Hegemony, as described by in-vogue Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, relies on a combination of force and consent. The Security Council approval of the U.S. resolution on Iraq, for example, is force couched as consent. On the other hand, Ja Rule and Irv Gotti’s mastery of the charts is so sickeningly consensual that we have to playact as though it were forced on an unwilling audience.
The paradox of all successful artist collectives (and Gotti’s Murder Inc. imprint is nothing if not successful) is how they transform their specific insularity into the universal. Murder Inc. tracks come on relentless—devoted to power, ego, themselves. In “The Pledge (Remix)” on Ja Rule’s new The Last Temptation, Ashanti sings her love song to the record label itself: “Murder I.N.C./you know I can’t see/living without you/being without you baby.” In the next track, even the rain calls murder. Its name? “Murder Reigns.” Rains, reigns, get it? Hell, there’s a lovers’ duet where Alexi says, “When you’re sexing me/I love it when you murder me,” which leads me to conclude that Gotti’s named some spectacular new erotic trick after his label. When I listen to The Last Temptation, I’m giving it to Alexi and getting it from Ja Rule, pledging loyalty and accepting oaths. I’m getting murdered (whatever that means), given over to the warm embrace of oblivion.
When folks like Ja Rule get described as “bland” and “manufactured” so often, it can be hard to remember that hegemony itself implies a sort of uniqueness, but at the same time enough generality that the broadest number can identify. So the tough question in the rap world lately, when everyone is keepin’ it real, is what it means to be exceptionally authentic. Back in the day it was neatly mapped out—2Pac and Biggie, the real and the escapist, the heart of gold and the Benz plated in gold. Pac was all about contradiction, a voice which rested uneasy with the urban gangsta ugliness it emanated from. While both became martyrs, only 2pac gets courses at Berkeley. And while folks tried to assume Biggie’s mantle, only 2pac got pretenders to his throne. The two serious contenders were Nas and Ja Rule. Nas never seemed more than a wide-eyed romantic with a notepad to me, a talented character actor pantomiming his version of “the real” in broad strokes, but dissolving into formalistic tic and pretense up close. He’s always been a genre exercise man, and it’s fun to treat his whole career that way—one long fashion spread trying on Pac’s mystique, banking on the misguided hope that his audience would care enough about him as a person that they would give a damn if he “sold out” or not. Pac knew he was from a lost tribe, but Nas still insists he’s God’s son.
Ja Rule, on the other hand, copped the more (ahem) subtle stylistics from Pac—his bare chest and bandanna, but most importantly his flow. The big rolling phrases shouted too fast, the gaping vowels rising at the end of each line and holding desperately until the beat catches up. A man sounding like he has more to say than time to say it, even before the observation became a tired eulogy. But as long as race was the story, a crossover audience didn’t wanna hear it from someone still alive enough to be threatening. Enter Ja Rule’s breakthrough insight—Pac died a mixed-up streetcore nationalist and was reborn a sex symbol. Everybody loves a thugmuffin. But don’t go blaming the messenger—like Rule sez in the intro to “Emerica”: “The press be talkin’ like I make the kids take E/ The kids made me take E.”
So the old Rule/Gotti sound of Venni Vetti Vecci (vocals and production with tight attack and quick decay, rhythms pressed almost four to the floor) took E, or maybe just went pop as Rule began to trim money over bitches from his subject matter. Even as he had less to say, he needed to find more compelling ways to say it. He slowed the pace of his lines, accentuating their melodic bump and drawing out more vowels, transubstantiating Pac’s tics into a rumbling r&b growl. Gotti’s beats evolved to keep pace, from troubled jazz riffs to chiming disco riffs and lilting flute, and finally went so deep into the pleasure center that instruments dissolve in a bio-sludge of intricate texture and formless hooks. Three albums later, and everything on Rule’s newer tracks sounds deep and sprawling; he’s ready-made caulk enveloping the slabs of overt personality that otherwise define the charts. And so he suffers the fate of the conqueror: ethics identified so completely with his subjects’ that his distinction passes into anonymity.
Ja Rule is just this guy, all over the charts, you know? His cookie-cutter blankness is just common sense, so accepted that if he dared make a claim to originality he’d be laughed out of his limo. Like the weather, everybody complains about Ja Rule, but nobody does anything about him. But his invisible hegemony is still manifest in the texture and flavor of life. Ja Rule’s the monosodium glutamate of the rap world—you barely notice he’s there at all, except everything’s a bit more robust, and exposure is probably not that healthy in the long run.