Ja Rule’s last outing, the Christmas 2003 quickie Blood in My Eye, was so terrible that he deserves credit simply for showing up a year later — and even more credit for realizing that Blood‘s raw, mix-tape-style format did his pedestrian rhymes a grave disservice. Reloaded with plentiful pop hooks, high-profile guests (R. Kelly, Jadakiss) and the gravelly croon Ja unwisely abandoned in an attempt to spit toe-to-toe with his many detractors, R.U.L.E. turns back the clock to the days before 50 Cent, when Ja was the thug king of hip-pop and his hot tracks never forced him to back his bark with bite. The result is that Ja and his Inc. handlers have arrested his slide; the candy-corn chest-beater “What’s My Name” and the trigger-happy “New York” are equal to any of his G-Unit competition. The larger question is what this orgy of superficiality means, especially as more gifted MCs move the game forward. There’s still no trace of wit or insight in his simple-minded blast-and-bling, and tracks such as “The Manual,” a vile ode to strippers, deserve no further comment. Ja has never sounded better — or more irrelevant.