February 13, 2003

Making Change of Gangster Rap

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He’s been shot nine times, once in the face, stabbed on numerous occasions, been thrown in jail for selling cocaine, and claims to have killed someone — so making a classic debut album should be no big deal for Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent.

Apparently it wasn’t.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a 19-track offering, is a well thought out, intense, emotional and, sometimes, even fun album. There’s a little something for anyone willing to endure the explicit biographical tone 50 uses throughout this narrative of ghetto street life.

50 tells the story of his wild 26-year history on an album that is easily the most significant moment in gangster rap in five years. Of course, the gangster rap label can only go so far for this Eminem and Dr. Dre protege.

The topics beckon the early work of Ice T and Mack 10, but the production, lyrical flavor, and flow seem more like the east coast rap of the mid-90s. Think Mase dubbing a verse off Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Lots of gun talk, death threats, murder descriptions, and disrespect of women, delivered with an ultra-mellow tenor that makes 50, at times, sound like he’s just making this stuff up.

Yet the album’s strength comes in the audience’s recognition that it is actually all harrowingly true.

“Patiently Waiting,” “Many Men,” and “Gotta’ Make it to Heaven” are the most personal songs on the album as 50 deals with the constant fear of his past coming back to lethally haunt him. The tracks are eerily reminiscent of Tupac and Biggy’s many songs dealing with their constant struggle with the inevitability of their own murders.

These tracks also deal with 50’s impatience to experience the success he feels he deserves.

50 has long been one of the most respected underground rappers in the game and was originally signed by Jam Master Jay to do an album for his JMJ label in 1999. However, financial problems, personal sqaubbles, a bootlegging controversy and a shooting all led to 50 eventually being dropped from the Columbia-owned label.

50 responded with a flurry of self-produced mixtapes over the proceeding two years that rose the underground buzz around his act to a deafening crescendo.

Eminem had long tracked the artist, who he once called his favorite rapper, and began courting 50 to join Shady records, a subsidiary of Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, in 2001.

After a battle between numerous contenders, 50 reportedly signed with Shady records for over $1 million in 2002.

50 was introduced to the world thanks to his placement on last year’s 8 Mile soundtrack, which used the breakthrough “Wankster” as its follow up single to Em’s own “Lose Yourself”.

The satirical song attacking “fake” rappers, particularly 50’s favorite target Ja Rule, is also found on Get Rich as one of three hidden tracks.

Em and Dre’s influence on this album is not limited to the appearance of their label logos on the back cover, though. Each produced a little more than a handful of songs for this golden boy of the Eminem camp.

While the production shines on Get Rich, the real star is undeniably 50 himself. His ability to cross lines, while remaining true to his life, story, and style is a remarkable achievement in an industry that now demands the pop-driven, R&B hook filled, melodic style of Murder Inc.

“Many Men” is the most characteristic track on the album, as 50 uses a simple rhyme structure to convey his intensely personal message. “I’m the diamond in the dirt, that ain’t been found/ I’m the underground king and I ain’t been crowned.” He continues, “Every night I talk to God, but he don’t say nothing back/ I know he protecting me, but I still stay with my gat.”

“In da Club” has already begun to dominate the charts and is one of a number of club-friendly songs on the album. However, each offering does not sell out to the ubiquitous formula now dominating the hip-hop charts.

“Back Down” is the best example of this concept as Dre’s production talents shine brightest on a track in which the overall message is “mess with me and I’ll kill you.” “P.I.M.P” is the most dance-worthy track, as a chorus of steel drums drive one of 50’s few player-themed tracks.

Eminem’s two appearances on the album are instances of the master at the top of his game [his verse on “Patiently” is arguably one of his best ever], while “Like my Style” finds 50 at his lyrical peak.

It’s hard to pinpoint the success of this album and the ease with which one can sit through its 70 minutes of hardcore music. The best advice to anyone curious about the most anticipated hip-hop act in five years, is to go out and satisfy your curiosity, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

I thought I’d never say this — I’m not much for highly advertised hip-hop acts — but this guy is the real deal. Of course, would Eminem give the world anything less?

Archived article by Scott Jones