50 Cent: Of Self-Destruction And Holding Still
There are no second acts for supervillains, especially if they manage to conquer the world. In the early part of the century, 50 Cent rose to fame as hip-hop's resident antihero, and has been witnessing diminishing commercial returns ever since. The winkingly titled Before I Self Destruct is a statement of non-statement; it finds 50 Cent quietly settling comfortably into his niche. "This is how monsters function," goes the sampled intro to "Then Day Went By."
Curtis, from 2007, still found him trying to extend his celebrity with large overground singles like the Justin Timberlake-aided "Ayo Technology." The album was a relative flop. A few similar pop songs turn up on Before I Self Destruct — the R. Kelly collaboration "Could've Been You" or the current single, "Baby By Me" — but they seem like afterthoughts, a necessary concession to get his label to actually release the album. (In 2009, most major labels are unwilling to waste a release date on a hitless rapper.) At its core, the album is classically raw 50 Cent — eyes-down rapping, sparse songwriting, mournful boom-bap productions and, yes, antisocial provocation.
He mocks the drug habits and contractual obligations of one-time protégés Young Buck and Game (respectively) and chides the mother of his children in "So Disrespectful." He sends not-so-subtly coded jabs at Lil Wayne in "Death to My Enemies." ("This ain't The Carter, n---- / This is Sparta.") This impish hostility is likely the very reason he hasn't been able to ingratiate himself to a long-term mainstream audience on the level that, say, Jay-Z has. But 50 Cent revels in it nonetheless.
These aren't the types of records that made 50 Cent a choice Entertainment Tonight topic; they're more like the ones that had made him a barbershop hero a few years earlier. And this is an odd phenomenon in hip-hop: Rarely does an artist make that pop ascension and then return to his roots — not without sounding desperate, at least. But 50 Cent is smarter than most. He could easily have aimed for another "In Da Club"-style blockbuster, and maybe he would have succeeded eventually, but he would have further alienated his core audience in the process. He understands this, and has taken his money, gone home and repositioned himself to where he's most comfortable. Besides, it's a lot easier to play the underdog when you have millions of dollars to fall back on.
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