50 Cent: Ghosts vs. Boasts

Jaded Hiphop-Purist Insight #1: You cannot spit in the wind without being hit by 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.

THE REVEREND JESSE Jackson ran two presidential campaigns sloganeering “I am somebody” to a rainbow coalition of captivated masses during the 1980s. Meanwhile, the youth of that hiphop golden age were confident not only that they were “somebody,” but that they were the greatest somebodies imaginable: the best. The art of the boast has been a staple of hiphop culture since its 1970s Bronx beginnings, and countless MCs have devised thousands of braggadocious metaphors and similes to get Jackson’s sentiment across. During that landmark ’80s decade, hiphop history was too young to have established a standard for the best. Eddie Cheeba begat Kurtis Blow; Run begat L.L. Cool J; Rakim begat Big Daddy Kane. Yet and still, hiphop subscribed to no one standard-bearer of quality.

“Take some Big and some Pac/And you mix ’em up in a pot/Sprinkle a little Big L inside/What the fuck do you got?” Eminem asks over his own apocalyptic production on “Patiently Waiting.” The answer has been on the lips of the hiphop community since the 1999 underground anthem ‘How to Rob (an Industry Nigga)’. 50 Cent-the 26-year-old Queens MC born Curtis Jackson-is proof that Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. have achieved the “unassailable standard” status in hiphop accorded to, say, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in rock. Wherever you turned these past few weeks, the excitement and anticipation behind the release of 50 Cent’s debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, was compared to the Bad Boy Entertainment heyday of Biggie, leading even Sean Combs to admit, “I love the 50 Cent album; I’ve never really felt anticipation on an artist like that.” Nas and Jay-Z, in their bickering over the King of New York crown these past couple years, reduced themselves to convincing record buyers that each was the Second Coming of Shakur and/or Biggie. Can’t be shit these days without invoking these barely-cold-in-the-grave kings of rap, it seems. This means what, no MC will ever come into his/her own prominence without the specter of these two looming overhead? Interesting.

Jaded Hiphop-Purist Insight #2: Nothing sells like African-American spectacle.

One cannot critique 50 Cent without the backstory, because the backstory is (at least) half of what the brouhaha is about. Biggie Smalls came into his deified standing by being one of the most talented rhymers hiphop has seen. The appeal of Tupac Shakur, God bless the dead, was less about his mic skills and more about the spectacle: being shot and (the first time) surviving; being imprisoned for sexual assault with his latest album atop the Billboard chart; his beef with B.I.G. and association with the instigating Suge Knight.

“From the last shootout, I got a dimple on my face/It’s nothin’, I can go after Mase’s fan base,” 50 rhymes on “U Not Like Me.” He can afford to make light of his situation now, since signing with Eminem’s Shady Records label for $1 million and posting the biggest opening sales for a debut artist ever (besting Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle of 10 years ago). But in May 2000, 50 was shot nine times-once in the face-outside the Queens home of his grandmother; two months prior, he was stabbed in a brawl that allegedly stemmed from static with rapper Ja Rule. Earlier that year, 50 was dropped from Columbia Records, his Power of the Dollar never seeing the light of day. (Bootleggers, nudge and wink here.) As a child, his drug-dealing mother was murdered. He’s scrambled crack cocaine. He’s been jailed. So when 50 Cent raps in his distinct drawl, “Now it’s clear that I’m here for a real reason/’Cause he got hit like I got hit, but he ain’t fuckin’ breathin’ ” [on ‘Many Men (Wish Death)’], he rhymes from an authentic perspective that most gangsta rappers can’t.

Jaded Hiphop-Purist Insight #3: Yeah, okay, 50 Cent is dope, but . . .

50 Cent has a lot of woodshedding to do before he lives up to his hype machine. His flow isn’t nearly as appealing as Snoop in his prime, much less Biggie. But he is appealing. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is full of dramatic action-movie atmosphere, production from Eminem and Dre (including the superlative ‘In da Club’ and the Ja Rule dis ‘Back Down’), and witty lines. Hiphop is famously supported by a 70-percent-white fan base; it’s largely the suburbs that make rap platters multiplatinum. As they continue to eavesdrop on the black CNN, nothing, obviously, could be more captivating than an MC produced by Dr. Dre, who has beef with popular MCs (Ja Rule, Ghostface Killah), who’s been a drug dealer, shot, stabbed, jailed. 2Pac set that standard. 50 Cent will live up to it or die tryin’.

© Miles Marshall LewisL.A. Weekly, March 2003

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