When Eminem was asked by XXL magazine last month why he signed Queensbridge rapper 50 Cent to his Shady Records, the hip-hop Elvis replied, "His life story sold me." Admittedly, in an industry that values street credibility and hard-luck tales, 50 Cent has an impressive pedigree. His mother, a drug dealer, was murdered when he was eight; as a former crack dealer himself, he's been arrested several times, and was shot in the face by an unknown assailant three years ago.
In 1999 50 Cent signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. His debut release, a contribution to the soundtrack for Omar Epps's cop flick In Too Deep called "How to Rob," found him fantasizing about shaking down top rap stars like Jay-Z and Big Pun for their platinum jewelry. The track caused a sensation, but its antagonistic subject matter made him a pariah among other New York rappers, spawning answer songs like Ghostface Killah's "Buck 50" and a rivalry with then-ascendant Ja Rule. A year later 50 Cent's scheduled debut album Power of the Dollar and label contract were permanently shelved. But he triumphantly overcame this setback by forming his own record company, Full Clip, and flooding NY's streets with mixtapes like Guess Who's Back, which finally attracted the attention of Slim Shady.
In the CD booklet for Get Rich or Die Tryin', 50 Cent plays up the bad-man image, aiming a gun at the camera in one photo and flexing his muscles in another, adopting a deadpan, expressionless demeanor throughout. The smooth, airbrushed quality of the pictures tips off the listener that Get Rich or Die Tryin' is a shimmering, multimillion-dollar pop production. It finds him glorifying his allegedly former drug-dealing days with statements like: "I ain't got to write rhymes, I got bricks in the hood." It casts 50 Cent as a hero for rap fans who like their hip-hop unrepentantly decadent and completely thugged-out.
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As a songwriter and lyricist, 50 Cent is roughly worth a pocketful of loose change. On occasion he crafts memorable one-liners like "We gonna party like it's your birthday," a promise that launches his boomtastic hit single "In Da Club." But most of his rhymes are pretty lame, typified by witticisms like "I'm your friend, your father, and your confidant, bitch!"
50 Cent's saving grace, then, is his voice, captured through a soft yet nonchalant timbre that sounds like one big shrug, as if he could care less whether you like him or not. As a result, tracks like "In Da Club" aren't bravura showcases on a par with Missy Elliott's ellipses or Jay-Z's metaphorical constructs but akin to some nondescript clubgoer singing off-key to himself in the dark. 50 Cent's appeal is unorthodox but not unusual, borne of an ability to personify talentlessness as an innovative form of musicianship and camaraderie with his audience. He's great for those accustomed to celebrating rap stars who are short on technical skills and long on personality.
Still, 50 Cent's pose can be infectious, especially when he wraps himself around the right track. On Get Rich or Die Tryin', Dr. Dre gives him four beats -- "In Da Club," "Heat," "Back Down," and "If I Can't" -- that run over you like bulldozers, dusting you off with equal parts charisma and cool. DJ Rad's beat on "High All the Time" is muddy and plodding, but 50 Cent works it with aplomb, slurring lyrics in a hilarious daze. In contrast Rockwilder's super production on "Like My Style," filled with Nintendo-style synthesizer melodies, leaves 50 Cent struggling to keep up with clumsy rhymes and hooks.
These are the good tracks; the other half of Get Rich or Die Tryin' is clogged with tunelessly wack filler cuts. But in the end, who cares? Assiduous record buyers, well familiar with mediocre rap albums powered by amazing hit singles, will learn to fast-forward through dumb songs like "P.I.M.P." and press repeat on "In Da Club" and "Wanksta." After all, it's 50 Cent's image and life story that have made him the hottest action figure to roll off the rap assembly line. The few tracks that can capture those qualities, however briefly, are cherries on the cake.