This may sound ridiculous at first glance, but 50 Cent‘s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was far and away the most anticipated hip-hop debut of the past decade. That argument is bolstered by the fact that anticipation means something completely different now than it did on February 6, 2003. Only one hip-hop album since then has replicated Get Rich‘s ungodly sales numbers — 900,000 sales in the first week, four No. 1 singles, eventually 8x Platinum in the US — and that would be Outkast‘s hip-pop behemoth double album, which came out in the same year and didn’t move nearly as many units its first week.
But now, hip-hop has been forever democratized and, with the aid of sites like Dat Piff and Nah Right, a 16-year-old rapper can get the attention of Kanye West thanks to one song, while a 22-year-old MC can sign to a major label before dropping a proper mixtape. 50 Cent (real name Curtis Jackson) is partly responsible for this decentralization: he spent the eight years preceding Get Rich hustling in New York City’s analog hip-hop underground (for perspective, his first credited appearance was on a goddamn Onyx single), making a name for himself by taking the hottest beats from established rappers and flipping them with better hooks and menacing verses about his street-level drug king experiences.
That he somehow survived getting shot nine times in front of his grandmother’s house in 2000 only added to his mythology as a larger-than-life embodiment of the streets, and the incident gave media outlets a big, juicy hook for their coverage. And so, once 50 was noticed by Eminem and signed a $1 million record deal with Shady/Aftermath, it was inevitable that his first single, 2002′s “Wanksta,” would become ubiquitous. The momentum for Get Rich was unstoppable, and at the ripe age of 26, Fiddy found himself at the center of the biggest hip-hop event in years.
Unbelievably, the debut album exceeded the hype, delivering 15 tracks of pure gangsta rap bliss that were wildly entertaining and graphically violent in equal measure. Fif’s abilities as a pure wordsmith were somewhat lacking compared to, say, Eminem. But that didn’t matter thanks to his vividly sociopathic personality and uncanny ability to throw a sticky hook on damn near every song.
It also helped that the album itself was cultivated by Dr. Dre, who put together a roster of beats that rivaled those assembled on his own comeback record, 2001. Get Rich‘s blueprint for success was quickly apparent on monster debut single “In Da Club” (which spent 100 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100). Dre’s beat was relatively spartan by today’s standards — pulsing infectiously with that simple timpani-and-canned-strings motif — but it perfectly complemented 50′s insouciant, arrogant flow (“In the hood, in L.A. they saying ’50 you hot’ / They like me, I want them to love me like they love ‘Pac”).
Dre knew how to play directly to Fiddy’s strengths while limiting the opportunities to poke holes in his relatively one-dimensional rhymes. It’s even easier to forgive 50 Cent’s weaknesses when the tracks that aim for mainstream domination so flawlessly stick the landing. “21 Questions” contains a beat that oozes with pure coolness and a chorus from a smoother-than-smooth Nate Dogg, while “P.I.M.P.” is a steel drum-driven pop-rap slam dunk during which 50 barely breaks a sweat. The best beat on the album, though, belongs to Dre’s hard hitting piano line on “If I Can’t” (probably used on every episode of Cribs), which has Fiddy joyously boasting about his impending success in yet another killer chorus: “If I can’t do it, homie, it can’t be done!”
But when Curtis zeroes back in on making serious threats, he finds himself in quicksand. Make no mistake, Get Rich was not The Infamous, and 50′s view of the street was a warped celebration of the thug life and his sturdy reputation as a man not to be fucked with. Where Mobb Deep would take a song like “Many Men (Wish Death Upon Me)” and turn it into a dark, paranoid plague, Fiddy makes it a relative jam, taking Digga Branch‘s classic G-funk beat an as opportunity to clown on anyone who wants him killed. “Patiently Waiting,” on the other hand, focuses on 50′s struggle for success in hip-hop, not the streets, and quickly turns violent regardless: “If the gun squad hearing all the shots go off / It’s 50, they say it’s 50 / See a n***a laid out with his fucking top blown off / It’s 50.”
50 Cent viewed the rap game as a war to be won, and viewed his former street life as a cartoon just waiting to be overblown in IMAX and exploited to sell records. In hip-hop this is nothing new, and for most of his career, that formula sold millions of records (2005 follow-up The Massacre went 5x Platinum). But on his more recent releases — specifically the disastrous Before I Self Destruct — the gangsta superhero persona has not aged gracefully. And judging from the tracks released from his upcoming album Street King Immortal, 50′s still trying to play the part of an untouchable street godfather, even if he’s doing it from his mansion in Connecticut surrounded by crates of Vitaminwater and SMS headphones.
But for a stretch in the early 2000s, Fif’s real-life credibility as a narco-pushing badass was an essential piece of his perceived charisma, providing a truly terrifying context to his hard-as-nails rhymes and gun-riddled boasts. 50 Cent never sounded hungrier than he did in 2003, making Get Rich or Die Tryin’ one of the most intensely entertaining blockbuster hip-hop albums ever made.
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