NEW YORK - Ja Rule probably should have battled nemesis 50 Cent with sticks and stones, considering what happened after their war of words.
A few years ago, Ja Rule was among the most popular - and overexposed - figures in hip-hop. Each of his first four albums had sold millions of copies. His deep, gravelly voice, either in rap form or an off-key warble, punctuated hit after hit. He enjoyed collaborations with artists from Jennifer Lopez to Jay-Z.
Then a pre-superstar 50 Cent blew up with the song Wanksta, a thinly veiled attack calling Ja Rule a gangsta wannabe perpetrating a tough-guy image. Even though Ja Rule fired back on underground songs, interviews and last year's Blood in My Eye album, the image seemed to stick.
As his beef with 50 Cent escalated, the man born Jeffrey Atkins suddenly became uncool. His catchy harmonizing was considered weak. Some said the verbal wounds would be fatal to his career.
Not quite. Despite being the object of 50's ridicule and many rap fans' scorn, Ja Rule, 28, is on the verge of a comeback.
"I'm a vegetarian, I don't even want no beef right now. I'm cool. Let them other (guys) deal with the beef, I'm good," he said with a smile.
His sixth album, R.U.L.E., set for release Tuesday, is being buoyed by the hit Wonderful, featuring R. Kelly and Ashanti, and he didn't even have to change his style - he's still crooning badly, still rhyming with the same blustery excitement.
"If we come out of this, and we do our thing, that's a big story. It was all odds against us. No one thought we would," boasts Irv Gotti, the head of Ja Rule's record label, The Inc., formerly known as Murder Inc.
During an interview at the Inc. offices, Ja sat bare-chested as he waited for a clean shirt to be delivered, showcasing his muscled but diminutive frame. Animated and candid yet philosophical, he talked freely about his quick downward spiral and his feud with 50 Cent.
Both hail from Queens in New York City. They'd been friendly, until one of 50 Cent's friends robbed Ja Rule of his jewelry at a nightclub. Egos were bruised, arguments ensued, and the tiff soon became public. 50 Cent seemed to thrive from it - as he once boasted on stage, he built his career on the feud.
"Sometimes, in beefs and battles, that's what it's all about; it's for the fans, it's like a big show, and for me, it wasn't that, it was very real." Ja said. "But 50 made it into a show."
While 50 Cent's popularity exploded and he became 2003's best-selling artist, Ja Rule's career seemed to implode. He might have been an easy target, though; he had become an almost omnipresent musical force, conquering both pop, rap, and R&B with his rough yet accessible slice of rap. One minute he was bumping and grinding with Ms. Lopez; the next he was on movie screens in The Fast and the Furious.
For some, he got too big, and perhaps strayed too far from his early, thugged-out image. So when 50 Cent came to take him down, people were waiting for the fall.
Even Ja can identify with that feeling.
"When you're a big artist, people want to see you fall sometimes, and it's like that. This is human nature, and I really had to step back and understand," he says.
So he decided to just ride out the turbulence and lower his profile. The married father of three was conspicuously absent from Ashanti's sophomore set last year, his ubiquitous collaborations dried up and he made few celebrity appearances.
But Ja Rule never stopped hanging out among the people, even when the haters were at their loudest, when strangers were screaming epithets at him in clubs or shouting "G-g-g-G-g-g-G-UNIT!" - the rallying cry of 50 Cent's clique. Because, at the same time he was vilified, he also knew that there were die-hard fans still there.
"When (fans) see me, I'll be out and about, I'm getting love. So it was kind of confusing me. Like, dang, 'How can I get hated on?'"
Both Mr. Gotti and Ja Rule say they never considered altering the image and style that earned him so much criticism. Now it looks as though they were right: The forever fickle audience is falling back in love with him again. At Jay-Z's concert at Madison Square Garden on Monday, Ja Rule got one of the evening's biggest ovations.
Everything is finally coming back around. Just as he knew it would.
"The whole time I felt like, it's a phase, because when I go out, I got the hate, but I got love, too," Ja Rule says. "I've seen other artists go through it. I've seen (The Notorious) B.I.G. go through it. I got a sample on one of my records from B.I.G., actually, with him saying, it goes around. You love me, you hate me, and now it's time to love me."