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Ja Rule 

R.U.L.E. (The Inc./Def Jam)

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Ja Rule's last outing, 2003's before-Christmas quickie Blood in My Eye, was so terrible that he deserves credit for simply showing up a year later -- even more for realizing that the album's raw, mixtape-style format did his pedestrian rhymes a grave disservice.

Reloaded with plentiful pop hooks, high-profile guests (R. Kelly, Jadakiss), and the gravelly croon Ja unwisely abandoned in an attempt to spit toe-to-toe with his many detractors, R.U.L.E. turns back the clock to the days before 50 Cent, when Ja was the thug king of hip-pop, with hot tracks that never forced him to back his bark with bite.

The result is that Ja and his Inc. handlers have arrested his slide; the candy-corn chest-beater "What's My Name" and the trigger-happy "New York" are equal to any of his G-Unit competition. The larger question is what this orgy of superficiality means, especially as more gifted MCs move the game forward. There's still no trace of wit or insight in his simple-minded blast-and-bling, and tracks like the vile ode to strippers, "The Manual," deserve no further comment. Ja has never sounded better -- or more irrelevant. --

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