Sunday, February 23, 2003

50 Cent's performance won't propel rapper to next level

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

He's No. 1 with a bullet, nine of them to be exact. Hardcore rapper 50 Cent is at the top of this week's album charts with his debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', a career milestone earned largely on the strength of his criminal and medical records.

The former includes being a juvenile crack dealer (his mom, who also sold drugs, was murdered when 50 Cent, then just known as Curtis Jackson, was 8 years old) and a recent arrest on weapons charges. The latter includes surviving being shot nine times in one attack in 2000, including once in the face.

In other words, 50 Cent is the rap equivalent of a TV reality show. He's earned the right to use the trappings of gangsta rap - the macho posturing, the guns, the drugs, the big cars and magnums of champagne. He's not a poseur pretending to be a gangsta; he's the real thing. He's a gangsta who has changed jobs, preferring the higher stakes of the rap game.

So when he came to town Tuesday to play the Next Level, an Over-the-Rhine club that has been plagued by patron shootings (always outside the venue), Cincinnati Police went on alert, with heavy patrols and street closings.

Stealing from the stage

The Next Level staff knew they had to keep things clean, and their frisking of patrons stopped just short of body cavity searches. As a result, the only violence in the club was fistfights, although there were dozens of them.

The real crime was 50 Cent's lame show. The rapper was onstage for just 40 minutes, rapping to pre-recorded tapes, with just a few lights and a minimal sound system. But that malt-liquor production came at Dom Perignon prices - $50-$100 per admission.

The only nod to showmanship was 50's bulletproof vest, which he quickly removed to show off his pecs. He also wears it in his promo photos, to drive home his backstory and assert, "I'm the real thing."

It's an attitude he has taken on record, most notably in his "How to Rob," which brags that if rapping doesn't pay off, he'll simply rob richer rappers, who, of course, aren't as tough as he is.

That kind of gunslinger attitude is found throughout pop music, the "real things" dissing the poseurs.

But must you be the "real thing" to write, sing or rap about it? Could Jeffrey Dahmer have written a better "Psycho Killer" than David Byrne?

In hip-hop, the gunslingers usually have real guns, a fact that has had deadly repercussions. 50's own mentor, Run DMC's Jam Master Jay, was shot and killed last October. Most notably, industry leaders Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were both shot to death.

Organic revolution

In recent years, gangsta rap seemed as if it was going out of style, replaced by a gentler, more organic approach, as rap acts like the Roots and OutKast featured live musicians and old-school soul arrangements.

But the thugs have been making a comeback, and 50's Svengalis - label owner Eminem and producer Dr. Dre - have been positioning the young rapper as the second coming of Tupac (though his smart-aleck sense of humor is closer to Eminem).

In the end, the real sucker MC may turn out to be 50 Cent. While he gets rich or dies trying, he'll be making Eminem and Dre richer still, and they're not the ones in that literal line of fire. Should the next nine bullets be a little more carefully aimed, the rap industry will simply move on to the next 50 Cent.

There will still be plenty of money to be made from the old 50 Cent. Both Tupac and Biggie have become posthumous industries, with every rhyme they ever recorded packaged and re-packaged on CD. You can bet your Escalade that the afterlife of 50 Cent would be mined just as thoroughly.

Little originality

One way or another, it seems unlikely that 50 Cent will be around for long. Even if he's not the victim of the violence he raps about (on recordings punctuated by rhythmic automatic weapons fire), the novelty of his thug act is sure to wear off.

His boss has stayed at the top of the game for many reasons, not the least of which are Eminem's unique point of view (dysfunctional, trailer-trash white kid), his imaginative rhyming skills and the hard-edged production of Dr. Dre.

But once you get beyond 50 Cent's lurid biography and his cocky attitude, there's not much to sustain interest. We've all heard those gangsta themes many times before, and 50's pedestrian rhymes and mush-mouthed delivery don't make the thug life sound any fresher.

Even on the night he came to play Cincinnati, 50 Cent couldn't hold his crowd. When the people who have paid as much as $100 to see you quietly leave your show without demanding an encore, it doesn't bode well for your future.

A fickle audience is one bullet even the toughest thug can't dodge.


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