It is easy to view the career arc of Curtis Jackson in a Shakespearean context. The man known as 50 Cent ascended to a level of hip-hop stardom in the first half of this decade that no more than a handful of others either before or since has experienced. The catalyst of this astronomical rise was the emotionless public persona he carved out through vicious attack campaigns with only one goal: ruin the career of any person who stood in his way. His penchant for alienating those close to him increasingly threatens to bring down the powerful hip-hop empire he has built.
At the apex of his popularity, Jackson’s G-Unit was the most powerful brand in hip-hop and his enemies in the industry became lepers, with whom collaboration was too risky a move for any artist with aspirations of maintaining any sort of viable mainstream prospects. As someone capable of causing irreparable damage to the careers of former industry heavy-hitter Ja Rule and just about anyone associated with his Murder Inc. label in a seemingly overnight fashion, 50 Cent became the hip-hop villain who was fun to root for (or too intimidating to root against)—plus, he crafted some of the most catchy hip-hop singles of this decade.
Since 2005, 50 Cent has exiled the two most commercially viable artists under his label by booting both the Game and Young Buck from G-Unit. He started conflicts with rappers, who, unlike Ja Rule, had loyal fan bases that extended far enough throughout the serious hip-hop loving public to render him the villain many would love to see fall. His loss to Kanye West in the much publicized sales battle when his third LP Curtis hit stores on the same day as West’s Graduation provided the first definitive proof that he was no longer the most popular rapper alive.
As both the quality of his music and popularity were in steady decline, the voyeuristic appeal of 50 Cent as a person was trending inversely. Now that the empire he built appears to be crumbling around him and his still-present willingness to say anything about anyone keeps his list of enemies in the hip-hop industry climbing, 50 Cent is arguably as interesting to watch as he has ever been.
Before I Self Destruct has finally arrived after nearly two years of delays. Originally set to be released before Curtis, Jackson determined it to be a more logical fit as his fourth full-length release, which fulfills his current recording contract with Interscope. 50 originally stated that the album was completed before Curtis, but has since admitted too reworking much of it. Comparing the two albums it appears that most of Before I Self Destruct was recorded after the release Curtis because 50 Cent sounds hungrier than he has since his monumental debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’—like he’s rapping his way out of the back-against-the-wall situation the Kanye loss put him in.
On surface level, the content of Before I Self Destruct seems to stick to the typical 50 Cent formula: tracks packed with murderous threats, a rhyme-trading song with Eminem, the requisite diss track, and a few tunes for the ladies. A deeper exploration of the lyrics reveals, more clearly than ever, a lonely man who trusts almost no one and feels more comfortable with few human relationships in his life. In this respect, the album is at times reminiscent of James Toback’s recent look at the life of Mike Tyson in the excellent Tyson.
On the autobiographical “Then Days Went By”, 50 sounds almost braggadocios when he raps about not having made any friends since high school. The purest expression of love on Before I Self Destruct comes by way of “Hold Me Down”, which isn’t about a human love at all, but about the connection between a man and his gun. Money and fame have killed the innocent lover of “21 Questions”. Betrayal and greed are themes present just about everywhere 50 addresses female relationships. When he is not talking about getting hurt in love, 50 Cent seems only interested in sexual dalliances; given the volatility of celebrity hook-ups, it’s hard to blame him for such a lack of trust and his view of sex as the only guaranteed satisfaction a man in his position can obtain through a romantic entanglement.
Several of the street-oriented tracks elicit memories of the clever lyricist who penned classics like “How to Rob” and listeners are reminded that, 50 Cent is still an incredibly talented emcee. “So Disrespectful” eclipses The Massacre’s “Piggy Bank” as his best tauntingly playful diss record since his first album. Much of Before I Self Destruct, with songs like “Stretch”, sounds straight out of the grimy New York underground 50 Cent inhabited before dominating mainstream radio.
Before the release of this album, one might have imagined that the worst outcome would be 50 Cent finally alienating himself to the extent that the whole music industry (outside of the Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit umbrella) became his enemy. Listening to the record however, one gets the impression that this was his goal. This provides further insight into why someone would oust the top-two earners in his crew. They were the outsiders within G-Unit, the ones who got in once 50 Cent was already a multimillion dollar entity and, as he makes clear throughout Before I Self Destruct, 50 trusts only those who were with him before his fame.
With surprisingly little filler, renewed energy, and the unique glimpse Before I Self Destruct offers into the psyche of a public figure as intriguing as Curtis Jackson, 50 Cent has crafted easily his best album since Get Rich or Die Trying.
// Notes from the Road
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