50 Cent: Wembley Arena

JUST HOURS after winning an impressive trio of MOBO awards at the Royal Albert Hall, gangsta rap superstar 50 Cent played his biggest UK show to date at Wembley Arena.

Anticipation bordered on hysteria for 27-year-old New Yorker Curtis Jackson, who is touring Britain on a tidal wave of lurid headlines and phenomenal record sales. Having topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with his multi-platinum album Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the bullet-scarred Eminem protégé has also been in the news over several dramatic firearms incidents, including the fatal shooting of a fan at his Toronto show in July, and a brush with the law over gunshots fired at a New Jersey hotel earlier this month.

The Wembley show opened with spoof video footage of a Frank Sinatra impersonator, his cheesy rendition of ‘New York, New York’ curdling into a lurid screen montage of inner-city violence and misery. Jackson then arrived atop a Broadway-style Manhattan skyline backdrop, leapt 10 feet onto the stage, fell over, bounced back to his feet and revealed his armour-clad torso to a wildly baying crowd.

With the menacing swagger of a young Mike Tyson, the muscular ex-boxer performed with just two rapping deputies and backing tapes as accompaniment, employing gunshot sound effects as both musical percussion and conversational punctuation. This was the most inspired technical gimmick in an otherwise fairly pedestrian presentation. It may have been partly the fault of Wembley Arena, with its notoriously muddy sound, but Jackson’s show lacked the focus and precision that an artist of his stature can normally be expected to deliver.

Stripping to his waist, the heavily tattooed rapper tempted fate by likening himself to the late Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur on ‘Many Men (Wish Death)’. In case the on-stage dedications were not explicit enough, a video collage grouped together these three gangsta icons. The cheers were deafening, but a little macabre. If violent death is now the ultimate gauge of hip-hop credibility, would-be martyrs like 50 Cent are clearly caught in a brutal downward spiral, the suicide bombers of popular culture.

There were moments of lightness, including an X-rated Mariah Carey parody and the tender, almost romantic crooning of Jackson’s recent hit singles, ’21 Questions’ and ‘In Da Club’. But overall, the rapper’s more subtle and melodic side was trampled underfoot by thuggish bruisers such as ‘Wanksta’ and ‘Back Down’, tiresomely reaffirming his hard-man credentials while taunting his rap rivals. 50 Cent is a charismatic performer, but he could learn a lot about showmanship, self-deprecating wit and verbal dexterity from his friend and mentor, Eminem.

© Stephen DaltonThe Times, September 2003

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