I like Ja Rule. Not a lot. But well enough. (Meaning I don’t switch the station when he comes on.) Everyone I know – from the predictable white guys who only listen to J5 or Can Ox to hardcore hiphop self-flagellates of any color or creed – hates the guy. With a passion bordering on irrationality. He is loathed by the underground for all the usual anti-bling bling reasons, the streets for selling out by making slicked up luvva-thug r&b. Nitsuh even called him his pop nemesis, baffling me when so many other deserving targets of fruitless aggression are clogging up pop’s pores. (#1 – Scott Stapp.)

So why is he hated so, other than broader cultural concerns of “selling out” in any given milieu. And more importantly who is buying his platinum records? He’s got no flow to speak of, sure. But I don’t mind the bark so much, and he has adapted it to suit his newfound purpose as a sensitive thug who needs a hug. That “newfound purpose” is the key, I think, to both his success and to why I like him. (And conversely why everyone doesn’t.)

When he originally appeared out of nowhere (as every pop star does, more or less) on Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A?”. he looked like a baby pitbull version of Tupac, slithering around in the multi-million dollar video with his tattooed midriff, completely unmoved – as poor young turks are wont to do – by the opulence of his surroundings. Simon Reynolds praised the equally undulating electro-production on his debut single “Holla, Holla,” but he seemed bizarrely mismatched to the fluency of the music, rampaging over it like that same puppy dog in a china shop. He seemed like he was going to end up a footnote at best, and the chiming ghetto-gamelan of that second single was singularly annoying.

But in 2000, “Put It On Me” was everywhere in Philadelphia: booming out of car systems, on the radio every hour. In classic pop tradition, it assaulted you so frequently that at some point you just became abused and indemnified to it’s attacks. Your resistance dropped and you had to admit what a great single it actually was, if only to ease your fragile mind. And what a bizarre choice it was for a follow up to “Between Me and You,” where he was just espousing the tradition gangsta lexicon of love, dirty rubbers and headboard banging. Oddly tender, although not too tender of course and still laden with the questionable equation of money with love, he came off like an embarrassed, mush-mouthed high school kid trying to verbalize the first stirrings of true wuv.

It was also his biggest commercial success, and like Sugar Ray mutating from agit-metal pranksters to whatever sort of AOR schlock they are now, his whole game changed after that. (Sign of a good – or at least all conquering – pop single: my sister likes it. And she’s not too fond of, oh say, Silkk The Shocker, so there’s at least part of your answer to who’s buying the records now.) There was the duet with Jennifer Lopez on “I’m Real,” a sort of lullaby for the gangsta generation, their two voices completely mismatched throughout. There was the duet with, uh, well I didn’t catch it, on uh, well, I didn’t catch that either. Both even more mawkishly gushy up than Pac at his “Keep Ya Head Up” worst. And then there is his latest foray in willful cuddly softness, “Livin’ It Up”.

It’s a disco single, for chrissakes, right down to the Salsoul flourishes and the male-diva chorus. It’s also perhaps the furthest out a hardcore rapper has taken his music; even the glossy cushioning of Mannie Fresh’s most neuvo-riche house production wasn’t as blatantly, well, gay as this. In a genre in which homosexuals are fodder – for jokes, for lurid fantasies of abuse – and where the rumor of “so and so is gay” is the death knell of street cred, here’s Ja barking obliviously over four to the floor and strings and things about leaving his latest conquest “waking up wet, fo sheezy.” Is it an accidental mixture? Probably. That doesn’t make it any less compelling.

The reason people hate Ja Rule is because he’s a pop star now instead of merely a “rapper” and he’s so ill-suited to both roles. He’s compelling because he contradicts himself – repeatedly – on so many levels, in public. He’s a garish bore, a wrench in the glamour machine. He’s a terrible rapper who’s world famous, a growling alpha-male with a heart of, if not gold, then shined-up copper. He’s a train wreck, basically. And – morbid curiosity or not – I can’t wait to see what he does next.