50 Cent's stories of the streets have the feel of first-person reportage from urban war zone.
"Candy Shop", 50 Cent's lead single from his sophomore effort, The Massacre, is a track dripping with sexual energy and cool. In many ways, I couldn't help but think that it was the male version of Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl". Both songs are out-and-out declarations of a bold and powerful sense of sexuality, set over the now-ubiquitous Middle Eastern-sounding synthesizer hook and stuttering hip-hop beat. Beyoncé is naughty, yet is motivated by her love for her partner. It's actually quite a bold statement: you can want to get down and dirty with someone you love, not just some idealized other. 50 Cent, who might just be hip-hop's most quintessentially male personality, is having none of that. After 50 Cent tells his partner that she can "lick the lollypop", he boasts that "I'm a seasoned vet at this shit." Then, in a relaxed yet faintly ominous chorus, 50 Cent and Olivia croon: "Girl what we do (what we do) / And where we do (and where we do) / The things we do (things we do) / Are just between me and you (oh yeah)." Is it just me, or can these lines be read two ways? There's the intimacy of two lover sharing secrets about what goes on behind closed doors, and then there's 50 Cent warning his lover to keep her mouth shut, so as not to cramp his style with many other women just like her (after all, he's a "seasoned vet"). The song is sexy as hell, but contains a pretty unmistakable edge of hostility, macho swagger, and thunderous chest thumping.
This bravado is born of the streets. In 50 Cent's mind, presumably, he's got no time for such sensitivity and vulnerability; the image that he projects on his records is that of a do-or-die street thug, trying to get the most out of life since he can shot down at any moment (the album's first skit ends in an assaulting blast of machine-gun fire; I mean, let's remember, the album is called The Massacre). 50 Cent famously grew up in rough part of Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, where circumstances lead him to resort to dealing crack. He brandishes these experiences as a badge of authenticity. Leave the sensitive posturing for Kanye West or even Jay-Z; 50 Cent has been shot at, for chrissakes. The album does actually feature a love song, "Build You Up", featuring Jamie Foxx's swooning vocals on the chorus, but when 50 Cents suggests, "Before I buddy in bed / let me be your best friend," I still don't believe him. Not only does his use of the word "buddy" denote a casualness that does not exactly indicate true love, but also his tone of voice is so deadpan, so flat, that it doesn't really sound like he means it. Jamie Foxx means it, but not 50 Cent.
2003's Get Rich Or Die Tryin' was one of the most successful hip-hop debuts in history. The Massacre will inevitably pale in comparison, since it does not have the same media hype surrounding its release (which was due to 50 Cent's connection to the Jam Master Jay murder, the anticipation built up by his appearance on his mentor Eminem's 8 Mile soundtrack, among other things). That said, however, The Massacre is a very enjoyable hip-hop album, with one important caveat. To enjoy 50 Cent, you've got to leave a lot of liberal-progressive values at the door. If you're the type of person who will not be able to get past the objectification of women, the glorification of macho violence and aggression (on "I Don't Need Em," 50 Cent spits out, "I tell n----z to suck my dick / Get the fuck out my face / Cuz I don't need 'em"), ostentatious materialism ("Bein' broke is against my religion," he confesses on "Ryder Music"), and a description of urban ills without necessarily advocating a way to solve them ("It ain't good to do good in my hood / [gunshot] / You know not to do good now," from "In My Hood"), then 50 Cent is not for you. You're better off staying with the socially conscious Kanye West, or even Eminem, who for the most part isn't an activist, but is an idealist, possessed by an almost Bruce Springsteen-like belief in the power of music to transcend time and place.
"Candy Shop" and "Disco Inferno" are great dance tracks; "Piggy Bank" is a scathing indictment of greed; "A Baltimore Love Thing" finds 50 Cent taking on the voice of heroin, which is close to social commentary, even though it comes off more as a thinly veiled excuse for boasting, once again, how the ladies are addicted to him (50 Cent that is, not heroin); and "I'm Supposed to Die Tonight" mournfully describes the prevalence of shootouts and hits in poor urban neighborhoods, although 50 Cent is very much in the center of the action, again more angry about how this will affect him rather than its broader social significance. 50 Cent's stories of the streets have the feel of first-person reportage from urban war zone. He is not in the business of putting things in perspective, but rather of telling the rest of us what he's seen and experienced.
Putting aside whatever personal problems I may have with the social vision of 50 Cent, I have to appreciate The Massacre as the most enjoyable hip-hop I've heard since Kanye West's The College Dropout. The beats are captivating, the choruses memorable, the skits kept to a minimum, and, most importantly, the rapping deft, inventive, and full of surprises. I think this record follows up on the success of Get Rich Or Die Tryin' as much as any artist could be expected to, given the intense level of pressure and expectation. The Massacre is certainly a front-runner for hip-hop album of the year.