Roughly midway through his headlining set at Washington’s Howard Theatre on Friday night, Ja Rule reflected on a missed opportunity from 2007.
That summer, Ja Rule was a veteran MC in search of a spark to a stalling career, and Lil Wayne was the best rapper alive. So the two collaborated on "Uh-Ohhh!," a vibrant piece of evidence Ja Rule’s career might not yet finished. Even today, it sounds like a hit song. But it was not meant to be, as Ja Rule and Lil Wayne were arrested, separately, on gun charges following the duo’s concert at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater that July.
The paradox was not lost on Ja Rule, who told Complex last year, “That, ironically, was the song that got us both locked up. I look at it like that because we were performing ‘Uh-Ohhh!’ at the Beacon Theater when we both got popped [in 2007]. ‘Uh-Ohhh!’ is really ‘uh-oh.’”
On Friday, before the “Uh-Ohhh!” beat dropped, Ja Rule could have used the moment to still fume over the poor timing of his incarceration or to express regret for mistakes. (In 2011, Ja Rule was sentenced to 28 months incarceration for tax evasion, and he was released early last May.) Instead, the 37-year-old born Jeffrey Atkins calmly smirked, quickly and explicitly reminded the crowd he still didn’t like police, shouted out Weezy and launched into the stuttering track.
His concert, a make-up show after the original Dec. 14 date was postponed due to inclement weather, was a celebratory affair of the rapper’s biggest hits. In the lean hour he was on stage, Ja Rule skipped the deep album cuts and unheard new material, and smartly focused on songs made before 2005. (“PIL2,” his last studio album, was released in February 2012 but 2004’s “R.U.L.E.” was Ja Rule's last record to debut in the Billboard Top 10.)
And the hits still rang out live, from the cathartic “I Cry” to his booming debut single “Holla Holla” to the Christina Milian-assisted “Between Me and You.” Tough talk has been central to Ja Rule (“Clap Back” still sounds defiant as ever in concert), but his multi-platinum success falls heavily on his role as a credible lothario.
The same was the case Friday, as evidenced by the audience’s arms-in-the-air, visceral reactions “Always on Time” and “Mesmerize,” two collaborations with R&B singer Ashanti. The many women in the crowd reacted similarly when Ja Rule, who appeared to have spent his prison sentence doing only push-ups, removed his shirt for the remainder of the show. His voice, still husky and sandpapered, sounded as it ever did: Brazen, authoritative and unrelenting.
It seems unlikely the New York rapper from Queens will ever achieve the level of fame he had more than a decade ago, and yet stranger things have happened, especially in pop music. But on Friday, Ja Rule seemed at ease with his position as a hip-hop elder statesman whose hit-making days could be behind him. Judging from the way the crowd exploded to “I’m Real,” his 2001 collaboration with Jennifer Lopez, it was easy to understand the content satisfaction.