There were many, many funny things said by hip-hop’s numba one Whiteboy, Eminem, as he lyrically manhandled the would-be leader of hip-hop’s Flat Earth Society, Benzino, during their war of words this winter. In one particularly tickling moment, Em—being simultaneously facetious, honest, self-deprecating, and self-promoting—proved why he’s the best rapper alive. Benzino, attempting to use his clout at Source magazine like Kim Jong Il’s nukes, threatened to dangle Em over a balcony à la Vanilla Ice. “Please don’t,” retorted Em, “you’ll probably fall with me/And our asses’ll both be history/But then again, you’d finally get your wish/’Cause you’d be all over the street like 50 Cent.”
You see, last year, while Nas and Jay-Z held radio debates, turned performances into political rallies, and spent consumer contributions on big-budget ads in the race to be King of New York, Queens’ 50 Cent (with his two-man G Unit crew) conducted a more grassroots campaign, glad-handing mix-tape DJs, bootleggers, and Internet pirates while supplying them with enough music to make Tupac Shakur’s ashes sit up and take notice. 50 became a Black Market unto himself, eventually eliminating the middleman and putting out his own compilations of freestyles, remakes, and original numbers.
As he says on his first legally sanctioned full-length CD, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, “If David could go against Goliath with a stone/I could go at Nas and Jigga both for the throne.” Get Rich was considered a classic two months before it came out. It’s considered a classic now that it’s officially on the record shelves. And it will be considered a classic long after the 50 Cent Show meets its inevitable end. And 50’s unremitting allegiance to the streets is why.
Before his first two full-length CDs—Guess Who’s Back? and 50 Cent Is the Future—made their way to Eminem’s ears (prompting Em to declare 50 his favorite MC, sign him to a reported million-dollar deal, and—at the opening of 50 Cent’s God’s Plan—decide to quit rap), bootleggers and mix-tape DJs realized that a CD without 50 Cent was a coaster. In a vicious cycle, compilations of bootlegs were re-bootlegged, re-compiled, and spit out as “official” Best Of sets, with the most formidable survivors of the convoluted rigamarole ending up available on Amazon.com for the price of an honest-to-Allah record-industry CD, complete with recommendations: If you liked Smilez & Southstar’s unoffending brand of commercial pap, may we suggest No Mercy No Fear and God’s Plan?
In and of itself, using bad music to recommend good music is noble. But in this case, the mix CD genre—with a wink from the recording industry—is ostensibly for “promotional use only,” so things get murky. As a promo engine, the CDs work well. The recent San Francisco stop on 50’s mix-tape-inspired tour was cancelled after an extra 3000 people showed up for the sold-out performance. For 50’s part, he maintains he draws no profits from, say, turning Raphael Saadiq’s “You Should Be Here” into a pimp’s anthem. He abruptly ends a freestyle on Guess Who’s Back?, saying “Yeah, that’s it, nigga . . . It’s a freestyle. What the fuck you want for free? Fuckin’ A-rabs just ran the planes into the fuckin’ building. Coke prices went up 10 grand this fuckin’ week!”
Being stabbed, getting shot, national crises, police arrests—nothing seems to stop 50 Cent from heading into the recording booth. And like most great outlaws, such things only fuel him, even when he has no microphone. Cutmaster C’s recent Live From Central Booking’s tha Holding Pen!!! was hosted by 50 through a collect call, while he was—you guessed it—under arrest for gun charges this past December.
All this music would be as relevant to hip-hop as anti-war protests are to President Bush if 50 Cent weren’t an artist whose Big and Pac comparisons are more than wistful thinking. Like Big, 50 authors authoritative, picture-perfect gangster narratives, like the headline-spurning “Ghetto Qu’ran” and “50 Bars,” which comes off like a Scorsesean voice-over guiding you through a hustler’s convention: “Coming up, Wise and Los was close/Now Los riding around looking for Wise with toast/Benny hopped out the Escalade with a few thorough men/From B-more, they selling heroin in Maryland.” And like Pac—whose real life parallels to 50 are too numerous and growing to address at this point—50 Cent has an uncanny gift of timing, melody, and hooks that seem to come from heaven (or other people’s records). But for Pac, heaven was an idyllic Eden replete with friendly ghettoes, thug mansions, and soul revival concerts; Big, either from fear or guilt, preferred to meet the afterlife with aggression—he couldn’t see himself with his hands gripped on some praise-the-Lord shit. Pac hailed Mary. Big? He never knew her; he’d probably do her, and dump her body in the sewer.
For 50 Cent, heaven and hell aren’t that much different from the world he rhymes about now. “Weather in hell is kinda hot, you know like the block,” he rhymes over a posthumous Big track. “I heard it really burns homie, you know like a shot/But that’s a-ight wit me shit, ’cause I’m in the drop/Driving around heaven tryin’ to find Big and Pac/Niggas think when they die all of their problems stop/You die in jail, you wake up in hell still on lock/Imagine if you stole something and you got shot/Woke up in hell holding your head, still shot/Niggas that die of AIDS, you know the dirty dick/Wake in hell horny finna fuck the same bitch.”
In 50’s world, make-believe doesn’t exist, save for poseurs like Ja Rule and Murder Inc. (“Explain it to the niggas in your ‘hood, nigga. They know you fucking fronting, nigga; talkin’ all that gangsta shit on the record . . . Ask around in my ‘hood, nigga. Read the Daily News, nigga, you see them talk about me, nigga. I’m in the middle of all kinds of shit.”) Nothing is sacred and even less is safe. The A-rabs crashed into the fuckin’ buildings, he was shot nine times outside his childhood home, but he don’t walk with a limp.
50 Cent—the military posturing of his Guerrilla Unit, his love of bulletproof vests, big, big guns and all things explosive—is all about self-preservation, color-coded alerts be damned. When offered police protection on the night of Jam Master Jay’s death, 50, saying that he felt safer in his own capable hands, left town, presumably with a small arsenal in tow. Try to picture Nas or Jay-Z doing that.