An overnight sensation 10 years in the making, 50 Cent has led the way in reviving gangsta rap, that fearsome version of hip-hop glorifying guns, violence and confrontation. The rise of 50 Cent is the latest, high-profile tweak of that deathless American trope: a young man pulls himself up by his Timberland laces and gains success on his terms — if not exactly on his timetable.
Since its release in February, his latest CD, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” (Shady/Interscope) has sold more than 5 million copies — 872,000 copies in its first week of release alone.
50 (real name: Curtis Jackson) has lately been holding a stakeout at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with “21 Questions.” In recent weeks, 50 has had four records in Billboard’s Hot 100. The single, “In da Club,” has camped out in the top 10, while “P.I.M.P.” entered the chart at No. 70.
“This guy has eclipsed anything that’s happened in pop or rock on the channel in a couple of years,” Tom Calderone, executive vice president of music and talent programming at MTV, told Vibe magazine in May. “I think some of the kids that are buying the 50 album also have Linkin Park and Metallica and other rock stuff in their home libraries.”
Why him? Why now?
So why 50 Cent? And why now?
50 Cent represents a shift from recent years, which saw the rise of stars whose smoother, less abrasive, more radio-friendly style suggested that hip-hop had turned a corner, accommodating itself to a wider marketplace.
Or maybe it’s just time for a change. “There’s been some people who’ve been at the top of the charts for a while,” said Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a music editor at Vibe magazine. “You’ve got Jay-Z, Nas to a certain extent, Busta [Rhymes]. There’s been a bit of impatience, people are saying ‘that’s the old guard, we want something new.’ People want to hear a new voice.”
“There’s a lot of factors in his extraordinary success,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. “The record companies aren’t releasing as many records as in the past. Now, whenever a hip-hop record comes out, it’s an event. The ones that do come out gain a lot of attention. He’s affiliated with Eminem, someone who’s impacted the culture as a whole. Em and 50 are both associated with Dr. Dre, one of the foremost producers in the hip-hop game.”
“When 50 links up with [Dr. Dre], he benefits from the publicity and reputation and the record sales [he’s] garnered already,” said Boyd, author of “The New H.N.I.C,” — a provocative book suggesting the civil rights era and its icons matter less to African American youth than the sound and style of hip-hop.
Some say that 50 Cent represents a result of good timing as a renaissance of rap’s most controversial identity. The gangsta lifestyle “doesn’t necessarily distinguish him from other people — it’s not unusual for a hip-hop artist to have sold crack,” Berry said. “What’s unusual is that 50 Cent is a combination, the convergence of a bunch of factors.
“The biggest reason for 50 Cent’s emergence has been a successful guerrilla marketing campaign,” she said. “The suburbs follow the streets 100 percent. Look at the history of hip-hop marketing; it’s always, always about how ghetto communities react to the music. They’re defining the tone of the radio and MTV. Now he’s performing before millions of white kids, but that’s not who made him — 50 Cent’s a gangsta rapper who’s become a pop phenomenon.”
Symbol of survival
For a growing fan base, 50 Cent is a symbol of survival, the kind of symbol hip-hop has embraced as indicative of its own ability to survive despite the odds. What’s given him such gravitas in rap culture is the depth of his immersion in the life that hip-hop recognizes and validates.
A product of urban America, 50 is a survivor in the literal sense.
He was raised without a father; his mother, a drug dealer, was killed mysteriously when he was 8 years old. Taken in and raised in Queens, N.Y., by his grandparents, he went into street sales of crack himself at the age of 12. Despite the success of his drug operation — at age 18, he was reportedly earning $5,000 a day — the young 50 Cent decided to find a less volatile line of work, and began to do rhymes at parties.
With the help of an early mentor — Jam Master Jay, the DJ for rap pioneers Run-DMC, who gave 50 insights into the business side of the hip-hop game — 50 Cent was signed in 1999 to Columbia Records for a reported $250,000, and sequestered himself in a studio to produce three dozen tracks, some of them even then considered classics of rap. The album “Power of the Dollar” was poised to be 50 Cent’s wake-up call to the world. But the world woke him up first.
Nine from a nine
On the morning of May 24, 2000, he was seriously wounded in a shooting outside his grandmother’s house in Queens. He was treated for 9-millimeter gunshot wounds after being hit nine times, including once in the jaw, and several times in the chest, legs, hip, calf and hand.
What followed were months of rehab, the loss of his Columbia contract, a $32,500 hospital bill and a period of furious creativity — writing new songs, performing in clubs, releasing mix tapes and generally taking the same entrepreneurial route to success adopted by numerous hip-hop stars, from Too Short to Master P.
“He was putting out so much material that people in the street were sick of him, but the mainstream started getting interested,” Berry said.
“He was signed, he had a deal, got shot, got dropped by his label and started doing mix tapes,” Boyd told MSNBC.com. “The real heads of the culture were hearing him, and he built up a nice street buzz and he had the credibility to go with it. Here’s a guy with a story to match that which goes with his music. The dude got shot nine times ... Hip-hop’s always been about authenticity, about keeping it real. What’s more real than that?”
An independent release, “Guess Who’s Back?” further cemented his street cred. A bootleg record, “50 Cent is the Future,” got the attention of Eminem — one rap force of nature recognizing another — who proclaimed in a radio interview that 50 Cent is “my favorite rapper right now.”
It all began to fall into place when “Wanksta,” a track reportedly aimed at rapper Ja Rule, appeared on the soundtrack to Eminem’s hit film, “8 Mile.” Last September, Eminem put money where his mouth was, joining forces with Dr. Dre to sign 50 to Eminem’s Shady label for a reported $1 million.
An American message
Money. Power. Bling-bling. Getting over. Much of 50’s latest taps into that classic American drive, the desire for leverage and achievement. It’s typified in a record whose very title — “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” — is an indelible ethos reinforcing that law of our modern jungle: the main business of America is business.
“Hip-hop has always been about social mobility,” Boyd said. “You go back and listen to Grand Master Flash on ‘The Message.’ Listen to early Run-DMC, KRS-One, Biggie — name a rapper. When certain segments of the society talk about pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, it’s one thing. When you (apply) the same idea to young black men in America expressing themselves, sometimes people can’t make the connection.”
Not everyone’s bought into the 50 Cent love feast. “Forget about the beat,” Spike Lee said in May at the Black Expo in Columbia, S.C. “Let’s talk about the lyric content.”
Lee, film director and himself no stranger to controversy, expressed the belief — echoed by many others — that gangsta rap damages younger African Americans by reinforcing negative stereotypes, promoting the idea that being real means standing “on a corner, holding a 40, smoking a blunt and holding your privates,” The Associated Press reported in May.
No escape from the past
And there’s no complete escape from 50’s own past.
Jam Master Jay, 50’s mentor from back in the day, was shot to death Oct. 30 at a recording studio in Queens. His killing remains unsolved. That night, New York City police told 50 there was a threat against his life, and persuaded him to cancel a performance, The Associated Press reported.
According to documents obtained by The Smoking Gun.com, the New York orthopedic surgeon who treated 50 for the gunshot wounds in 2000 is suing the rapper to collect that $32,500 hospital bill.
And 50 Cent’s running feud with Ja Rule, a clash that preceded his 2000 shooting, has led to continuing recriminations between their two camps. There have been truce talks, but any feud would be in keeping with hip-hop’s violent legacy — the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur its most celebrated victims.
50 Cent is expected to draw big crowds on a 30-city tour that begins this month. And living the myth to the hilt, he reportedly wears a bulletproof vest in public, and pilots a bulletproof, bombproof Hummer. “The president be riding around in sh— like this,” he said in a recent MTV.com interview.
Time will tell how long it lasts, but since pop culture values authenticity with its artifice, 50 Cent’s likely to stay around as rap’s genuine article, heir to hip-hop’s potential and its pain. “There’s a possibility that anything can happen,” he told The Associated Press. “I wear my seat belt, too.”
A few lines from “In da Club” might well be biography, shot through with tragedy and triumph:
If you watch how I move, you’ll mistake me for a playa or pimp.
Been hit with a few shells but I don’t walk with a limp.