Book Review. Ja Rule: Unruly - The Highs and Lows of Becoming a Man
I never pay for books. My dad has an undiscovered complex which compels him to spend every cent he earns at Dymocks until he has amassed a collection of literature to rival the state library. As such, if I ever feel the need to read something other than Top Gear magazine or my Twitter feed I am well sorted.
It was actually my Twitter feed which alerted me to the existance of this book, otherwise I'd have had no clue it was written. Following @RuleYork, I noticed that a July 1st release date was set for his memoir. Having listened to PIL2 quite extensively, and having been chastised mercilessly in early high school for being a Rule fan, I figured it was a book right up my alley.
In fact, Unruly will be right up yours too. Memoirs and autobiographies tend to fall in to two categories. The first is one I use instead of Stillnox. Boring. Ian Thorpe, for example, who proved that not only is swimming up and down a pool all day looking a black line exceedingly dull, reading about it is too. The second is the opposite, a complete orgy of excess and insane stories that only the chosen few are privileged to live. Motley Crue's book, Keith Richards, and Ozzy Osbourne have all tread this path, with differing results.
Unruly is disarmingly conversational, and immediately distinguishes itself from other tomes in its field. It is certainly autobiographical, but two separate stories play out concurrently. First, we are treated to first hand diary entries written by Atkins during his two year stint in the American prison system, borne out of weapons and drugs charges from a July 2007 arrest as well as a 26 month sentence for tax evasion. Secondly, Rule looks back analytically upon his life, charting anecdotes and his various stages of intellectual and emotional growth from growing up on the streets with no father to becoming a worldwide superstar.
Now, if you aren't a hip hop fan, or you think that hip hop artists, because they work exclusively with words, are the modern day equivalent of, say, Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, let me burst your bubble immediately. Rappers can't seem to write. Jay-Z can, and his book Decoded is beautifully presented. Eminem can, sort of. Ja Rule is not an accomplished writer, and his frequent uses of LOL, his constant war against grammar and spelling, and his oxymoronic limited vocabulary may turn you off if you like your prose adept. This is absolutely not a criticism though, and it only serves to lend Unruly an inherently organic quality. This can only have come straight from the mind to the page, with little editing and few re-writes. What it means is a story from the base of the Ja Rule soul. Often he speaks about how he adores his fans, how he wishes to communicate to them that he is theirs, and that he is willing to give up time and money to connect with them. This book, and the way it is written, feels as though you are standing in a room with the man himself, listening to him recount his life and sort all the muddle that is going on in his head and his heart.
A bit of background. Ja Rule was born in Queens, and, after spending his first years with his father, was taken away from him by his mother due to his dad's abusive nature. Unfortunately, his mother was faced with the struggle that so many other black women of the time were. They were single and they had a dependent child. Rule was sent to live with his grandparents, strict Jehovah's Witness'. Through this Rule became wary of the church and its influence, and when his mother was disavowed he was not sad to see it leave, although it did represent yet another abandonment in his young life. To cope he turned to weed, and eventually to selling narcotics, which helped his 'Moms' pay the bills. He was earning a modest $1000 a week pushing, yet for a teenage boy this was the life.
No stranger to the grind, Ja Rule spent his late teens and early 20s attempting to crack the hip hop game. His description of his experiences with record companies and executives paints a vibrant picture, one that was mirrored in many young rappers stories at the same time. Record companies wanted hits, and rappers wanted money. Ja learnt early to distrust those in charge of record contracts, and it is a testament to his persistence and overwhelming talent that he managed to break out of a cycle that so many rappers found themselves stuck in: signed to a label who refused to put their music out.
One of the glaring omissions is exactly HOW he managed to break out of his deal with TVT and Steve Gottleib. He was signed to release a record with his group, Cash Money Click, but when Chris Black was incarcerated for 5 years, the group had no grounds to record or release due to the piece of paper they had signed. Whilst reminiscing (quite enjoyably) about the engima that was DMX, Ja completely papers over how Lyor Cohen of Def Jam managed to wrangle him out of this record deal. Either way, it happened and Rule of course went on to giant success, with his label Murder Inc. spawning massive crossover hits that saw him land number 1 singles in both the US and UK, unheard for a rap star.
Yes, he does detail his beef with 50 Cent, quite graphically. It's an interesting account and certainly one that you wouldn't have heard before. The media jumped on the back of 50 Cent because he had major label backing, he had the greatest rapper of all time cosigning him, and he had the greatest producer of all time on his team. Furthermore, he had bigger hits. Somehow, he managed to outsell Ja Rule who was kicking goals with both feet at the time. Rule's accounts of beating up 50 Cent more than once, and seeing him get stabbed in a club are certainly at odds with the story we have been presented. 50 Cent was allegedly known for 'snitching', and it is unclear as to what role exactly Ja and his crew played in 50 Cent's shooting, which was probably the catalyst for his career.
The way Ja approaches writing about the beef is perfectly in tune with the way he goes about writing Unruly. He begins by detailing it in chronological order, but further in to the book he jumps back and forth, picking and choosing things that are out of context and that crop up in weird places. He believes that 50 and the FBI, through their invention of the 'Hip Hop Squad' (referenced extensively by Jay-Z in the song Dopeman) were behind the shut down of Murder Inc., as well as the blackballing they began to recieve from DJs and radio stations around the country. In one instance, Ja was due to perform at a huge awards show, but was informed shortly beforehand that he wasn't even able to attend, because 50 was performing and said he didn't feel safe with Ja there. By the end of the book, he claims that his animosity has vanished and he no longer cares about the beef, but there is such a sense that it really cut him deeply.
This is the beauty of the book really. The emotions are raw and real. As he speaks about the demise of his label and his career, he laments the way the fans turned their back on him. People who claimed they were Rule fans for life began to doubt him, question his songs and music, and eventually stopped turning up to his shows. It's more than just a commentary on the fickle nature of the pop industry. It's an insight in to how it genuinely effects the individuals involved. Unruly paints the picture of a man with a huge amount of pride, a pride that was hurt by his abandonment. Just as his father left him, as his grandparents left him, as Steve Gottleib left him, his fans, the one commodity he truly believed he had for life, left too. It's difficult to read, especially as these insights are then blended in with his prison diaries, which further show an isolated soul.
Overall, Unruly is an absolute triumph. Firstly, you won't be able to put it down. The way he writes makes it instantly accessible, and he sprinkles enough anecdotes of the high life in with his ponderings to keep you both entertained and intellectually and emotionally stimulated. Secondly, it provides such a good insight in to the way the music industry works, and how during the mid to late 90s, and early 00s, hip hop took over the world. Thirdly, you finish the book feeling like you know the man personally. After finishing the book, I went and worked out for an hour and listened to PIL2. As I lay on the bench at the end of the session I genuinely felt close to him as a person, and that is extremely rare in entertainer's memoirs.