When 50 Cent emerged seemingly out of nowhere in late 2002, he personified an inexorable aura of braggadocio, shit-talking and youthful hunger. He appeared as equally equipped to unblinkingly slaughter established rivals as to profitably align with superstar allies (most notably Dr. Dre and Eminem). If his verbal bloodying of Ja Rule and Murder Inc. in the days anticipating his debut felt a bit obvious to all but the most benighted pedestrian, it still satisfied our great American thirst for public bloodletting, almost as much as his believable back story played into our national fetishization of true-story melodrama and “real-life” authenticity. As a hustler from a broken family, 50 lived what rappers merely represented, rising from crack dealer to rapper, surviving incarceration, stabbing and, most notoriously, shooting.
In short, before he even had an official album release to his name, 50 Cent was poised to conquer in the tradition of rap’s great rookies: Snoop, Nas, Biggie, et al. If Get Rich or Die Tryin’ sounds a bit tame four years after the dust has settled, it can still impress merely on the pure swagger and hunger to succeed palpable in 50’s performance. But the hype-driven foundations that built the indomitable lummox’s empire have managed to chip away his power since his awe-inspiring debut. The rapper who’s more talk than walk has really only proved as successful as his zeitgeist. As 50 the millionaire street hustler feels a less and less sustainable conceit, on his third album, Curtis, the bully’s old boasts and jabs sound increasingly one-note and tiresome. And as fresh as club-popper formulas like “In da Club” and “Magic Stick” sounded early on, blatant sub-facsimiles “Candy Shop” (from 2005’s The Massacre) and this year’s insanely dumb “Amusement Park” (a mid-2007 single that appears on Curtis) sound, well, insanely dumb.
The move from iconoclast pariah to established insider — an inevitable consequence of mainstream success — has damaged 50 Cent perhaps more than other rappers in similar positions, and Curtis feels more like the crisis of positioning that The Massacre hinted at. Thematically the album’s title suggests a look into a realer side of 50’s personality (his birth name, of course, is Curtis Jackson) but it’s really just a frustrating fifty-fifty split (no pun intended) of the rapper’s now-trademark rough-lover jams and his mostly routine gangsta poses: guns, drugs, money and all the other illicit activities that we are supposed to believe the second-richest rap earner of 2006 has been participating in during the last few years.
The only lover-boy rap that really excites is current single “Ayo Technology,” courtesy of producer Timbaland and guest chorus-crooner Justin Timberlake. Elsewhere “Peep Show,” “All of Me” and the aforementioned “Amusement Park” are the kind of Casanova grinders that always seem more cynically intent on bankability than their ostensible chivalrous ingratiation toward lady fans. (What female fan doesn’t quiver with the acute dysphoria of “a fiend on crack” in the presence of the thuggish ruggish millionaire rapper?) We can assume that women are probably lining around 50’s block (or the outside of his Connecticut mansion) just for a chance to model in lingerie, be called a bitch and get pissed and shit on just for the ephemeral thrill of pulling their drawers to the side (50 assures “you ain’t gotta take your panties off” per se) and being manhandled. Eminem’s brief appearance on “Peep Show” continues his recent streak of seemingly existing solely to drop disgusting (and unbecomingly self-parodying) verses on other people’s records.
But let’s admit that Curtis the lover has always been a dubious proposition. If anything, 50 Cent the money-making G-Unit general should still a force to be reckoned with. “I got an arsenal an infantry/ I’m built for this mentally/ that’s why I’m the general/ I do what they pretend to do,” 50 forcefully boasts on “I’ll Still Kill,” which features the built-in strange atmospherics of an Akon guest spot. Indeed, grimy gutter tracks like “Man Down” and “Curtis 187” are the album’s strongest. The best, “I Get Money,” features a hypnotic Apex synth-flare beat as 50 posits himself as the “Teflon Don” whose stake in the Glaceau sale to Coca-Cola was just another hustle for the fuck of it.
But can we really continue to suspend our disbelief for blatantly ridiculous posing on “Fully Loaded Clip”; here 50 claims, “While Jay and Beyonce was mm-mm kissing/ I was cooking a thousand grams in my kitchen/ While Nas was telling Kelis “I love you, boo”/ I was shinin’ my nine, you know how I do.” If anything, something like “Clip” might’ve sounded killer back in ’03, but in 2007 it sounds meritless. What’s missing where these lame boasts exist in Curtis is the vulnerability of moments on The Massacre (especially “A Baltimore Love Thing”) or any of the rich narrative that graced his first album, not to mention any of the goofy, sing-along catchiness that previously made his singles chart events. (All of his pre-Curtis singles have made disappointing appearances on the charts.) Musically 50’s collaborators don’t feel like they’ve brought anything near their best to the table.
But Curtis suffers most acutely from 50’s presentation of his power and success as a fait accompli where lately it’s seemed like anything but. His excessively contrived public beef with Kanye West in the promo rounds to their (perhaps ill-chosen) September 11 chart showdown has recast him as the bully we aren’t really rooting for anymore. His more real beef with Lil’ Wayne, who, as an infinitely abler emcee, appears hardly motivated to even issue a riposte, only highlights 50’s role as a better trash-talker than rhymer. If Curtis possessed the inspiration of a man whose rep were as at stake as it appears to be, of a man with even half the drive as the one who dodged the sniper’s fatal bullet Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 2007 may well have been the year 50 truly ruled. But its failure will inevitably continue to cast more shadow upon his empire.