50 Cent's Empire Crumbles
Ferrari, I'm sorry
Scene one: Wednesday afternoon, September 12. 50 Cent is hosting Rap City, grinning huge at the camera. He's in good spirits, which leads me to believe that he taped the show a few days before it aired. "It's September 12, which means it's the day after I went platinum!" Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, Whoo Kid, Havoc, and Prodigy shuffle around quietly in the background, playing pool and laughing at 50's jokes. Young Buck is less quiet; he keeps screaming "We the best!" over and over, making fun of DJ Khaled. 50 calmly agrees: "We are, Buck." 50 plays the "Can't Tell Me Nothing" video and praises Hype Williams. Then he brings in Soulja Boy, interviews the 17-year-old kid, tries to be nice even though he's obviously bored. Soulja Boy is tiny compared to 50. He sits next to 50 almost cringing, painfully nervous, mumbling stuff about his record label and his clothing line. When they come back from commercial, 50 says he's here with Soulja Boy and Soulja Boy sheepishly says "yooo!," almost whispers it. 50 seems to be having fun intimidating Soulja Boy. He gets Soulja Boy to stand up and do his dance. Then he says he's going to try it. "I'ma thug it out, though, because they know who I am." 50 crosses his legs and slaps the back of his foot, the two parts of the Soulja Boy dance that any able-bodied person can do. Then he crosses his arms, scowls at the camera, and nods his head, refusing to finish the dance, clowning the fuck out of the kid. The G-Unit guys laugh like wolves in the background. Later, Jim Jones shows up to form strategic alliances and distance himself from Cam'ron. Jones says he has a new label deal pending that he doesn't want to announce yet. He also says that he has his money on 50 in the sales-battle. During the final fadeout, Young Buck slightly switches up his routine: "You can't tell me nothing, Kanye! We the best, Kanye!"
Scene two: Tuesday evening, 50's getting ready to do a show in Springfield, Massachusetts. He's disembarking his private plane with the rest of G-Unit behind him, and a local TV news reporter shows up to interview him. Someone must've already told 50 that Kanye West is on pace to outsell him by a pretty wide margin. He looks tired and haggard and disappointed. The news reporter asks him a couple of painfully obvious questions, and he wearily runs through his usual talking points. Then he veers off-script. Responding to a question about how his new album is different from the other two, he starts venting about the expectations on him: "Between each project, there's a shadow of a doubt cast over every artist. They don't ask if I make good music; they say, 'Do you think you can do it again?" when it may be impossible to do it again. Considering my first album sold twelve million records, my second album's about nine million worldwide, right now with technology, it may be physically impossible for me to sell that many units. Then you take an artist who hasn't had half the track record as me with the history of the sales. They put him there because his company is willing to spend the marketing dollars, and you have the public believing that he's actually my equal, as far as Kanye West is concerned." Weirdly, 50's outburst comes with no change in tone or facial expression; he just keeps talking in the same flat monotone. The reporter, having no idea what to make of any of this, asks him whether there's any "brawl" (?) between him and Kanye or whether it's just marketing. 50: "Its marketing from their standpoint ... When I've sold so many more records than he has, it's in their favor, if you can change the public's perspective of it." The reporter, desperately searching for a softball question, asks him to take viewers through a day in the life of 50 Cent. 50 says that a typical day might involve doing promo, climbing on private jets, and then he breaks character again: "It seems exciting, but after a while it's not exciting. I'm not really excited to go sell a record." He says he may never make another album, says that if he does make another album he won't travel to promote it. The reporter, finally catching on, asks if he's burned out. "Not burned out," says 50. "I just feel like I don't want to do it anymore." Most of this never makes it to air, but the entire unedited interview inevitably makes its way to YouTube.
50's right when he talks about how he was set up to lose in the Kanye competition. By releasing his album on the same day as Kanye, 50 made the other guy the underdog, himself the villain. 50 was an underdog when he first came up, so it's hard to see why he didn't understand what was happening during the release-date buildup, how the narrative was writing itself. If projections prove correct, and they almost never do, Curtis will sell about 500,000 copies in its first week. That'll mean it's had the second-best opening weekend of any rap album this year, well behind Kanye and just ahead of T.I. That's pretty good, especially during a time when barely any rapper can manage to go gold. It's not good enough for 50, though. The competition might've all been a big marketing ploy, the sales from both Curtis and Graduation might go to benefit the same group of investors, but 50 wanted to win, and he doesn't seem able to process the idea that he's losing. It's not fun to watch. 50 Cent is a good rapper; in Get Rich or Die Tryin', he had a debut album I liked better than College Dropout. But the robotic bulletproof superhero persona he's developed just isn't interesting, and it doesn't make for a whole lot of particularly good music. It would be an oversimplification to say that Graduation succeeds where Curtis fails because Kanye allows himself to look like a human being rather than a Terminator, but it's certainly a part of the album's success. 50 can still pull a titanic anthem out of his inhuman swagger every so often, and I'll take "I Get Money" over any single track on Graduation. But it's not sustainable. Last night, 50 did a show at Hammerstein Ballroom, and Jim Jones and Juelz Santana came out to join him. On Rap City, 50 and Jones played with the rumor that Jones was signing with G-Unit. If it actually happens, maybe those guys can help 50 relearn how to play the scrappy street-level underdog. Probably not, but maybe.
Yesterday, a new non-album 50 Cent song called "Smile" leaked. I don't know how long ago 50 recorded the song, but on it he vents the same frustration he showed in that Springfield TV interview and in the interview he gave Hot 97 on the morning of September 12. "My next album might be my last," he singsongs on the hook. The first verse tells of industry people telling him to calm down: "I guess I'm outta control / My mind, body, and soul / Tell me I'm being pimped / And it's making me sick / You know Em made that company over a billion dollars / And when he ain't around they saying foul shit about him." Later, he bitches about how Oprah will talk to Kanye (who, if what I've read online is true, produced the track) but not to him. And then: "Met Al Gore and his wife in them first-class seats / She said she didn't like rap until she met me / You gotta understand, I'm a charming young man / A whole lot has been changed since I went hand-to-hand." I don't for a second believe that story, but I love the audacity. Rap has never had a greater public enemy than Tipper Gore, and here 50 is saying that he changed her mind on charm alone. And that's the real triumphant story behind 50 Cent: the idea that someone made it out of hellish circumstances, life-threatening injuries, and industry bullshit, becoming the world's biggest star just on the force of his own natural charisma and intelligence and craft. But when he isolates himself and stops allowing us to see him as a human, that story loses its magic, and he eventually ceases to be the world's biggest star. On the outro, he rants further: "You should be happy, you know? I just want you to be happy. Smile for me. If I gotta go away to make you feel better, I'll go away." All of a sudden, he sounds more like a person than he has in a couple of years. And if he allows himself to stay human this time, he might pull himself back up to where he once was.
Voice review: Greg Tate on 50 Cent's Curtis
Voice review: Greg Tate on 50 Cent's The Massacre
Voice review: Kris Ex on 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin'