Does 50 Cent Still Matter? Debating Curtis Jackson’s Rap Legacy
Last week, Lucas and I were talking about 50 Cent's upcoming Animal Ambition album, officially dropping tomorrow, and I suggested doing an entire "Week of 50"; one story a day on Fiddy for the entire week. Lucas acted like I had just suggested doing an entire week on Ja Rule. "An entire week, on 50?" he asked*, in that same voice he uses when I make him write about Migos. "Do people really care that much?"
Frankly, at first I was a little taken aback by Lucas' apathy. I won't front like I'm the world's biggest 50 Cent fan; even at his peak I was never that deep into G-Unit, and since that peak I've been increasingly less and less interested in the man's music output since...let's say "Curtis." Still, for me there's no question that 50 is one of the biggest rappers of the 21st century. We're talking someone who went eight times platinum with his debut album, someone who almost single-handedly ushered in the new era of opulent gangster rap. I remember what it was like when "In Da Club" blew up and suddenly Fiddy was the only conversation anyone in rap was having.
And that's when I realized, the key phrase there was "I remember." It's now been five years since Fiddy's last album, and almost a decade since he dropped "The Massacre," his last truly huge album+. If you missed the first few years of 50 Cent's career, either because you were too young, you were in backpacker/underground mode at the time, or some combination of both, then of course. Of course you think of 50 as more of a beef monger than a groundbreaking rapper, more of an Instagram prankster than a rap legend. Of course you're going to question why we should devote an entire week to him.
And the truth is, 50 Cent's career and legacy is both of those things. He's both the man who absolutely took over the rap game and the man who's essentially been a musical non-factor for years now. So to kick off our "Week of 50," Lucas and I are going to dig into our relationship with the complicated legacy of one Mr. Curtis Jackson, and in the process hopefully arrive at some kind of understanding of the man's career.
Lucas: Just Another One of the Early '00s Emcees
As if I wasn't feeling old already, thinking back to 2003 sent me spiraling into a quarter life crisis. What's so special about 2003? Well, it was when "Get Rich Or Die Trying" was released; February 3rd to be exact. Now, admittedly, as a 15-year-old, I really didn't know much about music. Grammys, platinum albums, and legacies really didn't mean much to me; it was all about MTV, BET, or whatever the radio told me to listen to. At the time, the radio told me to listen to 50 so that's what I did. At the time, 50, was the biggest thing on the planet but so was Linkin Park and Christina Aguilera. What I'm trying to say here is that yes, 50 was popular, yes he was influential, and yes he was better than most rappers at the time, but still, I don't consider him a "great" emcee and certainly don't think he is worthy of a whole week dedicated to his new album.
The reason I am so focused on 2003 is because, to me, "Get Rich Or Die Trying" is the only project from 50 that really matters. "In Da Club" was played like seven times at the homecoming dance, I used to have to sneak listening to "P.I.M.P" while my Mom was home and "Patiently Waiting" was on my JV basketball warm-up playlist; and I'm not even counting the number of times "If I Can't" was my AIM away message. My next memory of 50 Cent? Hearing "Straight To The Bank" 100 times on the boardwalk during senior week in 2007. Sure, he was around for those four years, but I have no memories of 50 Cent in those four years...and that four year black hole was seven years before now, his "official" comeback.
To me, 50 Cent is just another one of the early 00's emcees who burned bright, but too fast. That era--early to mid 2000's-- will always be about the lavish, grandiose hip-hop that may be catchy, but lacks in the substance department; all sizzle but little to no steak. With the exception of a few artists (Kanye, Jay, Luda, Wayne) in my opinion, there aren't too many famous rappers from that era, who are still relevant today. I enjoyed the era, I grew up on it, but I can't sit here and tell you that now, after learning all about hip-hop and music in general, this was a great era in terms of artistry. A lot of the music was perfect for the radio or a 15-year-old white kid from suburban Maryland, but it wasn't very good for hip-hop as an art--that's fine; every year can't be 1994--and in my opinion, 50 is just another name in a long line of rappers who will always have a special place in my heart but will never, ever be considered a great, influential emcee. If I didn't particularly care about him in 2006, why would I care about him eight years later?
I realize that is not everyone's experience with 50. I'm sure if I lived in New York, or had been shot nine times, I would love him, but all I can do is speak from my experience. You can rattle off stats about Grammys or album sales (and you probably could to prove me wrong) but it won't change my opinion that 50 is nothing more than an above-average emcee in a below average era. Again, this is just me speaking, but I haven't cared about a 50 Cent album since "Get Rich Or Die Trying." To me, that's the only 50 Cent project that matters and no amount of "Animal Ambition" will change that. Vitamin Water and a debut album...50's legacy.
Now if you'll excuse me I have to get to homeroom before I get detention....
Nathan S: A Nearly Mythical, Superhero Figure in Rap
I remember climbing the tree outside our apartment building when I was ten-years-old. Even just perched on some of the lowest branches, I might as well have been at the top of Everest. Or at least, that was my memory. When I go back home now and look at that tree, I wasn't any higher than the top of my head now. Everything seems bigger looking back, which is why when I thought of 50 Cent and the phrase "biggest debut in hip-hop history" popped into my head, I didn't quite trust myself. But even when I look at 50’s rise with some objective distance, I think it’s still true; no one in hip-hop history has gotten so big, so fast. The hip-hop heads had heard rumblings of 50 on the mixtape circuit, particularly "How to Rob," but then "In Da Club" dropped and HOLY SHIT THAT GUY GOT SHOT IN THE FACE NINE TIMES AND HIS NEW ALBUM IS PLATINUM AND WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO TALK ABOUT?
It’s hard to explain just how completely and quickly 50 took over. Not even Drake’s rise circa “So Far Gone” really compares, in part because even by 2009 the internet had ensured that no one artist could have that big of an impact. But within just a few years 50 was on par with the most famous rappers on the planet, a nearly mythical, superhero figure in rap, and G-Unit was one of the most powerful labels in the game.
Over the years G-Unit’s stature and 50’s album sales came crashing down to Earth, but that doesn’t mean his musical influence stopped. On the contrary, 50 ushered in the modern era of gangster rap that Rick Ross and so many others practice now; the idea of the gangster as millionaire CEO was really 50’s creation. And on that measure alone, if we take “influence” to mean “amount of people who tried to send like someone, for better or worse,” I don’t think it’s a stretch to call 50 the most influential rapper of the last decade. If 50 doesn’t blow, is there a Jeezy or T.I.? If there’s not a Jeezy or T.I., is there any of the current trap movement?
Eminem, Jay and Kanye may be more respected and admired technically and musically, but 50’s style and sound was always approachable enough that seemingly every rapper felt like they could pull off their own version, even if they never could, and never will. So while Fiddy’s prime appears to be long gone, in many ways his rap legacy’s never been stronger.
So there you have it, two kind of different but kind of overlapping takes on 50 Cent's past, present and future. Share your own experiences with the man's music and maybe together we can figure out just where he belongs in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. Or we could just all argue on the internet. Either/or. And bad news for Lucas, because we really are doing an entire week of 50 Cent posts. What up, gangsta?
* Not a verbatim quote. Unlike 50, I don't record phone calls with my employees.
+ True, "Curtis" did have some hits, it was far from a flop. But 50 was beat out by Kanye. In retrospect it's hard not to look at "Curtis" as a turning point where 50 went from "perhaps the most powerful rapper alive" to "one of...." So I'm going with "Massacre" as his last truly major album. Either way, it's been more than a couple years.
[Nathan Slavik is the managing editor of DJBooth. He has a beard. This is his Twitter. Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth. He does not have a beard. This is his Twitter.]
Written by Nathan S. on 06/2/14
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