Ja Rule feat. Lil’ Mo and Vita – “Put It On Me”

Released: 12.26.00

Peak: #8

Like most intramural debates, the current clash between “hip hop is dead” golden-agers and diehard chart-rap triumphalists flattens history in the service of propaganda. Though the obituarists get one thing right–the story of hip-hop in the ’00s is one of contracting lyrical boundaries–It wasn’t solely capital’s fault, not this time. In fact, pop rap seemed poised to expand hip-hop’s emotional parameters at first by cooperating with R&B across the genre/gender divide.

Such unmanly squishiness, though, was not to be. “Sensitive thugs,” Jay-Z mock-pitied any rapper capable of human emotion, with his usual insight into the mysteries of the human heart, “Y’all need hugs.” This reactionary insecurity hardened R&B, rather than tempering hip-hop machismo. By decade’s end, purported R&B loverboys were as thuggy and sociopath(et)ic as rappers had been ten years earlier, and the love song had degenerated into a wheedling demand for sympathy or forgiveness.

Ja Rule’s an especially sad case–a prettier DMX and a less talented one, or maybe he just embodied those elements of Tupac that X had no use for, playing up the contrast between his cuteness and his gruffness. On the adulterous “Between Me and You,” with Christina Milian cooing sexual encouragement and Swizz Beatz gauzing the mood in romantic chinoiserie, Ja seemed to have found a promising niche, a safe spot for hip-hop and R&B pillow talk.

“Put It On Me” offers a starker production and a more mature performance. Swizz turns in discordant exotica here, with a hook that suggests the scratching of piano strings, and the strength of Lil’ Mo’s vocal and Vita’s rhymes counterbalances the desperation of Ja’s off-key bellow. In the tradition of “Me and My Bitch,” this is a pledge of affection, and it hardly romanticizes the relationship between “thug” and “lady.”

But maybe the pop soundscape just wasn’t nurturing enough for this sensibility. In 2001 or so, I caught Ja at one of those pop-radio packaged holiday tours, sharing the stage with Jessica Simpson and Smash Mouth, delivering as limp a freestyle as I’ve ever heard. No self-respecting tough guy would want to align himself with that sort of “commercialism” and serving as J-Lo’s hype man on “I’m Real” probably didn’t do anything for Ja’s self-image. By the end of the decade, dude was whining that his kids were subjected same-sex liplocks on daytime TV. Ah, homophobia–always a safe bet for a recuperating softie.

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