Self-awareness has never been the strong suit of any rapper, but if there’s one MC who could benefit from some honest soul-searching, it’s Ja Rule. Since his career was dealt a near-deadly blow by 50 Cent in 2002, Ja’s tried to recapture his street credibility and pop success twice: first on 2003’s tough-talkin’ flop Blood in My Eye, and second on 2004’s R.U.L.E., which achieved moderate radio success but failed to reestablish the stumbled star as a bankable artist. Three years later, Ja and company seem ready for a fresh start. After beating federal money-laundering charges, label head Irv Gotti and the gang have left Def Jam, signed a new deal with Universal Motown and found another mainstream artist in singer Lloyd. And with G-Unit mania finally petering out, now seems to be Ja’s best shot at redemption. On his seventh album, The Mirror, the Hollis, Queens, native reflects, hoping to see if he’s still got it.

Careerwise, Ja needs to diss 50 again about as much as Curtis needs another hole in his head. But Rule’s ego can’t help but squeeze out one final parting message to his archrival on the album’s intro, where he spits, “With the wrath of my vengeance, get geeked up in da club/And get caught slippin’ is what I want/So I can finish what I started some time ago/And put that 10th bullet hole through your head and your heart.” Wisely, he stops dwelling on the tired beef and pairs himself with current hip-hop poster boys Lil Wayne (on the Minnesota-produced first single, “Uh Ohhh”) and The Game (on the warm, laid-back “Sunset”).

Clearly, Ja isn’t trying to learn any new tricks—he’s more concerned with trying to distill that mix of saccharine melody and overtly emotional delivery that first made him a multiplatinum seller. The dark, ferocious energy of his 1999 debut is briefly heard on the thumpin’ “300,” featuring a call to arms by his Mpire underlings Newz, Tre and Merce. However, the emotional R&B flavor that made 2000’s Rule 3:36 and 2001’s Pain Is Love so successful is best exemplified on the Rick Steel–produced “Damn,” where Ja examines that tricky game called love: “It gets lonely/Especially when you lookin’ at ya Rolie/And can’t buy the time on it/Or turn back the hands and relive them lost moments.”

Even with his singsongy, gravel-voiced delivery intact, Ja’s lack of fresh ideas and attention to detail still prevent him from becoming a more enduring artist. “Rules of Engagement” is a lazy extension of Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” while “Enemy of the State” could easily be called “Phone Tap 2007.” On the Channel 7–produced “Father Forgive Me,” a bloated remake of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Ja tries to address his isolation over the past few years but relies mostly on “I was born alone, I’ll die alone” clichés, rather than probing his emotions in an original way.

Still, Ja shows a glimmer of true self-reflection on the album’s emotional crux, “Love Is Pain,” where he rhymes over a glimmering Phil Collins sample: “No one hated me more than myself/It’s hard to relate to someone you know so well/Or so I thought—sometimes I look in the mirror and see someone else/There’s two of me, but I’m by myself.” Although not the triumphant return Ja Rule was looking for, The Mirror leaves hope for what lies ahead, when he finally breaks through the looking glass.—BRENDAN FREDERICK