Small change


April 4, 2003


By the "Keepin' It Real" credo of gangsta rap, an emcee's misadventures on the streets count as much if not more than the music on his albums. It's obligatory in any story about rap sensation 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson of Jamaica, Queens) to note that the 26-year-old former crack dealer has been shot nine times (he sports a bulletproof vest to interviews and is inordinately fond of showing off his scars and missing tooth).

It also seems to be essential to point out that he's done serious time behind bars for his illegal but lucrative activities (he claims to have owned a Land Rover by age 19 and a Mercedes-Benz at 20).

Lest anyone miss this bad-ass back story, the cover of 50 Cent's No. 1 hit album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," finds the bare-chested rapper peering out menacingly from behind a window shattered by bullets.

With production credits including revered gangsta grandfather Dr. Dre and his platinum-selling bad-boy protege Eminem (who signed 50 Cent to his own Shady/Aftermath label), the album sold nearly a million copies in the first week after its release in early February. But by any serious critical standards, the debut is a tired retread of sounds, stories and poses that were old news in hip-hop by the time Dre and his original crew, N.W.A, scored a multiplatinum smash with 1991's "Niggaz4life."

Whenever I make an objection such as this one, I am invariably besieged by letters and e-mails from readers who gloat that I "just don't understand hip-hop" and thus have no right to write about it. I maintain that exactly the opposite is true. The reasons I'm so frustrated by the continued prevalence of the simplistic gangsta sound and the sexist and stupidly macho thug attitude are that I remember gangsta rap before it became a cartoon (as in the early days of N.W.A, KRS-One, Ice-T, and Erik B. and Rakim) and that I value the musical innovations of rappers who refuse to pander to the pop mainstream so strenuously courted by Dre, 50 Cent and Eminem.

Artists such as the Roots, Common, Outkast, Mr. Lif, Jurassic Five and Cee-Lo (to name a few) continue to stretch the possibilities in hip-hop by disdaining limited genre boundaries and eschewing lyrical cliches. But they sell a fraction of the units that 50 Cent has moved. So who's unduly limiting the power of the music? The critic who expects it to live up to higher standards, or the "hard-core" fan who settles for endless repetition and a lack of imagination while lauding such mediocre music because of its makers' "cred" and the ability to rake in the Benjamins?

50 Cent refused to be interviewed by the Sun-Times, but his story is already well known. The heavily tattooed, muscle-bound rapper was born to a teenage mother who dealt drugs and was killed when he was 8 (he never knew his father). Despite this cautionary tale, he turned to dealing himself before he hit his teens in order to provide the empty material comforts that his grandmother couldn't give him.

"[Air] Jordans come out, they cost $100," he told the Associated Press. "I don't want to ask her for the $100, you know what I mean, so I'm gonna try and figure out a way that I can get it. My mother, what she did before me, is what kind of showed me that that was a possibility. And it kind of felt like the only option."

That was until six years ago, when his son was born and he decided to turn to music.

A friend introduced him to Jam Master Jay, DJ for the pioneering rap crew Run-DMC, and 50 Cent volunteered to record for Jay's nascent record label, despite the fact that he had never rapped before. "I just went for it," he said. "In the music business, who you know will put you on, and what you know will determine how long you stay."

50 Cent debuted with a 1999 single called "How To Rob An Industry Nigga," boasting humorous lyrics about stealing money from the likes of Jay-Z and Bobby Brown ("Aiy-yo the bottom line is I'm a crook with a deal/If my record don't sell I'm a rob and steal"). It became a surprise hit.

"I'm thinking, 'Radio won't play it because it's still robbery,' " he told the AP. "But I was wrong." This is disingenuous. While he maintains that he's not proud of his past, 50 Cent raps about little else besides the thug life, and MTV, radio and the music industry are all too eager to play along in glorifying these violent ways. The rapper was ultimately signed to Eminem's label after a million-dollar bidding war, but it isn't clear that 50 Cent has left the thug life behind him.

When Jam Master Jay was murdered in October, New York police told 50 Cent there was a credible threat against his life, but he declined an offer of protection. They tried to question him about the killing, but they say he was uncooperative. And though he insists he's innocent, he was arrested on New Year's Eve on charges of weapons possession. ("They would prefer to lock [me] up than see me do well," he told the AP.)

It seems as if the rap world has learned little from the sad tale of Tupac Shakur, a hugely talented artist whose life and career were cut short because he could not escape or grow beyond the violence that some of his songs chronicled. Not that 50 Cent has a tenth of Tupac's talent.

50 Cent is a lazy, thick-tongued rapper whose themes are tiresome and whose rhyming skills are poor at best. A quick scan of the lyrics of the hit "Wanksta" (which finds him trading verses with Busta Rhymes and Rampage) stands as a good example of what he has to offer.

"We do this all the time, right now we on the grind/So hurry up and cop and go selling nicks and dimes/Shorty she's so fine, I gotta make her mine/A ass like dat gotta be one of a kind/I crush 'em every time, punch 'em with every line/I'm f---in' with they mind, I make 'em press rewind/They know they can't shine if I'm around the rhyme/Been on parole since '94 'cuz I commit the crime."

This empty braggadocio is delivered over the sort of mid-tempo, stupidly catchy, radio-friendly musical backings that have become Dre's gilded stock in trade (even though he produced only a handful of cuts on the disc). Tunes such as "What Up Gangsta," "21 Questions" and "Wanksta" are to the work of artists like the Roots what the music of the Archies was to the Beatles--weak, insubstantial, imitative and cartoonish bubblegum pop. But 50 Cent is not only laughing all the way to the bank, he's making the mistake of claiming that he's a great artist.

"I've had people say I've saved hip-hop," he says. "[But] I think it's a contribution to where we're going next. 'Cause to me, speaking exactly about my experience is going to encourage other artists to write their experiences."

Let's just hope that those who follow in his wake have experiences that are more worthy of our attention, less nihilistic in their philosophy and closer to art than commerce.