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
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.