Ja Rule Is 'Livin' It Up'

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Ja Rule was readying to drop his sophomore set, "Rule 3:36." Although he was already a star in hip-hop circles, thanks to guest shots with Jay-Z

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Ja Rule was readying to drop his sophomore set, "Rule 3:36." Although he was already a star in hip-hop circles, thanks to guest shots with Jay-Z and 1999's "Holla Holla" from his debut, "Venni Vetti Vecci," Ja Rule had yet to catch the ears of mainstream music fans.

But when "Rule 3:36" bowed atop The Billboard 200, thanks in part to its lead single "Between Me & You," all knew his name. The Murder Inc./Def Jam artist looks to build on that name recognition Oct. 2 with his third effort, "Pain Is Love."

With "I'm Real," his recent collaboration with Jennifer Lopez, topping the charts, not to mention his appearance in the hit summer movie "The Fast & the Furious," Ja Rule (real name: Jeffrey Atkins) has kept his name on everyone's lips.

"It's opened a lot of doors for me to become something that's maybe never been before," Ja Rule says of his duet with Lopez. "That's the goal I've been shooting for -- to be a different artist." "I'm Real," which reignited interest in Lopez's "J.Lo" (Epic), was penned by Ja Rule.

With his increasing popularity, the rapper, who has also become an MTV staple, hasn't lost his street credibility. "I still feel that I am very much a voice for the underground," the 26-year-old MC says. "I'm just speaking on a big stage now. It's not that I'm leaving my underground roots -- the underground is getting bigger. The street cats are making it to the top now.

"It's a situation where if a 'hardcore' rapper attains commercial success, they say he's not hardcore anymore," adds the Queens, N.Y., native, who got his start with the Cash Money Click. "That's fucked up, because I don't like to look at what I do as being a hardcore rapper or a commercial rapper. Everybody can enjoy my music. I have 40-year-old and 50-year-old women come up to me and tell me, 'I like that song. It's a nice record.' They're not looking at it as a rap record, because they'll say to me in the same breath, 'I don't listen to rap music.' That's telling me that they're hearing my music and labeling it as just good music."

In making "good music" for "Pain Is Love," Ja turned to such classic artists as Stevie Wonder -- whose "Do I Do" is sampled on the album's first single, "Livin' It Up," which also features Def Soul artist Case.

"That's not an easy track to rip on because it's so fast," he says of the single, which is No. 19 on The Billboard Hot 100 this issue. "I wanted to use it because the loop is crazy-it's hot and classic-but more so than that I was looking for a record that Case and I could do for the album. I was listening to [New York City's] WBLS one day, and as I'm thinking of what record we could do, on comes 'Do I Do.' "

"Pain Is Love" also includes a track on which Ja Rule duets with 2Pac on a remake of the late rapper's "So Much Pain." 2Pac's original version of the song was released prior to the late rapper's death. "I did that a long time ago, right after Pac died," states Ja Rule, who has often been compared to the slain rapper. "It was a record that I wanted to make and needed to make. A lot of people haven't heard the record because -- although it was on the "Above the Rim" soundtrack -- it was only on the cassette version. I feel it was one of Pac's best records."

The label launched a promotional tour in support of the album Sept. 24 in Los Angeles. Deidre Graham, Def Jam's senior director of marketing, says radio stations in various cities will co-sponsor "Livin' It Up With Ja Rule" contests in which winners will get to party with the artist. There are also talks about a possible arena tour early next year featuring Ja Rule, as well as other Def Jam acts.

Beyond this project, look for the rapper to reprise his role as Edwin in "The Fast & the Furious 2." "I have some other things that's in the works. But, with the acting thing, I want to be careful, because with anything I do, I want it to be to the best of my abilities," Ja Rule says. "It makes no sense to do something half-ass, because if you enjoy what you're doing and you're doing it half-ass, no one is going to get to see it or hear it.

"I do what I do with my heart, so I can win the hearts of the people and they can see me as what I am-a real artist," he continues. "And they enjoy when a real artist speaks to them and speaks for them."

For Ja Rule, it's those people who make this business worthwhile. "A lot of artists make records to make money. Not to make people smile, or make hearts light up, or to warm souls," says the rapper. "That's why I make records, and it's starting to show."