On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the bootleg-CD sellers that line Canal Street in downtown Manhattan were absent, save one. Selling legitimate pressings of major-label releases and gray-market mix CDs, the lone vendor said two remarkable words when I asked if he had any 50 Cent albums: "Sold out." When you buy street CDs, nothing's ever sold out.
It's the kind of boast that might show up in 50 Cent's rhymes. Born 27 years ago in Queens as Curtis Jackson, 50 Cent is the biggest news in hip-hop, and he's got a back story ready for TV. Orphaned at 8 when his drug-dealing mother was shot in front of him, 50 Cent turned to dealing and was stabbed once and jailed numerous times in the '90s. 50 Cent's first single was one of 1999's most unusual radio hits, "How To Rob," a comic list of hip-hop celebrities he planned to mug: "I'd rob ODB but that'd be a waste of time … I'd rob Pun without a gun, snatch his piece and run/ This nigga weigh 400 pounds, how he gon' catch me, son?" Ballsy and clever, the track made it clear 50 Cent was not a docile genre rapper. The second single, "Thug Love," featured Destiny's Child moments before they became globally known. An album, Power of a Dollar, was recorded for Columbia but never reached stores (though the street knows it well now). In 2000, 50 Cent was shot nine times in the face and body in front of his grandmother's house. Columbia dropped 50 Cent, and rumors circulated that he had gone back to selling crack. A great start with a depressingly common end, people thought.
Not so. With producer and friend Sha Money XL, 50 Cent kept making songs. Lots of them. In early 2002, new 50 Cent material began appearing on mix CDs by DJs like Green Lantern and Whoo Kid. In May, full 50 Cent CDs emerged and kept coming until the end of the year: Guess Who's Back?; 50 Cent Is the Future; God's Plan;and No Mercy, No Fear. There is little duplication between CDs, and, though some tracks are just freestyles over existing beats, such as Black Rob's "Whoa," most are genuine songs. By the end of the year, artists like Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots were picking 50 Cent and his crew, the G-Unit (short for Guerrilla Unit), as the best new rappers. If all this sub rosa activity isn't a signal to music corporations that they're late for the party, it's hard to know what is.
Eminem, having entered the major-label bidding war for 50 Cent, emerged victorious after several months. For a cool $1.6 million, Eminem's label, Shady, and Jimmy Iovine's Interscope Records, absorbed the only real threat to Eminem's hegemony into their fold. 50's legit debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope), was released on Feb. 6 and has gone platinum already. It will probably do 3 million, if not more, before the end of 2003. Featuring productions by Dr. Dre, Eminem, Sha Money XL, and others, Get Rich is not exactly the same 50 Cent the streets celebrated. Though there are eight or even 10 solid songs on the album, much of what makes 50 Cent stand out—his implacable perspective and humor—is missing. 50 is a terse, funny MC with more sang-froid than seems healthy, and his previous work is like 10 years of gangsta aesthetics compressed into one machinelike performer. A line from "U Not Like Me" (one of the tracks from Guess Who's Back? appended to Get Rich as bonus tracks) sums up 50's existentialist word skills: "Shell hit my jaw, I ain't wait for doctor to get it out/ Hit my wisdom tooth–hock-too!—I spit it out/ I don't smile a lot, cause ain't nothin' pretty/ Got a purple heart for war, and I ain't never left the city."
Like Eminem and Jay-Z (and, hell, John Milton), 50 thinks about his position in the pecking order. There are numerous references on his street CDs to being on par with Jay-Z, Biggie, Tupac, and Nas. 50 Cent made this boast technically true by generating widespread acceptance at the street level, but the aesthetic comparisons work less well. 50 Cent's confidence and fearless gun talk recall Biggie but without the autobiographical details and narratives. 50 Cent deals almost exclusively in boasts and threats, finding remarkable elasticity in the concept of shooting people. He has some of Jay-Z's coldblooded humor and laid-back reserve but less of his wordplay and conceptual depth. And it's Nas who 50 Cent least resembles, though the two have recorded together. Strobing between self-doubt and dreams of holy war, Nas is a literate, complex MC, so fallibly caught up in his own art that he can't tell the difference between his brilliant songs ("Made You Look" and "One Mic") and his terrible set pieces ("Got UR Self a Gun"). 50 Cent is, by comparison, a firmly 21st-century artist, offering a solid brand with little variation in delivery. (His training as a drug dealer may have had a hand in this.)
Get Rich gets 50 Cent's persona a bit mixed up. "Patiently Waiting," produced by Eminem, makes his new sponsorship screamingly clear. As the beat begins, 50 Cent "ad-libs": "Hey, Em! You know you my favorite white boy, right? I owe you for this one." When Eminem performs his verse, he sums up 50 fairly accurately but makes one major mistake: "Take some Big and some 'Pac and you mix 'em up in a pot/ Sprinkle a little Big L on top/ What the fuck do you got?" Well, not 50 Cent. Brilliant and wearying, Tupac had a maudlin vision of himself as a martyr that some nameless shooter turned into a truth and Eminem turned into a franchise. Eminem has made this miserable hero mode his default position, especially in 8 Mile, which showcases his main acting skills: staring into space and stomping away disgustedly.
Saddling 50 Cent with Eminem's and Tupac's grim praxis is a mistake. The aggrieved style of songs like "Back Down" and "Don't Push Me" doesn't fit 50 Cent, who sounds happy and comfortable when he's threatening people, like he might be making spaghetti at the same time or watching cable. Thankfully, though, the minor key synthesizer parts and sluggish tempos on Get Rich are balanced by the menacing, half-sung choruses on "High All the Time" and "Many Men," which let in air and up the catchy quotient considerably. Dr. Dre understands 50 Cent better, contributing two strong productions. "Heat" turns the sound of a shotgun being cocked into a percussive element while 50 croons, very credibly, "I'll kill you/ I ain't playin'." "In Da Club" is easily one of the singles of the year, impossible to stop hearing whether or not you're actually hearing it. You will likely be saying, "Go, shorty/ It's ya BIRTHday!" before the end of the year, even if there are no shorties in your life.
There's another rapper Eminem compared 50 Cent to—Big L, born Lamont Coleman—and he's an almost perfect fit. Murdered in February 1999, Big L was hip-hop's most promising crime-friendly rapper following Biggie's death. Physically small, but toting a beautifully scarred voice, Big L took care and delight in his criminal tales, alternating verisimilitude with gallows humor: "I'm on some cool-out shit/ But I will pull this tool out quick/ and put some holes in your new outfit." That same fatalist éclat is on 50 Cent's first big hit this year, "Wanksta," a spitball to wannabes who hang around car dealerships without buying anything. (You know—those guys.) His put-downs are universally applicable ("Damn, homey. In high school, you was the man, homey. What the fuck happened to you?") while his boasts are casual, factual ("Been on parole since '94/ 'cause I commit the crime").
50 Cent did learn one move from Eminem: He changed his voice. Paralleling Eminem's transformation from a generic gangsta on his underground debut, Infinite, into a clipped, nasally "white" scimitar on The Slim Shady LP, 50's added some Southern twang to his serviceable grumble (he announces that "I'm a New Yorker, but I sound Southern" and modified it by rhyming as if he can't open his mouth. (On "Fuck You," from Guess Who's Back?, 50 attributes this change to his shooting: "I've been shot nine times, my nigga, that's why I walk funny/ Hit in the jaw once, that's why I talk funny.") Who he sounds like now is John Wayne, and what sells better than a cowboy?
The rumors continue to spread—a public beef with Ja Rule and Irv Gotti, a rumored link to Jam Master Jay's murder—but 50 Cent will probably be a fixture for a while, especially since his hat is bulletproof. Whether he's able to transform a well-worn genre remains to be seen. Start with Get Rich, and if it works for you, put some money in a bootlegger's pocket, and try Guess Who's Back? Or just ask the next person you run into—they've probably got at least one 50 Cent CD on them.