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The overexposure of 50 Cent isn’t all bad news. To help plug his new album The Massacre, the Queens native recently hosted MTV Jams for an entire weekend, during which he picked out his favorite videos for airing. As is to be expected, most of his selections were his own material. One pick, “Life’s on the Line,” seemed far more interesting, mysterious, and genuine than anyone has a right to expect from the man born Curtis Jackson. The 1999 song is street-grimy for sure, but it seeks to examine, rather than glorify, hiphop’s obsession with drugs, sex, and guns. In the low-budget vid, 50 chastises rappers who “escape reality when they rhyme,” bragging about the nonexistent weight they hold and cars they drive.
This is 50 at his finest, speaking to the violence and thug currency that he’s fascinated by and adding just a bit of cultural criticism. Much more often, he simply holds a mirror up to our expectations of the Man Who Was Shot Nine Times: We don’t care what he has to say about life on the streets; the mere fact that he’s survived it is enough. He’s a just-the-facts sort of MC who talks about his bullet-pocked past and millions of dollars with a chilly detachment that somehow makes it all sound good—deep, even, if you don’t listen too carefully. His charms enable him to dwell in a comfort zone of guns, violence, and misogyny without ever having to explore how he got there or why he remains.
Hiphop rewards thoughtful gangsters—stupid ones may enjoy short-lived fame, but rarely are they awarded sustainable credibility. If 50 is able to retain his lock on the game simply by talking loud and saying nothing, it will mark a huge shift in the genre. That the new album, The Massacre, sold 1.14 million copies in its first four days of release suggests the shift may be happening already. The disc, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2003’s multiplatinum Get Rich or Die Tryin’, is to 50 what Niggaz4Life was to N.W.A.: a complete departure from thought-provoking gangsterism. Shallow shoot-’em-up albums aren’t new, of course, but the absence of any sort of political statement or larger look at society on a hard-core album usually signals the beginning of the end.
“In My Hood,” produced by C Styles, is 50 at his most matter-of-fact. The track is filled with the horns and piano chords that New York hiphop had a long love affair with during the ’90s, but it has enough synth to give it a little West Coast flavor—it’s the exact sort of bicoastal tinkering that made Get Rich a smash. Here 50 tries to take us to Jamaica—Queens, that is—through some simple, carefully chosen imagery: “Shorty down there on that Queens track, takin’ a whippin’/Shit, bitch get outta pocket, she need some discipline,” he rhymes. “Peep the fiend shootin’ diesel in his arm in the alley/Look at the chrome spinners spinnin’ on that black Denali.”
Sure, he’s showing rather than telling, but he takes it too far. While trying to take listeners on a guided tour of his home turf, he leaves them to gaze out of their windows without explaining the sights, without giving up one word about how these things are relevant to his life or the world as a whole. The scariest thing about the track isn’t its depiction of violence but the fact that its creator has managed to make a completely infectious song completely devoid of any other redeeming quality.
And The Massacre is undoubtedly an addictive listen. The album shows off a roster of rookie and seasoned producers, catchy hooks, and, most of all, 50’s beautiful voice. Whether he’s singing or rhyming, his raspy tone has a hypnotic quality that lulls the listener through soulless lines about fucking women, firing pistols, and selling drugs. “I’m Supposed to Die Tonight,” for example, is classic superficial 50: He taps Eminem to lay down one of his usual dark, creepy tracks; the title holds promise of a paranoid, prophetic masterpiece that remains undelivered. Instead, we get a proud declaration of shallowness: “In 2002, if you asked me to make a wish/I simply woulda wished that my music would be a hit/Big said, ‘Damn, niggas wanna stick me for my paper’ then ‘Pray for my downfall’/I understand it all/But me—I’m a lil’ more flashy a nigga/So chances are, I’m-a have ta blast me a nigga.”
“Piggy Bank,” the battle track everyone is talking about because of its slander of Nas, Jadakiss, and Fat Joe, is similar—inflammatory on first listen, profoundly noncontroversial on the inevitable next. Aside from New York producer Needlz’s cleverly syncopated coin-dropping rhythm, it’s just more of 50 talking about how strapped and hard he is and how much money he makes. Addressing Jada, he says, “Homey, in New York, niggas like your vocals/But that’s only New York, dawg/Your ass is local.” He insults other rappers in a similar fashion, but he never once professes to be a better lyricist than any of his targets. He makes more money than the men he picks on, and his face is on more posters and store displays, but he knows not to put his mike-slinging talent up against theirs. More important, he doesn’t have to: His power comes from persuasion, not skill.
That power is truly tested with “Get in My Car”—only a true manipulator could get people to cop to liking a hook such as “I got no pickup lines/I stay on da grind/I tell the hoes all the time/Bitch get in my car.” Amazingly, 50’s nonchalant delivery almost makes the song as tight as he thinks it is, and producer Hi-Tek picks up the rest of the slack. The twangy guitar and soulful bass line the Rawkus track master throws at this clunker are the only things that move it beyond being a nastier reprisal of “P.I.M.P.”
Chart-topping single “Candy Shop” is more predictable, sugary smut, but it’s enticing. And since it’s being pumped by every club and radio station on the planet, it’s much easier to submit to its charms than pick apart its weaknesses. True, it’s a knockoff of “Magic Stick,” and Olivia, G-Unit’s first R&B diva, is a less able partner for 50 than Lil’ Kim, yet it has that fierce Bollywood beat and provides a break from the murder music that makes up most of the album: Em collab “Gatman and Robbin,” “Ski Mask Way,” “Gunz Come Out,” and so on.
There are a couple of tiny moments of false clarity and honesty on the album, which are heartening only because they signal that 50 knows he should at least attempt them. On “God Gave Me Style,” the rapper tries to wear his heart on his sleeve by talking about how grateful he is to have traded his triple-beam for a microphone and how he feels alone even when he’s surrounded by friends. But the sentiments are so clichéd that it’s hard to view them as genuine. And the album’s alleged love songs, “So Amazing” and “Build You Up,” can be dismissed as the silky gamesmanship of a skilled pimp.
But The Massacre does have one moment of genuine profundity that appears to have slipped in under the radar. On “A Baltimore Love Thing,” 50 plays the part of heroin, enticing a junkie to cook him up and shoot him into her veins. The idea isn’t a new one, but 50’s version plays the metaphorical similarities between unhealthy personal relationships and drug addiction for all they’re worth. “Now you tryin’ ta leave me/You’ll never live without me/Girl, I’m missin’ you/Come and see me soon/Tie your arm up, put that lighter under that spoon,” he rhymes. “Now put that needle to your arm, princess, stick it in/Relapse/You back bitch, don’t ever try that again.”
He also shouts out several horse-shooting celebs: Marvin Gaye, Ozzy Osbourne, Kurt Cobain, Frankie Lymon, and Jimi Hendrix. The move recalls 50’s gutsy 1999 single “How to Rob,” on which he comedically imagined which rappers would be soft enough to mug—a neat puncturing of gangster theatricality. Here, the target is the very same fame-fueled world the MC invokes reflexively almost everywhere else on The Massacre: “I be with rock stars, see you lucky I’m fuckin’ with you.” The lyrics are tied together nicely by an appropriate soul sample—a snippet of the Dells’ “I’ll Be Waiting There for You.” The entire track is hot, right down to the line in which 50 begs, “Promise me you’ll come and see me/Even if it means you have to sell your mama’s TV.” Coming from a guy who now lives and dies by the idiot box, that’s a powerful statement indeed.CP