’ve seen any mention of Ja Rule — the once-dominant multiplatinum, chart-topping sensation of the early 2000s — on the internet in the past 15 years, chances are he was firmly on the butt end of a viral joke.

Perhaps it was the video of Ja Rule trying to defend his track record against 50 Cent, only for then-MTV personality Taxstone to correct him to his face. Or the faux commercial he shot for Los Angeles restaurant Papa Cristo’s for the reality show Celebrity Show-Off that backfired because many fans thought it was real. Or his involvement in the infamous 2017 Fyre Festival in which hundreds of people said they were scammed out of their money for an event that never happened as advertised. Each of these moments added to the comedy of errors that have defined Ja Rule’s post-prime and caused many of his former fans to revise their assessment of his glory days as some negligible blip in the history of rap instead of the behemoth it really was.

All that seemed to change in the last two-hour Verzuz battle, in which Ja Rule performed an endless array of hits for a few thousand fans in Madison Square Garden and hundreds of thousands of fans online while eviscerating his opponent, Fat Joe. The fans were rocking with Ja Rule so much that it felt like he was finally turning a corner and slaying the demons that have made him a laughingstock for years. In one night, Ja Rule may have redeemed his career and reclaimed his legacy — a feat that had previously seemed impossible.

Ashanti (left) performs with Ja Rule (right) during his Verzuz battle against Fat Joe at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 14 in New York City.

ohnny Nunez/WireImage

Here’s what’s been erased from Ja Rule’s legacy: four platinum albums, six albums that charted in the top 10, including two No. 1s (2000’s Rule 3:36 and 2001’s Pain Is Love), eight top-10 singles and three No. 1 hits. The video for his single, “Put It On Me,” with Lil Mo and Vita spent more than 60 days on the 106 & Park countdown, becoming the first song to be retired from the show. All of this happened in the five-year span from 1999 to 2004. This is rarefied air: Only the Jay-Zs, Beyoncés and Stevie Wonders of the world have such a resume in that amount of time.

Ja Rule’s chart-topping run could have lasted longer, but 2003 brought a Category 5 hurricane of circumstance, some of Ja Rule’s doing, some not, that blew him off of his pedestal and relegated him to the fringes of pop culture for years.

The eye of that hurricane was 50 Cent. The rapper, now a TV executive behind shows such as Power and Power Book III: Raising Kanan, had been involved in a long-standing beef with Ja Rule based on a whole lot of street stuff that went beyond mere rap bravado — allegations of snitching, Ja Rule crew members claiming they stabbed 50 Cent, and confrontations anytime anyone connected to the two were anywhere near each other.

50 Cent emerged in the wake of that feud as a national figure with all the makings of a superstar. He had been tearing up hip-hop underground with a series of explosive mixtapes and had just joined Interscope Records thanks to co-signs from Dr. Dre and Eminem.

Meanwhile, Ja Rule’s act was starting to get stale. His singles — relationship songs with hooks sung by R&B stars, most notably Ashanti — were starting to sound repetitive. And the softer, more melodic sounds were in stark contrast to songs such as “Wanksta,” 50 Cent’s first major single (even though 50 Cent would later cash in on that same sound with songs such as “21 Questions” and “Candy Shop”). While many artists can try to take a moment to regroup and find a new formula, 50 Cent pounced and Ja Rule never stood a chance.

The rest of 2003 and 2004 would bring about a concerted effort from 50 Cent, his G-Unit crew, Dr. Dre, Eminem and even Busta Rhymes lobbing diss records, video insults and critical interviews aimed at destroying Ja Rule’s career. It worked. Ja Rule hasn’t had an album crack the top 100 since. His last album, 2012’s Pain Is Love 2, peaked at 197. The decimation was so complete that, for many, it became uncool to even acknowledge ever having liked Ja Rule’s music in the first place.

Ja Rule’s lowest point came with the Fyre Festival debacle. Thousands of fans allegedly got scammed into spending thousands of dollars for a concert that never happened. The affair was highlighted in documentaries on both Hulu and Netflix with Ja Rule as the punchline. While festival founder Billy McFarland was found guilty of wire fraud in 2018, Ja Rule was never charged and was dismissed as a defendant from a class-action lawsuit that was settled in April for $2 million. The idea of him reentering pop culture prominence seemed nigh impossible.

Then came Verzuz. 

The entirety of the night belonged to Ja Rule. While Fat Joe fumbled through street anthems, over-the-line insults and failed attempts to repeat the energy from the previous battle between The Lox and Dipset, Ja Rule was controlling the crowd like basketball star Chris Paul controls the half court. Ja Rule has heard every insult and joke possible, so he was unflappable as Fat Joe tried to rattle him with Fyre Festival barbs and 50 Cent teases. Instead, he focused on the once-maligned hits for the ladies, including “Put It On Me,” “I’m Real” and “Mesmerize” with Ashanti. And when Fat Joe insulted Ja Rule’s female collaborators Lil Mo and Vita, Ja Rule stepped to their defense. For two hours, Ja Rule was Teflon. He brushed off all the tension and basked in the love that had been denied him for years.

The Verzuz battles have provided a platform for artists to regain fan bases and remind us just how potent their catalogs can be. It’s become clockwork for post-Verzuz streaming bumps to occur. Ja Rule stands to benefit from this exposure more than anyone, especially looking at where his career was when the night began. Now he can finally reclaim his rightful place as one of the most prolific hit-makers we’ve ever seen in such a short span. Fans like me who went to proms and dances and college parties to hear Ja Rule can recall how much we loved his bops before loving them became taboo.

While it’s doubtful Ja Rule will be cranking out new hits or emerging with prom anthems for a new generation of homecoming dances, maybe he can even turn this into a well-attended big-ticket tour. He can sit back knowing that his legacy is once again secured. And there’s no storm coming to take that away from him.

David Dennis, Jr. is a senior writer at The Undefeated and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.