This week, as though it was a gift from the gods of rap nostalgia, Irv Gotti announced on Instagram that he would be relaunching Murder Inc. Records, one of hip-hop’s most notorious record labels of the late '90s/early '00s. This was quite the shock to the rest of the industry and fans alike, as Murder Inc. had long since died out after middling album sales, a dwindling roster of artists, and, oh, Irv Gotti’s office 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 of young artists and what he claims to be, “New Music. Same fucking MOVEMENT,” and now the rest of the world will wait in (*searches for word*) anticipation.
Obscure use of caps-lock aside, the idea of the Murder Inc. movement in the context of rap history is an interesting one. Despite an early wave of support on the heels of Def Jam Records’ success that resulted in Platinum albums for both Ja Rule and Ashanti, the label’s two biggest artists, the rest of Murder Inc.’s roster never reached the same heights. It was one of the most notorious rap labels on the planet from 1999-2003, yet most would still be hesitant to place it amongst the top dogs of the rap industry. In short, Murder Inc. was the hip-hop iteration of the Phoenix Suns of the late 2000s; always on the precipice of greatness, but seemingly one step short.
However, in honor of 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 of songs in “Rock Wit U (Aww Baby)” and “Breakup 2 Makeup” that feel much less reserved than large portions of 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 of already charted territory in terms of 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 of albums, and it also manages to hold up musically. Some of 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 of 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 of 2000, Irv Gotti and company released the first official compilation album from Murder Inc., piggybacking on the success of 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 of 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 of 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 of Ja Rule’s signature voice. Instead, Gotti and company use their time to promote rappers Vita and Black Child, and many of the album’s standout tracks only have cameos by Ja as he busts through the walls of the song like the rap version of the Kool-Aid Man, only to shout “It’s MURDAHHHH” and leave.
The Murderers, as history showed, clearly never took off 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 of analyzing many of Irv Gotti’s faults as a label head in promoting the artists on this album outside of Ja Rule but also as an understatedly spry body of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of catchiness that most traditional R&B artists, at that time, couldn't recreate. Despite production that carries a stain of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of winning, and way before he accidentally ripped off a bunch of rich white people in the Bahamas at Fyre Festival, Ja Rule achieved soaring heights on his third album.
What places Pain Is Love ahead of 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 of The Last Temptation does, and it highlights all of the strengths Ja had managed to perfect in terms of successful, mainstream rap songs. Tracks like “Always On Time” feel like the best possible version of 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 of 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 of 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 of introspection, social consciousness, and talk of, you guessed it, “Murdaahhhh.” There are very rarely any moments of brevity, with only his hit single “Holla Holla” standing out amidst a sequencing of 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 of Jay, Eric Sermon and DMX on some of VVV’s biggest moments. Deep cuts like “Suicide Freestyle” and “Race Against Time” also give off Eminem vibes, as he jumps between self-reflection and rage at the drop of a hat.
Venni Vetti Vecci will never go down as one of the greatest rap albums ever, nor would it be a first ballot candidate in the metaphorical rap Hall of 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 off his career because, although his style would eventually be perfected by DMX and Eminem alike, he was a formidable rapper from day one.