It’s been a rough five years, but the most famous casualty of the 21st-century rap game is putting his troubles behind him and getting back to work. Don’t bury Ja Rule. He ain’t dead yet.

"Why’d you pick this chichi, froufrou spot?”

Ja Rule turns to his publicist upon entering the main dining room of Kittichai, a posh Thai restaurant in the Soho section of Manhattan that features intricate wood carvings, colorful curtains and a central viewing pool with flowers and floating candles. “How you know I ain’t want a nice big steak or something?”

You couldn’t blame the guy for wanting beef. For the past five years, he’s been publicly ridiculed by one of the biggest rap stars on the planet, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson—a campaign that rendered Ja’s name synonymous with the unflattering term “wanksta.” After totaling more than 10 million in sales with his first four discs, Ja has watched his last two projects, 2003’s Blood in My Eye and 2004’s R.U.L.E., sell 467,000 and 657,000, respectively. Meanwhile, the government effectively shut down his recording home, Murder Inc., as his longtime friend and partner Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo fought federal money-laundering charges. (Gotti and his brother Chris were acquitted in December 2005.) To top it all off, GLAAD tried to initiate a media boycott this past September after Ja was quoted in a recent interview making comments that came off as antigay. So, no, you wouldn’t blame him for being a little feisty.

Settling in with a lychee martini, though, he seems anything but. Cracking jokes, laughing boisterously, the 31-year-old Hollis, Queens, native entertains a group of friends with stories about a recent trip to Germany and insists he’s moved on. “I throw a jab here and there, but for the most part, I’m not concerned with it,” he says of his high-profile strife with 50. “I said all I had to say. If anybody needs to hear any beef or any hatred I have toward any artist, they can go get Blood in My Eye, ’cause that’s why I made it… I needed it to get it out my system, so now I don’t have to dwell on it, ’cause it’s all been said.”

After a three-year hiatus, Ja is ready to get back to the business of making hits. When it came time to record his warm-up single “Uh-Ohhh,” he enlisted the services of hip-hop’s current guest-appearance king, Lil Wayne. “It’s always good to do records with niggas that are considered the best out there,” Ja says. “Throughout my career I’ve always spit with the best spitters and sung with the best singers. Niggas can’t take that away from me. I like to be on tracks with great talent, and Weezy’s great talent. It set the tone, let people know I was back in the building and I can still spit.”

Unfortunately, not everyone was convinced. During the recording process for his new album, The Mirror, Ja kept hitting roadblocks. “I reached out to a few people for the album, and it was like I was running into dark corridors,” he says after ordering a plate of chicken fried rice with steamed shrimp. “They’d be like, ‘Yeah.’ But then it’s like, ‘Where the fuck you at when I need to do the actual work?’ I felt a lot of fake shit out there. So I said, ‘You know what? Realistically, I don’t need none of these muthafuckas to make hit records.’ They would be good collabos, it woulda made for good stories—Ja did a record with such and such—but that doesn’t always make for good music. So, after a while, I just said fuck it. I’ma go completely creative, and I’ma canvas my album with the proper voices, regardless of who they are or what they look like.”

Save for Wayne, the only high-profile guest on The Mirror is The Game, who’s featured on the California ode “Sunset.” The rest of the album is a mix of Ja’s patented aggression (the epic “300,” the paranoid “Judas”) and R&B-powered duets with as-yet-little-known songstresses (“Damn,” featuring Jenna, and “Body,” with Ashley Joi). The one track Ja notes as a highlight, though, is “Enemy of the State.” Taking cues from Biggie’s classic “Warning,” the record lets listeners eavesdrop on a phone conversation between Ja and Gotti as they relive the stress of being indicted by the feds. “People don’t really understand what we was going through with that shit,” says Ja. “‘Enemy of the State’ is kinda like a realistic but fun look into what we were going through. It was more so Irv’s situation than mine, so I definitely wanted to give him a voice on the record and let it be known it was a lot going on during the time. I felt that record had to be made.”

Over the course of the almost-three-year investigation, Murder Inc. was vilified for its principals’ association with incarcerated Queens drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. Corporate parent Def Jam severed ties, ousting Murder Inc. from its Midtown Manhattan offices in March ’03. While it was only the Gotti brothers who were facing jail time, Ja owns a portion of the company, and in the event of a guilty verdict, he would’ve had to assume power—a reality the rap superstar wasn’t exactly ready for.
“I ain’t even gon’ front, I wasn’t mentally prepared for it,” he says. “I know the business very well, but as far as sitting behind a desk and doing the business and making the calls, that’s not really what I strive to do at the moment… But my nigga ’Preme always said you gotta prepare for the worst. If the worst scenario don’t come out, then, nigga, we good. Thank God we lived through that and got acquitted and everything is cool.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. Last year, Irv and company signed a $10 million distribution deal directly with Universal Music Group. As part of the agreement, Irv retained ownership of the masters for his entire roster, and Ja got his own imprint, Mpire Records. Nonmusic business is blooming, too. The gravelly voiced rapper recently went into business with Flawless Jewelry for his Asja collection and launched an umbrella organization called Rule Global Media. He has two new films in the works, and he and Gotti just landed a 50/50 partnership with electronics giant Samsung for their Ervingeoffrey clothing line.

“I got some of the biggest business deals that y’all can ever fuckin’ think of on the table right now,” says Ja, who also runs the L.I.F.E. Foundation, which provides inner-city kids with guidance. “When you are who you are and you’re not ashamed of who you are, nothing can stop your movements. Nothing can stop what you want to do in life. Nigga, that’s where I came from. If you haven’t noticed, I’m Black. I came from people saying, ‘You’re nothing. You can’t do it. You’ll never be nothing. Matter fact, you’re a slave.’ I came from that. I know what we went through as Black people. So, for me, struggle is nothing. And what y’all people—the fans, the public—call struggle, or y’all thought what I was going through was the worst thing in the world, you can’t be serious.”

THIS IS ONLY A PREVIEW! To read the rest of our profile on Ja Rule, check out the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of XXL!