Two crosses bang together around Ja Rule’s neck as he jumps to his feet. Shouting cheerfully to the group of interviewers scheduled before me, he charms them with profanity-laced bravado about an upcoming concert he is headlining and a TV show he will be playing. As the door closes, he calms down considerably. He knows I am from someplace called Beliefnet. For a moment, his demeanor reminds me of a kid in Sunday school. But while he stares out the window, not looking at me, he is obviously intensely interested in my questions and his answers (or admitted lack of them) about God, religion, and the reality of violence and desperation of life on earth.

Jeff Atkins, a.k.a. Ja Rule, grew up the only child in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Queens, N.Y. After years of learning the difficulties of the music industry (and a few arrests for small weapons and drug charges) with the New York-based rhyme crew Cash Money Click, things finally fell into place for him. In 1998, he wrote the hook for fellow rapper Jay-Z’s club hit "Can I Get A," which was the breakthrough that led to his debut last year, "Venni, Vetti, Vecci." The album went platinum nearly immediately, carried by the single “Holla Holla.”

On the cover of "Venni, Vetti, Vecci," Ja Rule stands before the gigantic Christ in Rio de Janiero, his head back, hands folded in prayer. The album starts with a call and response prayer:

Lord, can we get a break? (Lord, can we get a break?)
We ain't really happy here (We ain't really happy here)
Take a look into our eyes! (Take a look into our eyes!)
And see pain without fear (And see pain without fear)

But those looking for Ja Rule in Christian hip-hop are in the wrong section. Part of a group of rappers called Murder Inc, along with Jay-Z and DMX, Ja Rule articulates the harshness of street life, using the strong religious imagery instilled in his youth. Despite his signature cry, "Murder!" on his back is tattooed the name of his sister who died as an infant, complete with a halo and angel’s wings.

Ja Rule's second album, “Rule 3:36” (360/Def Jam), is a clear reference to John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” Ja Rule has changed this to read: “He who believes in Ja shall have everlasting love. He who does not shall not see life, but the wrath of my vengeance...Pain is love.” As I waited for the interview, Ja Rule sent an assistant out to make sure I had listened to the last track, “What If God Was One Of Us,” which is inspired by, but does not sample, the Joan Osborne song of the same name.

"One of Us" is the best and cleanest track on an excellent album, though full of profanity and violence. Ja Rule asks the question differently from Osborne. As one who has struggled with the strictures and perceived hypocrisy of organized religion, he wonders if God himself would be able to live up to the heavy yoke that religion places upon people.

PR: So you were raised Jehovah’s Witness?
JR: Yeah, that’s a tough religion. You don’t have birthdays, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, you know, because that’s not the day Christ was born. So there’s no need to celebrate. I would get like a gift a week after Christmas or a week before Christmas, because all the other kids would have stuff and then it would be like, "Why don’t I have nothing?" So my mom and grandma would get me stuff.

With Jehovah's Witnesses, you kind of go out and knock on doors, right.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Did you do that?
Its called field service.

What age did you start that?
I used to do field service when I was young--8. I used to do it younger than that, but I remember the years when I was 8, 9, I really--we use to always try to skip field service, because sometimes you had to knock on your friends’ doors. That was embarrassing, to be in your suit and to knock on the door. You’re cool in school, and now you’re knocking on a door in a suit. Everybody in my family was Jehovah's Witness. My father was, too. I was never baptized, but my mom was, and she got disfellowshiped.

My mom had friends from work; they would hang out with her girlfriends and co-workers and they would have drinks and stuff, you know regular stuff, you know what people do, normal stuff.

Yeah, right.
And she got caught doing that stuff and then they disfellowship you. My mom, she was kind of tired of living like a double life, because she felt these things she was doing weren’t wrong like in regular society. She says she called them and she told them, and they disfellowshiped her. Now when you get disfellowshiped, nobody is allowed to talk to you--not even your family. My mom, she was real hurt by that. That’s how I kind of got like a cold feeling towards the religion and religions in general. Because I said I don’t think that is something God would want. I don’t think God would want to separate families.