He Conquered, He Conquered, He Conquered

Jay-Z and DMX guest.

As hip-hop's newest pretty boy thug, Ja Rule initially seems like a

composite of other, more established rappers. His growling tones scrape

the baritone bottom end as DMX's do; his deft vocal flow is reminiscent of

Busta Rhymes and his Murder Inc. partner Jay-Z. His physical countenance

and packaged fury bear more than passing resemblance to the late Tupac

Shakur. Yet Ja Rule, with his ambitious debut LP Venni Vetti Vecci,

not only defines his own world -- he threatens to eclipse his mentors.

In contrast to both of DMX's banal efforts from 1998, and even Jay-Z's hit

machine In My Lifetime, Vol. 2, Venni Vetti Vecci manages to

balance the hard edge of Ja Rule's street nihilism without succumbing to

designer-brand materialism. Ja Rule puts down the standard, "I'm keeping it

real" rhetoric from step one -- proclaiming "take a look into our eyes and

see pain without fear" on the intro -- but he pulls off the

lifestyles-of-the-young-and-dangerous routine with a deceptive charisma.

On "Holla Holla" (RealAudio

excerpt), Ja Rule mesmerizes both sexes with his infectious

anthem and popping beats. Not to mention the fact that within a song's

space he can morph into a nonstop rhyme machine. He doubles up with Jay-Z

on "Kill 'Em All" and later proves equally masterful on the languid

R&B-paced "Suicide Freestyle" (featuring Case). Most of the tracks are

overseen by Irv Gotti, mastermind of Jay-Z's ridiculously successful

"Can I Get A ...," and unlike the empty thump of DMX's Swizz Beats, Ja

Rule has a fantastic set of music at his disposal. From the hard snare

stomps and dark chords on "Story To Tell" (RealAudio excerpt)

to the slick bassline groove on "It's Murda" (RealAudio excerpt)

(featuring DMX and Jay-Z) to the hyperactive bouncing patterns of "Murda

4 Life," Venni has one of the most provocative beat-blends to

appear on any recent rap album.

Ja Rule's potential is clearly evident, but like his peers, especially

Tupac, Ja Rule's not able to push past his own street soldier fatalism.

On a short skit, an anonymous voice proclaims, "I'm glad I'm black. I

like it hard," a statement that resounds with equal amounts of bravado

and myopia, just like Ja Rule's "it's murrrrdaaaa" mantra. Unapologetically,

Ja Rule shows that he knows how the game works but, alas, he'd rather

be a player than a hater. His album title is a corruption of the Latin

phrase "I came, I saw, I conquered," but Ja Rule's subjugated world is

still as bleak as it was before his reign.