This week, as though it was a gift from the gods rap nostalgia, Irv Gotti announced on Instagram that he would be relaunching Murder Inc. Records, one hip-hop’s most notorious record labels the late '90s/early '00s. This was quite the shock to the rest the industry and fans alike, as Murder Inc. had long since died out after middling album sales, a dwindling roster artists, and, oh, Irv Gotti’s fice being raided by the FBI in a drug search.
Now, it seems, Gotti is ready to step into the arena once again with an apparent new roster young artists and what he claims to be, “New Music. Same fucking MOVEMENT,” and now the rest the world will wait in (*searches for word*) anticipation.
Obscure use caps-lock aside, the idea the Murder Inc. movement in the context rap history is an interesting one. Despite an early wave support on the heels Def Jam Records’ success that resulted in Platinum albums for both Ja Rule and Ashanti, the label’s two biggest artists, the rest Murder Inc.’s roster never reached the same heights. It was one the most notorious rap labels on the planet from 1999-2003, yet most would still be hesitant to place it amongst the top dogs the rap industry. In short, Murder Inc. was the hip-hop iteration the Phoenix Suns the late 2000s; always on the precipice greatness, but seemingly one step short.
However, in honor the news, we look to which albums from Murder Inc.’s golden age should be considered as the label's top five. These are the five best Murder Inc. releases.
Ashanti — Chapter II (2003): Despite what most considered a step back from her debut album, Ashanti’s Chapter II doesn’t feel as problematic as it might have when it was first released. It starts with a very promising pair songs in “Rock Wit U (Aww Baby)” and “Breakup 2 Makeup” that feel much less reserved than large portions her first release. Unfortunately, Ashanti’s weaknesses as an artist can only hide for so long on the album’s second half that rarely finds her singing on anything other than retreads already charted territory in terms production and concepts.
Ja Rule — Rule 3:36 (2000): Easily the most controversial pick, Rule 3:36 was Ja Rule’s first true commercial success in terms albums, and it also manages to hold up musically. Some Ja’s biggest singles from the album, like “Put It On Me” and “I Cry,” still manage to capture an overlooked versatility to his style, with the former showcasing his continually expanding ear for hit songs, and the latter utilizing an amazing O’Jays sample for a more introspective hit. It isn’t perfect, by any means, with many the deep cuts sounding too similar to already made, superior tracks from Ja’s debut album, Venni Vetti Vecci.
5. Irv Gotti Presents: The Murderers
Release Date: March 21, 2000
Best Tracks: “Black Or White,” “Vita, Vita, Vita,” “Holla Holla (Remix)”
In the spring 2000, Irv Gotti and company released the first ficial compilation album from Murder Inc., piggybacking on the success Ja Rule’s debut album, Venni Vetti Vecci. Irv Gotti Presents: The Murderers is a graphic, energetic project that rarely steps away from reminding you that all these artists really like talking about murder. With cuts like “Shit Gets Ugly,” “We Murderers Baby,” and “How Many Wanna Die,” the album is riddled with gun talk, machismo rap, and plays like The Firm’s album after six Red Bulls, and that’s perfectly fine.
What remains the most interesting aspect the album is that its strongest parts, such as tracks like “Vita, Vita, Vita” and “Black Or White,” are the ones that barely have any trace Ja Rule’s signature voice. Instead, Gotti and company use their time to promote rappers Vita and Black Child, and many the album’s standout tracks only have cameos by Ja as he busts through the walls the song like the rap version the Kool-Aid Man, only to shout “It’s MURDAHHHH” and leave.
The Murderers, as history showed, clearly never took f as a cohesive entity in the way that Roc-A-Fella would, but their initial album carries an undeniable charisma. The album works not only as a way analyzing many Irv Gotti’s faults as a label head in promoting the artists on this album outside Ja Rule but also as an understatedly spry body work that will keep your head bobbing throughout.
4. Lloyd — Street Love
Release Date: March 13, 2007
Best Tracks: “Get It Shawty,” “Hazel,” “What You Wanna Do”
Atlanta singer Lloyd has always been an interesting figure in the R&B scene, especially in the mid to late 2000’s when he reached arguably the pinnacle his career. His debut album, Southside, while a defensible first project, never quite felt fully realized and at many times Lloyd’s restrained, almost whispering, vocals held down a lot its potential. Southside felt like listening to a Ginuwine album on low volume, and with that sound came a bloated, sluggish project despite a massive push by Murder Inc. to make it more than that.
Luckily, Lloyd rebounded quite well with his second—and best—album Street Love in 2007. What makes Street Love work much more efficiently is that it builds upon the things that Lloyd does well, like catchy choruses and creamy, smooth production, and removes the aspects Southside that left Lloyd out in the cold to carry material he wasn’t vocally adept to. Singles like “Get It Shawty” and “You” feel energizing compared to the middling slow jams Southside, and even Street Love’s deep cuts like “Hazel” and “I Don’t Mind” boost any weaknesses in Lloyd’s range as a singer with layered, fun production. Unfortunately for Lloyd, he would eventually leave Murder Inc. and, for a few years, music altogether, and the peak Street Love has yet to have been met again by him since. At least “Get It Shawty” is still a banger.
3. Ashanti — Ashanti
Release Date: April 2, 2002
Best Tracks: “Foolish,” “Over,” “Rescue”
Prior to the release her eponymous debut album, Ashanti had made quite a name for herself with features on songs by Big Pun, Fat Joe and label mate Ja Rule. She was primed to take the spotlight, and with Murder Inc. continuing to rise in terms popularity, Ashanti was an album that dropped at the exact right moment. The reason I make that note is because had it been at a point in which Murder Inc.’s notoriety had been anything less, there is a chance this album wouldn’t be remembered in the way that it is now. In short, Ashanti’s debut album, like much her later albums, has its problems.
So let’s clear up its flaws first. Ashanti’s vocals have always been her biggest weakness and listening through Ashanti only solidifies that her soprano style and feathery voice inflection only seem to keep her from stretching her legs musically on her own songs. Tracks like “Call” and “Leaving (Always On Time Part ll)” have questionable melodies, and it isn't hard to spot challenging notes for the young singer from a mile away. Also, much Ashanti’s dreamy, uptempo production feels uniformly bland at times, and especially as the album winds down.
Why exactly does this project make it into the top three? Frankly, because Ashanti and Irv Gotti knew how to churn out hits while also creating a cohesive sound from top to bottom. “Foolish” and “Happy,” the album’s two biggest songs, still work on a level catchiness that most traditional R&B artists, at that time, couldn't recreate. Despite production that carries a stain sameness throughout, that style ironically fits Ashanti’s abilities damn near perfect. What also makes Ashanti a well-rounded album are its skits, as well as its intro, all which create a cohesive story as well as a fully realized introduction to Ashanti the lyricist. It’s not an album that ages well, but for its time and success, Ashanti was the best release her tenure with Murder Inc.
2. Ja Rule — Pain Is Love
Release Date: October 2, 2001
Best Tracks: “Always On Time,” “Down Ass B**ch,” “So Much Pain”
Pain Is Love is arguably the absolute pinnacle Ja Rule’s success as a rapper. Before he attempted to become 2Pac Lite on The Last Temptation, and before he decided to feud with rappers like 50 Cent and Jadakiss with zero chance winning, and way before he accidentally ripped f a bunch rich white people in the Bahamas at Fyre Festival, Ja Rule achieved soaring heights on his third album.
What places Pain Is Love ahead not only other Murder Inc. releases, but other albums in Ja's catalog, is it's, retrospectively, the very last step on the rap/pop crossover cliff that Ja would eventually fall from. It rarely feels contrived, like much The Last Temptation does, and it highlights all the strengths Ja had managed to perfect in terms successful, mainstream rap songs. Tracks like “Always On Time” feel like the best possible version his poorly constructed “Mesmerize” on his next album, and even its weakest moments like “Lost Little Girl” can’t take away from its best.
Here, Ja Rule figured out that despite the fact that he had truly zero ability to sing in harmony, and that his lyrics were slowly losing substance, he still had the ability to conjure up one last, fun project. Pain Is Love is by no means perfect, but with its brash production, calculated hit singles, and even a serviceable, post-mortem feature from 2Pac, it’s easily the second best album Ja Rule ever released.
1. Ja Rule — Venni Vetti Vecci
Release Date: June 1, 1999
Best Tracks: “It’s Murda” “Suicide Freestyle” “Kill Em All”
Ironically, in its entire history, the best album Irv Gotti managed to produce and release was Murder Inc.’s inaugural album, Venni Vetti Vecci by Ja Rule. VVV was, ultimately, Ja’s finest moment as both a lyricist and as a curator intensified, graphic gangster rap. Not only was it a Platinum-selling record, but it also feels to this day like the least diluted Ja Rule album in his catalog, with its gritty production and enraged lyrics carrying it to a level eerily reminiscent Eminem’s Slim Shady LP. In short, Ja Rule never needed the pop songs; he just thought he did.
VVV’s best moments arrived when Ja is allowed the freedom to drift between lanes introspection, social consciousness, and talk , you guessed it, “Murdaahhhh.” There are very rarely any moments brevity, with only his hit single “Holla Holla” standing out amidst a sequencing dark, morose production. Yet, that darkness is exactly what makes VVV not only a truly great album but an unappreciated one at that. Songs like “It’s Murda” and “Kill Em All”—both containing incredible Jay Z verses—feel overlooked as time passes on, as Ja managed to hold his own next to the likes Jay, Eric Sermon and DMX on some VVV’s biggest moments. Deep cuts like “Suicide Freestyle” and “Race Against Time” also give f Eminem vibes, as he jumps between self-reflection and rage at the drop a hat.
Venni Vetti Vecci will never go down as one the greatest rap albums ever, nor would it be a first ballot candidate in the metaphorical rap Hall Fame. Yet, it is clearly the best product Murder Inc. ever managed to create, and an album that truly holds its own 18 years later. Looking back, it’s a shame that Ja Rule steered himself away from the music that kicked f his career because, although his style would eventually be perfected by DMX and Eminem alike, he was a formidable rapper from day one.
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