It was a big night in the city. At Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks were playing their first home playoff game since 2004 (one that wouldn’t work out so well for them, but, still, an exciting moment). Just footsteps away, at the Hammerstein Ballroom, a Versace-clad Diddy and his Dirty Money girls were headlining a surprise-guest-filled concert. And while back-in-the-day fan favorites such as Lil’ Cease, Faith Evans and Black Rob would get cheers during a run-through of Bad Boy Records classics, there was no bigger roar from the crowd than when the show opener, R&B singer Lloyd, brought out the two most well-known members of his former fam, Ashanti and Ja Rule. Ja hadn’t been seen on a New York City stage since July 22, 2007, the night he was arrested on gun charges, after performing at Lil Wayne’s infamous Beacon Theatre show.

Of course, even before 2007, Ja had fallen out of favor with many rap fans—the result of being on the losing end of a very high-profile beef, four years earlier, with 50 Cent. His last album, 2004’s R.U.L.E., sold just 661,000 copies.

“I think the backlash that I’ve gotten over the years, a lot of the fans, a lot of the people that don’t see what’s going on in my circle, I think they think the people hate me and throw tomatoes at me,” says Ja Rule, born Jeffrey Atkins, with a laugh, about the love he received at Hammerstein. “I don’t know what they think. I don’t know how deep they think the backlash or hate really is. People really show me a lot of love when I’m out in the streets. It’s really, ‘Yo, Rule, I wanna see you get back in the game. I wanna see you do your thing.’ ”

Less than an hour after stepping offstage at Hammerstein, Ja released his new single, “Real Life Fantasy.” Produced by 7 Aurelius, who was responsible for the sound of the rapper’s biggest success, the 2001 album Pain Is Love, “Real Life Fantasy” is a heartfelt stroll down memory lane wherein Ja addresses his troubles with the law, as well as the disbanding of the Murder Inc. crew in the wake of label head Irv Gotti’s money-laundering trial back in 2005. It is the first single off his new album, Pain Is Love 2, which is slated for digital release, from his own Mpire Music Group and Fontana/Universal, on June 7—the day before Ja is slated to begin a two-year prison sentence for the 2007 gun-possession charge. (A March guilty plea to tax-evasion charges threatens to add to his time behind bars.)

XXL recently visited Ja in the Manhattan studio Area 51 NYC, where he talked about love, hate, the old days, the new days and the time in between.—Shaheem Reid

How did it feel to be back onstage with Ashanti and Lloyd at the Hammerstein Ballroom?

We were the three main, the three biggest artists on Murder Inc. For us to get together, it was a good moment. I look at Shani and Lloyd as my little brother and sister. Gotti is my brother, and they were brought into our Murder Inc. as family. I’ve never seen them as anything different.

What is the relationship like between you and Irv now?

Gotti, that’s my dawg, that’s my brother. You hear what I say in “Real Life Fantasy”? “Never thought Gotti would leave the game like D-R-E.” That’s kinda my way of bringing him back in, like, “Nigga, you know you miss this shit.” And he does. He loves music just as much as I do. Sometimes when you get to a certain point in your career, you’ve done so much, you feel like it’s only so much you can do. Gotti got to that point where he feels like, “I’ve done so much. What more do you want from me?” He’s relaxing right now and looking to do something monumental, like get that head position at Def Jam. Show people how smart he is at running a company, on that level. I think he deserves that.

Me, myself, I was always in the background of Murder Inc. I owned a piece of it with Gotti. We made a lot of our visions come to fruition. Now I’m doing my Mpire vision. I own everything. I own all my masters. That’s something I wish we would have had at Murder Inc. It was a 50/50 venture we had with Def Jam… When you look back at all of that, you wish you could have had it differently. Not even, you wish you could have done it smarter. Because it doesn’t matter how smart you are. When you’re coming in the game, they’re just not giving it to you like that. So you gotta earn your stripes. You’re just going forward. You hope everything you learned in the past you can put into play with your new venture. So that’s what I’m doing now. Hopefully, I can put up some big records, some top 10 records, and I own them muthafuckas. That’s what it’s about.