50 plays the rap game

“Buy his album now, because he’ll probably be dead by the end of the week.”

– Jimmy Kimmel

The rap game is nothing if not consistent in its unpredictability. A ceaseless search for hot, new sounds by street DJs and a reckless disregard for anything more than a month old are the norm among the hip hop fan base, and as a result, the career paths of rappers are unlike those of any other musicians. The “15 Minutes of Fame” model only goes so far in describing the scenario where rappers can and must excel in numerous realms of competition before getting a shot at the big time.

Even when viewed in those terms, the stunning success story of Curtis Jackson, aka “50 Cent,” remains something of an anomaly. At this time last year, 50 was viewed by most as a flop – a guy that, as Matt Damon in “Rounders” might say, had taken his shot and missed. That shot was “How to Rob,” an underground single put out by Jackson early in 1999 in which he described his plans to stick up, slap up and show up every major rapper in great detail. The plan worked about as well as it did for Jackie Junior on “The Sopranos” – the young upstart was immediately dissed by Jay-Z and Ja Rule in response, and the track and the artist were dismissed as nothing more than fluff. By midsummer of 2002, though, Mr. Jackson was back in a big way, with underground hype for him and his crew at nearly unprecedented levels. The cause of this upsurge was his group Guerrilla Unit’s unrelenting work ethic on mix tapes and compilations; DJs WhooKid and Kay Slay featured the G-Unit on practically every offering and even produced individual efforts such as “50 Cent is the Future” and “Guess Who’s Back,” where the crew would remix current favorites to their own tastes, with their own lyrics, in addition to original submissions. This consistent production began to turn heads, and created a powerful buzz that pegged the young rapper as the Next Big Thing – a consistency that left some industry veterans jealous, wishing they could be, in the words of Eminem, “All over the street like 50 Cent.”

More than anything, though, this buzz was remarkable in its scope, as evidenced by its result: “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” became the largest-selling debut album in history, with 872,000 units moved in a short, 4-day window. As if that weren’t enough, those numbers barely dropped off in the second week, with only 50,000 fewer copies sold. The two week total tops that of the most anticipated debut in hip hop history, the 1993 release of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, and puts it in rare company for any genre.

The question, then, is not how 50 has gotten to the top; the question is why.“Get Rich or Die Tryin’” does little to answer this. Simultaneously smooth and unbalanced, the album includes 15 tracks of new material, as well as a trio of previously released bonus cuts (including the ubiquitous “Wanksta”). The smoothness comes from 50’s consistent, lazily enunciated flow, which, aside from a number of trademark slurs and trills (take the word “gangsta,” add four or five more “a”s, and you’re on the right track), is largely indistinguishable. The lack of balance is far more disturbing – six of the 15 new cuts are produced by label heads Dr. Dre and Eminem, and their quality reflects poorly on many of the remaining tracks.

Take a song like “Many Men,” the third on the album. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with it – a decent, high-range vibraphone sample and a sample stock of 50’s vaguely familiar lyrics (“I’m the diamond in the dirt that ain’t been found / I’m the underground king, and I ain’t been crowned”). Its placement, though, makes it look far more sub-par than it really is, sandwiched in between the Eminem-produced “Patiently Waiting” and the hottest song of the last six months, Dr. Dre’s bravura-bassed “In Da Club.”

The beat of the former is cut from the same cloth as all of Eminem’s works – it’s almost like he lucked into a masterpiece on “Lose Yourself” and can only come up with variations on that theme. It’s still so good that 50 feels the need to shout out his boss as the track begins, saying, “You know I owe you for this one.” Instead of a guest verse, he gets the hit of the new year from Dre on the latter, a driving, infectious rhythm that pairs perfectly with his blended verses. Again, there’s nothing lyrically notable about the track in terms of rhyme or metaphor – it’s just that catchy.

Which isn’t to say that it’s catchy in the same sense that Cash Money is. While much of 50’s appeal derives from the sort of nonsensical phrases perfected by Baby and Little Wayne (“Birdman, aka #1 Stunna,” meet “50, aka Ferrari F50”) that exist only to be fun to say, there’s another level to this work that most boasting mainstream rappers can’t match. Solid tracks like “Heat” and “If I Can’t” stand on their own merits, and while it’s certainly a stretch for him, 50 shows a willingness to vary his rhyming persona on a “sensitive” track like the Nate Dogg-guested “21 Questions.”

But it is Curtis Jackson’s “way of life” that lies beneath the success of 50 Cent. His violent history, no different than that of many rappers, has been pushed to the fore of his public image – he wears the bullet wounds from his 2000 attack as a badge of honor, using the fact that the sound of his voice was changed by being shot in the throat as a conversation point on Jimmy Kimmel Live. By spinning these street threads into a web of redemption, 50 has found widespread redemption in the void of American culture that publicly condemned a similarly gravel-voiced MC for similar actions not more than three years ago. Let’s just hope Shyne doesn’t get MTV wherever he is. It makes no sense to really blame any of this on 50, who is humble in public about his success and consistent on tracks with his message of street realness. Whatever explanatory situation you want to use to describe his meteoric rise – second chance, rags-to-riches or anything else under the sun – it’s hard to begrudge him the somewhat inexplicable popularity that has besieged him like a tidal wave as of late. But that may be enough for 50. All he wants “is for them to love me like they loved Pac.” Given the reception this album has received, it’s hard to argue that they don’t.

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