Since releasing 2007’s depressingly middling Curtis, 50 Cent has kept comparatively quiet. The mindless feuds with Fat Joe and Rick Ross garnered media attention, but otherwise 50 has been blessedly regulated to the shadows, the result of a weary and jaded record-buying public. His once-intriguing persona — the suave and articulate yet vehement pop-rap titan whose music is defined by an isolative, disgusted nihilism but who has enough showbiz-ready charisma to wow Vivica A. Fox and the editors at GQ — lost its luster a half-decade ago, and the occasional glimmer of apprehension is the only remotely interesting thing about 50’s recent activities. He realizes that in this age of slogging unemployment rates and rampant foreclosures, the world isn’t willing to purchase millions of copies of a stale product regardless of how much pot-stirring controversy is involved, and he’s visibly concerned: On the slow, somber track “Flight 187,” he takes aim at everyone from in-house producer Dr. Dre to the mother of his son, struggling to make sense of his turbulent life and demonstrating both irrational bluster and sorrow in the process.
At times on Before I Self-Destruct, 50’s desperation is palpable. He samples “I Get Money” on the glitzy ballad “Baby By Me” in a feeble attempt to recapture the energy of his last truly well-received piece of work. And on the halting “So Disrespectful,” he mocks familiar targets such as the Game and Young Buck. Although the exercise is bolder than most of Curtis (a record that came loaded with passionless bravado and monotonous, leaden taunts at anonymous foes), it fails to reach the ferociously exciting highs of classic diss tracks like “Wanksta” and “Back Down.” Smug, self-amused malice has been 50’s niche since “How to Rob,” but you’d hope that he would have outgrown such a facade by now, as a 34-year-old man more than a decade into his career.
Otherwise, 50 is still irrefutably 50: emptily romantic, ill-tempered, spiteful, and consumed by the idea of striking back at whomever might be his nemesis this week. (Jay-Z? Lil Wayne? An army of YouTube commenters? Bette Midler?) He has an undeniable charm and often exhibits a relaxed sense of humor in interviews, but he rarely employs it on record; instead, he raps like a black, burly Ebenezer Scrooge, grumbling and plotting revenge amidst the hollow seclusion of his Connecticut estate. If the woes of ghetto life hardened 50, wealth and clout haven’t helped. The hecklers continue to grow louder, and the supporters continue to decrease. Even those close to him are sources of infuriation; 50 makes ex-girlfriend Shaniqua Tompkins the focal point of his bile on the swanky number “Do You Think About Me,” pleading with her to simply accept his child support and leave him alone. This coldly reclusive attitude manifests itself in more than just the lyrical content: Tellingly, the only other rapper who appears over the course of Before I Self-Destruct’s 16 tracks is Eminem. Whereas Gucci Mane and Kanye West expanded their repertoires this year by collaborating with dozens of acts, 50’s villainous nature has rendered him a hermit, one that every pop figure makes a clear effort to avoid.
Still, the pessimism that hangs over Before I Self-Destruct is made a little less noticeable by the newfound enthusiasm with which 50 sometimes rhymes. He still has his moments of squirm-inducing lethargy, but the album features some of the more adept, dynamic flows 50 has waxed in years, particularly on “Crime Wave” and unadorned boom-bap single “Stretch,” the latter of which finds him engaging in Jadakiss-esque Pyrex-talk (fitting, since his hoarse vocals on the track bare a strong resemblance to those of Jada). Most impressively, he exudes confidence even in the presence of mainstream rap’s most colossal talent. Eminem’s recent Alfred Hitchcock phase might be carefully calculated — the masses are enticed by spooky psychodrama, and one of Em’s greatest strengths is his mass appeal — but he’s an intensely skilled rapper regardless of what he’s talking about, something that his verse on “Psycho” beautifully exemplifies. Em weaves around the measured, pulsating bleeps with a flow so devastatingly complex that you hardly notice the hackneyed references to Mike Myers, Christopher Reeves, and NyQuil. And 50 follows suit, emulating Shady’s slippery, multi-syllabic cadence.
But these bursts of energy are tempered by the sad fact that 50 hasn’t evolved as an artist since Bush’s first term. He clearly yearns to evoke the mixture of fun and grit that made Get Rich or Die Tryin’ such a remarkable effort, but he’s misguided in his approach. Tuneless electro-pop travesties like “Hold Me Down” certainly aren’t fun, and there’s nothing frightening about drab, listless attempts at gutter-rap like “Gangsta’s Delight.” Even tracks that tread closer to menacing territory, like “Crime Wave” and “OK, You’re Right,” thud and trudge along blandly, no agreeable melody in site. To be sure, the dusty minimalism of “Death to My Enemies” and soulful, organ-enhanced groove of “Then Days Went By” are relative highlights, but even they positively pale in comparison to “If I Can’t,” “Wanna Get to Know You,” “Ski Mask Way,” or “I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy,” rousing anthems that used to be staples on even the worst 50 Cent albums. For a guy who’s so eager to recapture the magic of his zenith, 50 seems to have very little conception of what made his older works enjoyable in the first place.