Let me start by stating that this is no ‘kick-a-man-when-he’s-down’ hit piece. Most of the criticism herein is directed at music industry trends instead. And we all know that Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson isn’t down and out anyway, despite filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month. So the title is shameless clickbait, then? Not really. I simply couldn’t think of a more apt one to describe the content of this article. My aim is to recap 50 Cent’s against-all-odds rise to mainstream success and delve into the real reasons behind his subsequent slow fall. A slow fall out of popular culture’s favor, that is.
So it’s the year 2001 and after surviving 9 close range gun shots, erstwhile Jam Master Jay protégé, the rapper-slash-drug-dealer named 50 Cent finds himself being blacklisted and dropped from his label, as his enemy quota has come to severely outweigh his friend quota; both in the music recording industry and on a street level. It had come to this point mainly because of two songs. The first one was 1998’s How to Rob, a track in the tradition of B.I.G.’s Dreams, where a list of celebrities becomes the butt of an extended joke. But where the likes of Mariah Carey and Xscape are unlikely to retaliate for being humorously named in relation to sexual fantasies, rappers with a street background usually don’t have much of a sense of humor about themselves and aren’t going to take kindly to a colleague rhyming about how he will relieve them of their jewelry. And then there was the other song, the leaked Ghetto Qu’ran, detailing a history of crime in 50’s neighborhood, South Jamaica, Queens NY. One of the people mentioned on the track, Kenneth ‘Supreme’ McGriff, didn’t appreciate having his old business put out there and he had enough influence in the music industry and on the street to make 50’s life very difficult.
As a result, Curtis Jackson leaves for Canada and, in a brilliant move, starts recording and putting out ‘mixtapes’. These aren’t the proper DJ blends of old, however. Formatted after both Mr. Cee’s Best of mixes and Clue’s EXCLUSIVE!!!-filled compilations they’re nothing else but street albums, released through mixtape distribution channels. They also feature the hottest beats of the moment, for the purpose of riding their popularity wave and upstaging the artists that did their thing on them originally… with the type of fearless and nihilistic, yet smoothly delivered lyrical content 50 Cent has grown most comfortable with. Bypassing the blacklisting, his buzz grows louder until it reaches the ears of Eminem and Dr. Dre, who, being far enough removed from New York-centric music industry politics – plus possessing more than enough influence and power of themselves -, sign him to Shady / Aftermath. In 2003 Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sees the light of day with the type of hype seldom seen around the release of a Hip-Hop album. Going by Soundscan numbers, it sells 872,000 copies in its first week.
What happened here is that the Eminem endorsement made listeners beyond regular Hip-Hop fans take notice. After all, Marshall Mathers gets love from people that don’t even like – or flat out hate – Hip-Hop. Additionally, 50’s violent history and bullet hole riddled body lent him an air of danger that spoke to the imagination of non-Black kids in the same way N.W.A. did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And finally, he effectively used his newfound status to diss the crap out of the previously chart topping, cartoonish persona of Murder Inc.’s Ja Rule and made him look very silly indeed. Especially contrasted with his own perceived street credibility. Revenge must have been sweet to 50 as he had been beefing with Ja and his label – who had links with his enemy Supreme – for a while already and where he made Ja Rule look bad, he himself naturally came out looking better. All of a sudden, ‘street credibility’ had become a criterion in judging a rap artist’s worth.
With Jay-Z entering fake retirement, 50 Cent was pretty much the biggest Black solo artist in Hip-Hop between 2003 and 2006. He released his second official studio album, The Massacre, which dwarfed the opening week sales numbers of Get Rich (1.14 million – Soundscan) and then, in 2007, came his third, Curtis. Around its release the ever outspoken 50 challenged Kanye West, who had moved the release dat of his own third studio album to exactly match 50’s to a first week sales battle. This was right before Kanye truly blew up on a mainstream level and in this scenario 50 Cent was no longer the underdog. Thus he found that the larger public was not rooting for him anymore and he lost the battle. Curtis set in motion a trend of declining sales numbers for 50’s subsequent album releases.
So how did this happen? We can point to Jackson’s ventures into other businesses and perhaps a perceived shift in priorities for him, but the quality of his music never really deteriorated. 2014’s Animal Ambition – An Untamed Desire to Win is as strong a 50 Cent album as ever. I wouldn’t credit Kanye and the little episode they had for his slow fade from pop culture consciousness either… however, there is something significant about the event, as it signified a shift in music industry trends. That very Kanye album, the glossy Late Registration, marked West’s final transformation from a credible rapping Hip-Hop producer into a pop musician and played a role in what became acceptable image- and music wise for rappers of color that hoped to obtain high pop chart positions. It helped pave the way for the likes of Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Tyga and other decidedly non-street rappers that are either super geeky, haute couture obsessed or make sensitive songs… or combine all of the above. You know, the type of artists that usually end up on Big Ghost’s annual lists. This is also why much hyped, more-thoro-than-50 street rappers like Saigon and Uncle Murda had their albums pushed back and were eventually dropped from their labels. Some say that all 50 Cent needs is a hit or two to do his huge sales numbers of yore again, but in the current musical climate this would be nearly impossible on his terms, no matter how infectious the song would be. It will have to take another climate shift again for 50’s music to be on the main stage again.
50 Cent is going to be alright. He still has a sizable core fanbase that will keep on supporting him if he stays consistent with his music.
This leaves me with a final question and answer. Why did I put in the effort to write this piece? I don’t mind his music, but I’m not even a 50 Cent fan myself, not nearly in the same way that I’m a fan of Ghostface or Sean Price (R.I.P.!). Weeell…aside from that I find his story fascinating, I would like to use what you just read as a starting point for my following articles; a larger discussion on authenticity, relevance, dilution & degeneration and the deplorable, armchair A&R-style way we handle the discourse on Hip-Hop. After I’m done, I hope we can all go back to focusing on the actual music again. So hold tight! It’s going to be quite a ride.