Some records join every dot. Last year, for instance, the Kelis album and the Jay-Z album and the Romeo Must Die soundtrack turned hip-hop around for me. They made sense of a lot of things – my latent love of the genre, my excitement over R&B and its transformation of pop, and my dissatisfaction with the ‘undie’ records I’d been buying and hearing. You know the ones: Company Flow, New Kingdom, Black Star – very proficient, quite abrasive, mildly interesting, but lacking the spark that made me play “Do It Again” or “Try Again” or “Good Stuff” fifteen times over, lost in their paranoid platinum dreams.

Often these records had the jitters – either musically, in the microbeats and synth wobbles underpinning the tracks, or emotionally, in the fug of doubt, panic, anger and mistrust that sometimes infected the music. There was bliss, too, most of it in the force of the rhythms and the playful anything-goes leap into electronic sounds. But even some of the most upbeat songs, like “Good Stuff” or “Big Pimpin”, sounded brittle and nervy, half-swagger half-bravado – effects achieved respectively by the arid rattle of the Neptunes’ beats and the Joker-grin maniac joy in Timbaland’s endless flute loop.

But when the darkness hit, it hit bad: Jay-Z’s “Come And Get Me” was a clammy death-trip, culminating lyrically in Jay’s creeped-out round-up of his guns and sonically in the rotten ambient churn Timbaland drops the track into halfway through. These records felt different from the hip-hop I’d been hearing three or four years before – then the emphasis was on gangs, crews, localities, an us-against-them mentality to be sure but at least the us implied people you could rely on. There was less of that in Jay-Z’s or DMX’s music, even in Aaliyah’s: rappers and divas alike walked alone through a world where even the fittest would not neccessarily survive.

In joy and dread alike, this was brilliant, propulsive city music, exactly what you’d have wanted pop to sound like in 2000, and an aesthetic partyline developed: electronic pop textures and ping-pong off-centre beats were good, so was black humour and musical tension, so was anything which didn’t sound like old skool hip-hop. Lyrical flow was important, but nobody seemed to care too much about the content. Every other week it seemed I’d hear some phenomenal new track, culminating with “Bombs Over Baghdad”, Outkast’s head-switching collision of future-now beats and psychedelic funk.

Outkast had next to nothing to do with the shiny, skittery hip-hop I’d been swooning over all through 2000, though, and Stankonia confirmed it: shockingly modernist in places, it was still a looser, happier experience than coiled-spring thug music seemed likely to serve up. But then the thugs started to unclench a little too – Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You” was a stoned, groovy mess, and Nelly’s “Country Grammar” seduced the charts with a heathazed lazy lope.

The only problem for me was I didn’t like either of them, or most of Stankonia for that matter, very much. Neither the hooks or the production held my attention like the tunes of six months or a year before had done, and they just felt too damn slow. At the same time though, they felt somehow fresher than new tracks coming out in the jitter-beat style: when a music is moving as fast as hip-hop has been, critics have little time for stock-taking. Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy?” put a new and funny spin on the whole thing by matching palpitating rhythms with the rapper’s panting horndog persona. But a turn to the organic and my own changed circumstances (moving out of the city) meant my interest in current hip-hop started to dip for the first time in a year. I rediscovered the Wu-Tang Clan, started exploring bass music, and restricted myself to occasional attempts at enjoying Stankonia as much as everyone else seemed to.

So Ja Rule’s Rule 3:36 album is the first new street rap album I’ve bought in a while, and listening to it it’s hard to think that the break has done me or the music any good. The record sits uneasily between uptight DMXian wrath and a looser, more tender style which seems musically and lyrically to spring straight from Ja Rule’s discovery of E. “Ecstasy”, as Tim Finney and Simon Reynolds have both pointed out, is one of the first hip-hop E anthems. I don’t think Rule takes the golden opportunity to rhyme “thug” and “hug”, though, as mostly the song is about what a great fuck he is when he’s on X. B-Boys on E is, as Reynolds has written, a tantalising prospect in theory. Unfortunately “Ecstasy” sounds like the meeting-point between Will Smith’s “Miami” and the Happy Mondays’ “Grandbag’s Funeral”: a leaden house trot entirely unenhanced by Rule’s mediocre rapping.

I’ll talk about Rule himself more in a minute, but it’s worth asking again why “Ecstasy” doesn’t work, because it sheds some light on the potential problems with street-rap criticism as it stands. Throughout Rule 3:36, and throughout a lot of current hip-hop, sounds and techniques familiar to 90s dance listeners crop up: acid squelches here, Beltram stabs and hoover hovers there. These were unexpected and exciting, and often still are – the ravey helium vocals on “6 Feet Underground” make it this album’s most enticing track by some way. But they can’t be the be-all and end-all of a track. Reynolds, for example, is rightly intrigued by the musical possibilities an influx of Ecstasy in the clubs might unlock for hip-hop producers: but if those producers are simply revisiting old ravey ideas, then ennui sets in rapidly. It’s hard to shake a suspicion that a lot of Reynolds’ love of street rap – particularly as its personae seem to repel him so much – is to do with a simple nostalgia trip at hearing these old noises again.

That’s probably unfair, but then it was Reynolds’ recommendation that led me to shell out for Rule 3:36 in the first place. And when a track like “Die” hits your headphones, with Ja Rule raps over something very similar to Miami Vice chase scene music, questions must be asked. On “It’s Your Life”, the weedy pop-reggae skank finds the dread phrase, “I don’t like cricket….I love it” springing to lip. The production on the album isn’t generally so bad – compared to the scholarly rigour of a Rawkus record it jumps like a box of bees – but it feels heavy-handed and stale. Pizzicato string-plucks and parpy retro-keyboards: all very nice, but haven’t we been here already? Assuming of coursethat you can tune out Ja Rule enough to get a handle on it.

Where underground rap prides itself on its verbal convolutions, street rap is all about finding a persona and sticking with it. This may seem an odd thing to say for a style so obsessed with realism, but like an autobiography (or a weblog!), street rap is a kind of self-play, creating a ‘you’ just exaggerated enough to excite. The audience need never know how real it actually is, they just have to buy it for sixty minutes. So Jay-Z plays the sly, arrogant hustler, and DMX plays the thug as trapped, tragic antihero.

And Ja Rule? Well, sadly, Ja Rule mostly comes off as thick: a big, blustering comic heavy with precious few jokes. His love songs are better than his other songs but take “Between Me And You”: the track is a lacy, sulty Eastern groove and Christina Milian takes it into the same silky territory as Eve’s “Gotta Man”, all bubbling, barely-composed lust and delight. And on top of this Ja Rule bellows like a wildebeest. The overall effect is like those endless, feebly bathetic scenes in The Incredible Hulk where the rampaging creature would pause to tenderly caress a deer and weep hammy tears reader-wards.

The street-rap critical position is too-often boiled down to “lovely sounds, shame about the raps”, which is a generalisation and then some – it was none other than Mos Def who pronounced that if you didn’t like Jay-Z’s flow, you didn’t understand hip-hop. But the one-liner has a grain of truth – certainly I’ve learned to tune out offensive content and what Reynolds calls “nigga-tivity”. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes I don’t care, occasionally I can really get off on the strut and the sex.

But Ja Rule is where I draw the line because his raps are both so in-your-face and so utterly banal. “Between Me And You” says that everything that happens between Ja and his girl is between her and him. In “Love Me, Hate Me” we learn that people either love Ja Rule or they hate him. The low point comes with “One Of Us” where over a tiresome pop-funk groove Rule asks, yes, “What if God was one of us?”. It was trite as hell when Joan Osborne did it, and Rule isn’t getting away with it just because he’s using some neat 80s keyboard sounds.

Some records join every dot, some rub the lines out. Hip-hop is still the hottest music in America – and it’s gratifying as hell to see it taking over the British charts too – but records as drab as Rule 3:36 suggest that not all that’s platinum is gold, and that transplanting the thrills of the Rave Nation to urban America may be a more fraught critical process than it seems.