Hip-hop aspires (or, at least, pretends) to represent real life, but few rappers have worked as much from their biography as 50 Cent. As even casual fans know by now, the drug dealer turned rapper graduated to a whole new level of gangster infamy in 2000, when he was shot nine times in a run-in with a yet-to-be-identified shooter near his grandmother’s home in Jamaica, Queens. Just as famously, Columbia, his label at the time, dropped its injured artist, launching him on an indie insurgency of sorts against hip-hop scenesters and hustlers from his neighborhood. On self-released mix tapes like Guess Who’s Back and 50 Cent Is the Future, 50 mocked then-hip-hop powerhouse Murder Inc. (“Murder! I don’t believe you!”) and implicated former drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff in the attempt on his life. 50 targeted McGriff during a particularly vulnerable time: The Feds were investigating his connection to Murder Inc., which led to the recent indictment of both McGriff and the label on charges ranging from money laundering to murder.
Yet hip-hop insurgencies fast become new marketing opportunities, and in 2002, Eminem and Dr. Dre gave the rapper a new home at Interscope, where his persona was watered down for mass consumption. The 50 of his Interscope debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, was grim and unsmiling, but only one song—“Many Men (Wish Death on Me)”—showcased the seriousness and reflection of his mix-tape work, while none indulged in the acid wit of satirical singles like “How to Rob.”
50 has been out making another big promotional pitch for his second album, The Massacre, though this time the rapper—who made about $50 million in 2004—is hustling not his violent past, but vitamin water and Reeboks. With a pair of uninspiring new singles (“Candy Shop” and “Disco Inferno”), which are nearly identical copies of two previous singles, “Magic Stick” and “In Da Club,” 50 is beginning to show an entrepreneurial spirit that feels less like empire-building and more like base-covering. The Massacre is as frustratingly uneven as Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but it’s longer and messier. 50’s ostentatious grudges with rival rappers have become caricatures: An entire cast of hip-hoppers including Nas, Fat Joe, and Jadakiss are skewered on “Piggy Bank.” Worse, whereas 50 once criticized rivals for not writing from real life, his beef now is that they simply don’t sell as many records as he does. “That fat nigga thought ‘Lean Back’ was ‘In Da Club,’ ” 50 rhymes of Fat Joe. “My shit sold 11 mil, his shit was a dud.”
Meanwhile, 50’s lyrics about the street life—once so honest and autobiographical that they put his life in danger—have now leveled off into strangely impersonal testimonials: On “A Baltimore Love Thing,” 50 delivers a set of hackneyed and preachy rhymes from the perspective of a drug—heroin—seducing an addict. Indeed, on much of The Massacre, 50 seems to be coldly observing a scene to which he once passionately belonged.
There are ways out of this artistic trap, as the best song on The Massacre, “Hate It or Love It (G-Unit Remix),” demonstrates. Here, 50’s verses practically pulse with his life story: He remembers growing up watching his mother “kissin’ a girl” (his mother, killed when he was just 8, was bisexual), listening to Eric B and Rakim, wondering where his absent father had gone, and enduring everyday cruelties in the neighborhood. The song’s chorus—“The underdog’s on top / And I’m gonna shine until my heart stop”—is the rare 50 Cent rhyme that declares victory without vindictiveness. The lyrics also convey a stark, hungry quality that’s missing on most of The Massacre: 50 seems too content with his status, too eager to burnish a hyperviolent, hypersexual image, and not inspired enough to work beyond the same old attention-getting schemes. 50 fails to understand that merely hustling to the top isn’t enough; it’s about what you do once you get there.