The most striking thing about “The Bomb,” the new 50 Cent dis track aimed at Diddy, isn’t the actual battle-rap content of the thing, but then, that never is the important thing about 50 Cent’s dis tracks. 50’s never written an “Ether” or a “Jack the Ripper.” He doesn’t rip holes through other rappers with his lyrics or his delivery. There’s never been any passion or hate or wounded pride in his voice when he does these things. In fact, he always sounds pretty much disconnected from the whole process, like he could really give a shit whether or not the other guy even gets offended. He’s always blithe and vaguely amused, like the whole thing’s a game to him, which it almost certainly is. 50 effectively ended Ja Rule’s career, but he didn’t do it on “Back Down,” probably still the best dis track he’s ever released. He did it by constantly talking shit in interviews, by positioning himself as the hungry young turk gunning for the cheesed-out bubblegum rappers cluttering up the charts. Way back in late 2002, there was something really exciting about that: a hard-ass rapper with serious star potential, someone finally willing to talk shit and name names and put himself on the line. Of course, when he got famous, he turned into exactly the sort of fluffy pop-rapper he came up deriding; he conned everyone. When he releases dis tracks now, his lyrics don’t even matter; it’s like he considers himself above the actual business of rapping. It didn’t make any difference what he said about Fat Joe and Jadakiss and Nas on “Piggy Bank”; what mattered was just the fact that he was talking shit about these guys. It was more a media stunt than a song, which is fitting; 50’s more a media manipulator than a rapper these days, and maybe he always was. So “The Bomb” is typical of him; a quick little verse with a couple of throwaway lines about Diddy and then a long ranted outro. There’s no effort in it.
The most striking thing about the song is the fact that 50 is rapping over the greatest track that the late-90s backpack-rap boom produced: Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop.” That song remains one of the best rap singles of the past decade, a furious blast of righteous fury over the sort of beat that gives everything they’re saying an immediate punch. That wriggling sandworm bassline still sounds absolutely fucking gripping, and it made the track’s lyrics that much more urgent. And it came from a brief moment where it was OK for New York rappers to appropriate the monstrous sonics of Southern rap without getting called out for trend-jumping. It sounded like a punch in the face, and so the Dead Prez guys didn’t sound like deluded chumps when they talked about running up on them crackers in city hall; they sounded like guys who might actually be ready to do it. So when 50 Cent, the biggest rap star in the world, jacks that beat and flips the track’s lines, it’s a weirdly subversive gesture. 50’s lyrics on “The Bomb” are pretty much the exact opposite of everything the Dead Prez guys said on “Hip Hop”; he’s talking all the same consequence-free knucklehead bullshit that the Dead Prez guys disparaged on the original track, and he’s using their lines to do it: “One thing about my music, when it hits you feel a pain / Ninja, I take control of your brain / Listen now, ninja, I’m not playing.” He’s bragging about his money and his cars on a track about how rappers should look beyond their money and their cars. It’s fucked up.
And it’s all part of the publicity stunt. Right now, 50 Cent is rap’s greatest villain, and he’s taking on the guy who was rap’s greatest villain when Dead Prez released “Hip Hop.” The nominal reason for the track’s existence is Mase: 50 wants to sign Mase to G-Unit, and Diddy won’t let Mase out of his Bad Boy contract. The real reason, of course, is that Lloyd Banks has an album coming out in October and nobody cares. We’ve seen this before: the buzz on The Massacre was basically nonexistent before 50 kicked Game out of G-Unit; it even looked plausible that Game would end up outselling 50. After the falling-out kicked up an enormous media shitstorm, The Massacre went on to become last year’s second-biggest seller. 50 got his name in the papers, and that’s exactly what he wanted to do. The same thing is going on here; 50 doesn’t care about Mase, and he even says so on the track’s outro: “Matter of fact, know what? I don’t wanna do the deal no more.” In a way, Diddy did 50 a favor when he wouldn’t let Mase off Bad Boy. Mase’s alignment with G-Unit has become a bigger punchline than the sales figures of Blood Money. There might not be a single rapper alive right now with less credibility than Mase; 50 would be better off signing Jamie Kennedy or something. On the part where he actually raps, 50 doesn’t even mention Mase; he’s attacking Puffy for something completely different: “Who shot Biggie Smalls? If we don’t get them, they gon’ kill us all / Man, Puffy know who hit that ninja, man; that ninja soft / He scared them boys from the West Side gon’ break him off / Jump on his ass, so he run to Harlem shake them off.”
He’s certainly picked a great moment to attack Diddy. Diddy’s spent the past year rebuilding Bad Boy, finally getting the memo that he can’t possibly run a successful rap label and repackaging himself as a teenpop czar, getting hits out of Yung Joc and Cassie. And this track is now leaking exactly one day after the debut album from Danity Kane, Diddy’s reality-TV girl-group, something nobody has ever treated as anything but a joke, has pulled off the mind-bending feat of outselling OutKast’s Idlewild in its first week. Diddy has clawed his way back to the top, and 50 is waiting for him. Of course, 50’s also in danger of becoming a joke; the last three G-Unit albums haven’t sold well, and he needs to figure out a way to recapture the public’s imagination if he wants to maintain his status. There’s something really desperate about this attack: Diddy barely even raps, and I can’t imagine much of a battle coming out of this. But there’s something really devious about it, too. 50’s goal, after all, is to rack up as much media attention as possible, and I did just write this column.