50 Cent: Suddenly Interesting Again
His first ever non-shirtless album cover?
For a little while there, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't ever like another 50 Cent song again. These days, it seems like a million years since Get Rich or Die Tryin' came out, since we all got excited about a dude who could croon sticky pop hooks just as convincingly as he could snarl threats to splatter your brain on the sidewalk and who wasn't afraid to name names and call out other rappers for sucking. (Never forget: if not for 50, Ja Rule might still have a career.) For a couple of years, 50 seemed to be making good on his potential: making monster hit singles, assembling a decent rap crew whose albums actually sold pretty well, having the balls to take shots at Jay-Z even when he was on tour with the guy. But ever since he kicked Game out of his little clubhouse, he's been on a two-year ego-binge, and he's been trying his hardest to hit bottom since 2007 rolled around and it became pretty obvious that anything stamped with the G-Unit name would tank. His pointless mini-feud with Cam'ron actually managed to make both of them look bad. He showed up on HBO's De La Hoya/Mayweather 24-7 looking batshit-ass crazy, rolling around on a Segway and trading catchphrases with the show's obvious villain. He threatened to kick everyone except useless-ass Tony Yayo out of G-Unit. More important than any of that stuff, he released "Straight the the Bank" and "Fully Loaded Clip" and "Amusement Park," three singles that sounded like dogshit, completely failed to catch on anywhere, and went a long way toward eroding whatever goodwill he might have had left. After his bizarrely botched performance at last week's BET Awards, I was pretty sure that he'd totally lost his mind and descended into his Fat Elvis/Neverland Ranch stage. It probably had to happen sooner or later; not too many superstar artists can cope with the constant pressure to top their successes or seriously consider the possibility that their careers might be spiraling downward. It actually came as something of a shock when 50 visibly dorked out on KRS-One and Marley Marl when on Rap City; it had just become too easy to believe that he didn't really give a damn about rap anymore. But this week, 50 managed to surprise me, leaking two good songs within a couple of days of each other. Turns out he might have some fight left in him after all.
50's long-ballyhooed collaboration with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake finally hit the internet yesterday, and shockingly enough, it actually delivers. (It's not altogether clear what the song's title is yet, but most of what I've read has been calling it "She Want It," so that's what I'll call it.) It would be a real mistake to look to "She Want It" for anything lyrically brilliant; as far as that goes, the song is dumb as fuck, and gleefully so. It's a sex song, 50 running through the same rote come-ons he's been using for years now, Justin adding some deeply inexplicable stuff ("Ayo, I'm tired of using technology / Why don't you get on top of me?") What's more interesting is 50's delivery. He sticks hard to the beat but finds so much room to play around with melody that it doesn't seem all that egregious when Justin actually harmonizes with him in the background. On parts of the second verse, he actually sounds almost exactly like circa-now R. Kelly, finding that exact same middle-ground between singing and talking. And Timbaland's track finds a predictably space-age context for all this stuff. Layers upon layers of cotton-candy trance synths fizz and flutter over everything, and the drums, if that's even the right word, sound like rain dripping through a leaky roof. Tim laudably ignores the temptation to rap on the song, just murmuring a couple of lines on the chorus and otherwise keeping his voice out of it. I'm done trying to figure out which songs have a shot at becoming hits, but "She Want It" at least sounds like it could be a hit, which is more than I can say of any of 50's other recent singles. If this article is to be believed, G-Unit has long used the low-overhead cost-cutting strategy of using beats from relatively unknown producers and then refusing to pay them. But it looks like 50 has finally sapped that approach for all it's worth; if this song is any indication, he seems to be realizing that he needs to find the best help he can buy.
Or maybe not. "I Get Money," the other new 50 song, comes with a whole lot of evidence of 50's beat-jacking flagrance, but it's still the best thing he's done since "Pearly Gates" or "I'll Whip Ya Head." I'm not sure who produced the track, but it's a monster: the instantly recognizable, timelessly awkward drum-loop from Audio Two's "Top Billin'" underneath massive gurgling synths, at once forward- and backward-looking, sort of along the same line as Dizzee Rascal's ridiculously great "Pussy'ole (Oldskool)." (If this sort of menacing synthed-up boom-bap production is an emerging trend, then I am a happy guy.) It's also not the least bit original; the white Massachusetts rapper Jimmie Hoffa, who I'd never heard of before yesterday, used the exact same track first, though evidence from his MySpace page will show that he doesn't sound anywhere near as good as 50 on that beat. 50's first couple of lines in "I Get Money" are just head-spinning in their sneering arrogance: "I took quarter-water, sold it in bottles for two bucks / Coca-Cola came and bought it for billions, what the fuck." This shit is hilarious. First, he implies that he invented Vitamin Water, rather than just endorsing a flavor that sort of tasted like Tums after the brand was already well-established. And he also basically laughs at the product that had his name on the label, going so far as to call it overpriced sugar-water. And he finds a way to allude to the hundreds of millions that he supposedly made from the sale of Vitamin Water, turning it into a bemused shrug rather than gloating about it. It's mean-spirited as hell; the minute he no longer has anything to lose, he turns on the company that probably paid him more than rap ever will, but it's also wickedly funny. And then, immediately afterward: "Have a baby by me, baby, be a millionaire / I write the check before the baby comes, who the fuck cares." 50's baby's mother is trying to formalize his child-support arrangement, which seems like a pretty reasonable thing to be doing when your baby's father is a multi-millionaire, but here 50 just ridicules her. As uses of public visibility go, that's reprehensible, but once again, it's funny. If you're going to consciously and willfully play the role of rap's supervillain, which is what 50's been doing for at least two years, you need to take some joy in the role. The rest of "I Get Money" is all ostentatious consumption and death-threats, but for the first time in a while, he sounds exhilarated, not mechanical. He's still an asshole, but maybe now he's an asshole who doesn't take himself quite so seriously.