“Shady Aftermath nigga, G-Unit, rap juggernauts of this shit, we takin’ over”
—50 Cent, “Don’t Push Me,” Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
“Take some Big and some Pac and you mix em’ up in a pot/ Sprinkle a little Big L on top, what the fuck do you got?/ You got the realest and illest killas tied up in a knot/ The juggernauts of this rap shit, like it or not”
—Eminem, “Patiently Waiting,” Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
Most great music, they say, is God inspired. Add to that adage, the recording industry’s marketing machine, hype, and hip-hop’s stamp of approval in the form of street credibility, and a rapper like 50 Cent (née Curtis Jackson), becomes what appears to be an overnight success. But of course, like any other mythical American dream sequence brought to life, there’s more to this story.
Consider this parallel. When John Coltrane recorded “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” for his 1965 offering Meditations, he and Pharaoh Sanders communicated to one another through their intense tenors influencing one another’s performance. After ‘Trane’s death, Albert Ayler claimed that with this movement ‘Trane was expressing his discovery of a holy family in which ‘Trane was the father, Sanders the son, and Ayler the Holy Ghost. All three musicians, no doubt, impacted each other’s composition and improvisational styles, moving beyond the structures of bop toward free jazz. If we believe in the scriptures, then the Holy Ghost or spirit of God is to inspire the new prophets as he inspired the prophets of the old law. Ayler would then have influenced both ‘Trane and Sanders, which seems highly likely at this juncture in jazz’s history. In following this train of thought, envision 50 Cent as hip-hop’s holy ghost, both inspiring his mentors and provoking rappers, both old and new school, to step up their game.
That hip-hop would come to have its own holy trinity was inevitable. In Eminem (née Marshall Mathers), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, found what most music critics deem as hip-hop’s great white hope, and together, in 50 Cent, they found the next Biggie and Tupac rolled into one. Their Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit stronghold in the music industry positions them as a certified holy trinity, with Dre as the father, Eminem as the son, and 50 as the Holy Ghost. Only four days after its official release Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, 50’s major label debut, sold 872,000 copies. In its second and first full week, the CD sold another 822,000 copies. As of July, 5.3 million copies of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ were sold, with the album cushioning at #7 on Billboard‘s 200 and #10 on its R&B/hip-hop chart respectively. The single, “In Da Club”, received the most radio spins of any single, and became a remake magnet with Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Bubba Sparxx, and many others turning out their own versions of the song.
No other black hip-hop artist had ever turned such tricks for the music industry before—that is sold anywhere near 1 million copies their first week of sales as a debut artist—and the only one who even came close was Snoop Doggy Dogg with his 1993 debut Doggystyle that was produced by Dr. Dre. Interestingly enough, Dr. Dre’s protégé, Eminem, has been the greatest selling rapper of all time dominating with The Eminem Show and The Marshall Mathers LP. Both sold over 1 million units within their first week of being released. Rap juggernauts indeed, though many would neither find them holy or godly.
Although 50 was once signed to a major label deal with Columbia, it was his underground mixtape circuit tenacity that brought him to the attention of America’s favorite, and best-selling rapper, Eminem. Their union exemplifies the old “pick yourself up by the bootstraps mentality”, in that both worked hard in the underground trenches before someone more established in the game offered a hand to help them to rise up. A combination of record sales, radio spins, and video rotations for Eminem and 50 combined makes this triad appear unstoppable.
It would be too simplistic to signify 50’s seeming meteoric rise to the Billboard charts, and ability to remain there for months, as merely America’s fascination with outlaw culture. Certainly America loves its bad boys, just look at the opening weekend box office sales of $46.5 million for Bad Boys II, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and the 324,000 U.S. copies sold of the film’s soundtrack its opening week. If being a bad boy is a blueprint for commercial success, then 50’s bio reads like an up-from-the-gutter, serve-as-messenger for the gutter testament to it. But without the power of this union—with Dr. Dre and Eminem at the helm—would the story still read the same?
First there was the father. As the beatmaker behind the seminal gangster rap group NWA, Dr. Dre is credited with ushering in the G-Funk sound. With his slow-rolling sonics and NWA’s villainous lyrical content, the era of party and bullshit rap, along with its political brother, was murdered. Dre later went on to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight, and with the Snoop Doggy Dogg collaborations on his own solo release The Chronic, and later as producer of Snoop’s Doggystyle, he single-handedly altered the verve of hip-hop music. By 1996 Dre had severed his relationship with Death Row, declaring the death of gangster rap. But out on his own his influence on hip-hop began to wane. And so he sent us his son.
This is when the word became flesh. In the Bible, the first book of John, verse one reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” By verse 14, it reads: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . .” If Dre gets to play the role of God in this scenario, then certainly it follows that Eminem would star as his son—delivering his NWA days of violence and mayhem to the world.
Much like his role of Rabbit in the film 8 Mile, Eminem came to the rap game via the battle circuit. But it wasn’t until he created his alter ego Slim Shady, that the controversial material he’s best known for became commonplace. After Jimmy Iovine, Interscope label head, brought him to the attention of Dr. Dre, the unmitigated persona took off. Outlandish and brash in nature, criticizing the mainstream, and airing his dirty laundry, Eminem’s word became one that disaffected youth, of all races and classes, could identify with. And while more shepherds continually entered the flock, which record sales and 8 Mile viewership can attest to, Eminem began to feel that hip-hop was ready for a revival. “Right before The Eminem Show dropped, I said to a few different people that I was in a little bit of a slump as far as hip-hop was concerned. I was just bored. It was like the same artists were doing it consistently and nobody new was coming up,” Eminem told Noah Callahan-Beaver in a March 2003 XXL interview. And so the son declared, it was time for a new spirit in hip-hop. Enter 50 Cent, the Holy Ghost.
By now we all know 50’s story. We’d have to be living in some third world country with no access to any form of media not to know it. Before his position was solidified with the trinity though, 50 had already stirred up controversy in the rap game. His underground success, the ‘99 single “How to Rob”, poked fun at celebrity rappers’ successes and featured a how-to-rob them guide. With lyrics like, “I’d follow Fox in the drop for four blocks/ Plottin to juice her for that rock Kurupt copped/ What Jigga just sold like 4 milli, got something to live for/ Don’t want no nigga puttin four thru that Bentley Coupe door,” he definitely wasn’t making industry friends. Not long after his recording industry debut, the rapper was shot nine times. Label heads feeling he’d be too much of a burden, dropped him, but like the 1-million-dollar man that he is (Em and Dre are reported to have signed him for that much) he was rebuilt, both physically and artistically. The video for “In Da Club” is reminiscent of the wildly popular ‘70s TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man. Remember the opening narration: “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s fist bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” Now watch the video again, and replace Steve Austin’s name with 50 Cent. The video, displaying Dre and Eminem in white coats watching the doctors from above as they reengineer and reenergize 50 on the operation table not only symbolizes the gods watching down from the sky ideal, but also represents that in fact 50 Cent has posthuman qualities.
“I got God understand me tattooed in my skin/ When I die and come back, I’ma do it again”
—50 Cent, “50 Shot Ya’,” Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
Add to that bionic man/posthuman analogy, 50’s similarities with Tupac. Coincidentally, Dr. Dre served as primary producer on Tupac’s projects when they were both at Death Row. And much like the charismatic certified gangster rapper, who was shot five times in the lobby of a New York recording studio and lived to tell it, 50 also survived such circumstances. Though Tupac was murdered in 1996, several albums containing never released before material have come out since. While Tupac’s prolific output is a testament to his work ethic, it has otherwise convinced his most loyal devotees that he’s still alive. 50 Cent likewise has an overwhelming amount of product, but it’s mainly on the mixtape circuit. The most striking comparison that’s being harped on between 50 and Tupac is that they both survived near death. 50 talks about it all the time.
This feeling of invincibility created by evading death is guaranteed to bring about a god-like complex in any mortal. “They say I walk around like got an ‘S’ on my chest,” the rapper snarls on his single “What Up Gangsta?” Superman too has his Christ-like abilities. And though 50 follows up the opening line of the song with “Naw, that’s a semi-auto, and a vest on my chest” the correlation has already been cast. Like Superman, 50 was also an orphan raised by his grandparents due to his mother’s drug lifestyle and death when he was eight. Not that 50 directly fits the Superman archetype, but the battle gear he totes around and rides in (50 has had run-ins with the law for weapons possession and he wears a Kevlar vest, while riding around in a bullet proof SUV), for him, must serve as his superpowers. He not only feels he has no competition in the rap game—- except Jay-Z and Nas—- his near brush with death has also apparently convinced him that he is immortal, or at least all the paraphernalia will save him. In the DC Comics, Superman’s mission was to save humanity, and if Eminem’s rationale for signing 50 on the dotted line is to be extrapolated then 50 is here to save hip-hop from itself.
Befitting his post as Holy Ghost in the Aftermath/Shady/G-Unit Records triad, make that trinity, 50 embodies the divine messenger, as well as the breath of the spirit. In his role as messenger, he delivers the words of the gods, in other words “the greatest rappers of all time”. On the mixtape circuit DJ Whoo Kid released 50 rapping duets with both The Notorious B.I.G and Tupac on “The Realest”, and “The Realest Killas”, respectively. That DJ Whoo Kid chose these slain rappers to team 50 up with fits comfortably within this scenario. In the words of many music critics, 50 Cent fills a void left by both slain rappers, so his collaborations with them appears to signify some sort of direct communication with the gods of rap. As inspirit incarnate—inspiring the prophets of the old law—50 has resurrected the spirit of the gangsta in hip-hop music. In the June 2003 issue of GQ, in an article entitled, “Can I Get a Thug?” Jon Caramanica wrote, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is filled with morbid gangsta tales in which the sun never bothers to shine and weakness is rewarded with swift punishment. The 26-year-old 50 is hip-hop’s first crossover boy in almost a decade to explicitly traffic in the sort of scar-tissue credibility that most rappers and fans see only on Oz. The thug has been mainstreamed anew, and a cavalcade of likely successors are readying their attack.”
It’s not only the new guard of rappers upholding the thug banner, first 50 got O.G. Snoop Dogg to trade lines with him on a remix of his single “P.I.M.P.” Later he joined Jay-Z, probably the most successful black crossover hip-hop artist, on the cover of Entertainment Weekly touting their explosive “Rock the Mic” tour that began this summer. A Rock the Mic mixtape, featuring 50 and Jay-Z collabs, will soon follow. Clearly the old prophets recognize this newcomer’s gangsta, and perhaps his Holy Ghost has also uplifted them.
Whether you believe there is an inkling of holiness emanating from 50 Cent or not, God is no stranger to him. In his lyrics for both “Many Men”, and “U Not Like Me”, he references talking to God every night. He and his G-Unit fam, including Lloyd Banks and Yayo, even put out a disc entitled God’s Plan. On “U Not Like Me”, he offers, “Everything that happened to us, was part of God’s plan.” Meanwhile, his God-like complex, as well as his own belief in his godliness, shines on the song when he boasts, “My songs belong in the Bible with King David/ I teach niggaz sign language.”
“Don’t think I’m crazy, ‘cause I don’t fear man/ ‘Cause I feel when I kill a man/ God won’t understand/ I got a head full of evil thoughts, am I satan”
—50 Cent, “U Not Like Me,” Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
If 50 Cent is not here to save hip-hop music, there remains no question that he as breathed new life into it. This idea holds true, whether you consider his lyrics and persona disturbing, or not. Even Eminem’s delivery has raised up a few notches when he’s beside his hip-hop wunderkind on the stage and in the recording booth. The honesty in all of this is that there hasn’t been a rapper with this sort of lyrical swagger in quite awhile. For that very reason, the comparisons to Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G are certainly not unfounded. 50’s brand of graphically violent reality rap, mixed with sing-songy choruses, has unwittingly taken us back to the gangster rap heyday—an era Dr. Dre is held responsible for creating—but his talent for making catchy hooks imbue it a new twist. If nothing else, at least 50’s continuing the tradition of both his heavenly and earthly forefathers. For like Dre and Em before him, he’s managed to achieve great earthly success by somehow speaking to and for “the people”. Though he’s so far singlehandedly boosted record sales for 2003 and changed hip-hop’s languishing direction, placing it on a completely different track, it’s still not clear whether he’s its definitive answer.
// Notes from the Road
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