Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. Mother killed when he was 8. Drug dealer by 12. Shot nine times in 2000. Almost any hip-hop fan can rattle off the pertinent details of 50 Cent’s life story. Originally these factoids dribbled out as gossipy supplements to the acclaim bubbling up around the MC’s self-financed albums. Then Eminem’s Shady imprint, a division of Interscope, put some commercial muscle behind him. Now 50 Cent’s back story has nearly eclipsed his rapping. Very little press coverage of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ has had anything to do with the music on that disc. It has been, however, expressly tailored to assure the listening public that, whatever else might be said about him, 50 Cent is a bad, bad man.
The hip-hop press regularly hypes the real-life viciousness of whoever shoots his way to the top of the charts, but the overwhelming desire to prove that 50 Cent is the baddest rapper alive sets a new benchmark for tough-guy hysteria in the glossies. Rolling Stone and Vibe have lapped up the story, and the Source ran an article examining comments from previous interviews, looking for factual contradictions. (The Blender writer who stuck his hand in the rapper’s mouth to feel the bullet still embedded there deserves some recognition for his willingness to go the distance for a story.) Even critical think pieces have given themselves over to gangsta hagiography. At the end of a Village Voice career overview, writer Kris Ex indulges in a little mythmaking of his own, imagining 50 Cent as an army of one: “When offered police protection on the night of Jam Master Jay’s death, 50, saying that he felt safer in his own capable hands, left town, presumably with a small arsenal in tow. Try to picture Nas or Jay-Z doing that.”
When it comes to the music, though, journalists find themselves at sea, particularly when trying to explain 50 Cent’s appeal as a rapper. (About the only exception is an excellent piece by Sasha Frere-Jones on Slate.) The best most writers have managed is to echo the opinion of 50 Cent’s label head, Eminem, whose guest verse on Get Rich’s “Patiently Waiting” calls the MC a combination of Biggie and Tupac. (Mr. Mathers, ever the crypto-backpacker, also compares him to the late, lesser-known Big L, a spry and funny thug-hop boaster. Few critics have echoed this sentiment, though L may be the clearest antecedent anyone’s yet suggested.) Now, 50 Cent, the Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac Shakur have at least two things in common: all three have sold records by the crateload, and all three have been shot. But beyond that, critics who compare them are grasping at straws. Biggie told stories of poverty and desperation that were alternately heartbreaking and hilarious; Pac used his rhymes to make himself over into an archetype of young black male anger and wounded pride. But 50 Cent’s monologues simply give voice to the mundane thoughts of those shadowy figures lurking on city street corners.
Nearly any across-the-board comparison involving 50 Cent is going to falter, because there’s never been a rapper quite like him–no MC has ever sounded so normal. However thick the gunfire gets, he never gets vicious. He cracks wise even when he asserts on “Many Men” that certain parties have put a bounty on his head (“Go on and collect your refund,” he raps, “Motherfucker, I ain’t dead”), and his darkest threats–“Move out of the hood / But your mother’s still around, dog, and that ain’t good”–are still delivered without rancor. His easy drawl always sounds this close to a real melody–like the singsong of Slick Rick, but without the sense of play. Unfortunately, his grace makes it easy to mistake his art for his life. The casual quality of his delivery, coupled with the awkwardness of his interjections (he tells Dr. Dre he’s wearing a bulletproof hat at the end of “Heat”), makes him sound kind of dumb. And if he’s not smart enough to spin his stories one way or another, then he must be telling the unvarnished truth, right?
The 50 Cent media phenomenon is hardly unprecedented in hip-hop, except in its scope. Over the last few years big-money hip-hop has become increasingly addicted to high-profile battles and squabbles over the relative streetness of any two given MCs. Even rappers sound tired of the trend. When XXL magazine asked Jay-Z how much of the industry was “real,” he groused, “Two percent? Ten the most, but closer to two. It’s all wrestling, all entertainment.” Jay was speaking from the weary vantage of his recent multirecord battle with Nas, which started as an electrifying contest between two supreme talents only to fizzle with Jigga’s hissy fit “Super Ugly.” In short, it ended up like pro wrestling: two personas struggling against each other by inventing a complex mythology of personal slights and veiled jabs. And soon everyone from Ja Rule to Benzino got in on the sales-juicing action, slagging former affiliates and straw men left and right.
50 Cent offers his own spin on the rap-as-wrestling idea. Sure, Ja Rule may be the subject of the very funny “Back Down” (“You sing for hoes / And you sound like the Cookie Monster”), but 50 Cent and his handlers are less interested in the specifics of mouth-to-mouth MC combat–where a rapper forges a real identity–than in constructing an enormous, generalized self to broadcast to all comers. You’re not supposed to buy Get Rich because it’s a good record, or because “In da Club” is such a staggeringly brilliant single. You buy it because you root for 50 Cent, because you believe him when he says he’s “New York’s own bad guy.” But his persona lacks any real complexity, and he’s reduced himself to numbers by which we can gauge his hardness. Age 8. Age 12. Nine bullets.
50 Cent performs at the House of Blues Saturday, April 5. See Section Three listings for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sadha Waldman.