With a gravel-road-voiced delivery that suggests DMX's younger, more playful brother, Ja Rule has distinguished himself as today's cameo rapper of choice, most recently adding heft to Jennifer Lopez's Charmin-thin ''I'm Real.'' On his own third album, Pain Is Love, Rule continues to set himself apart in other ways. Rather than glorify thug life, he addresses its consequences. ''Never Again,'' which chronicles the regrets of a fictional hustler who feels trapped by his existence, is one of the most haunting tracks he's ever done. The same goes for ''Lost Little Girl,'' a sympathetic lament for a street kid on the skids (''Her soul is dead/And she's feeling like her worth is between her legs''). Songs about expecting to die at any moment have rarely been conveyed with such blunt precision.
In light of recent events, hip-hop boasts of bitches and bullets seem even more senseless and self-aggrandizing, and several cuts here, like ''Worldwide Gangsta,'' suffer from that new stigma. The music, however, compensates: Like his frequent compadre Jay-Z, Rule loves his old-school R&B, but Rule's samples and grooves, rooted in '80s dance-floor pop, are more tuneful. Not surprisingly, ''I'm Real'' is also included, though it didn't need to be: The rest of Pain Is Love proves Rule can be real enough. B+