50 Cent: Road Scholar - MTV.com Feature
50 Cent wants nothing more than to literally end his show at Jones Beach Theater with a bang. The crowd in Wantagh, New York, has already seen him rap a bevy of tracks from his mixtapes and his official debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin', bring Snoop Dogg and some "black girls gone wild" onstage, and jump from 10 feet in the air to the ground. Now it's time for the finale, where he'll be rhyming over bass and gunshots. The only thing stopping him is that his DJ, Whoo Kid, is not ready.
"I don't know what the last song is," Whoo Kid shouts down from high above on the stage set, while the crowd looks on, bewildered.
" 'Heat,' di--head," 50 yells back with a mixture of amusement and agitation at the miscue. That's the last song they've been performing every night.
While on the Rock the Mic Tour, 50 knows his shows have to be near flawless. He's following some of the best performers in the game every night, and up until August 5, when the Roc-A-Fella camp ended its stint on the trek, 50 had to go on before Jay-Z's Broadway-like production.
On the streets, airwaves and in stores, there aren't any names that hold more weight than 50 Cent's right now. Before the 27-year-old became the current king of rap with the release of his album in February, he was already the king of the streets, blessed with the biggest buzz in the 'hood since the Notorious B.I.G. His credibility, gained off the strength of his own mixtapes and various appearances on other street CDs, has helped propel the sonically relentless Get Rich or Die Tryin' to sales of more than 6 million units worldwide.
But onstage, 50 hasn't even cracked the top 10 yet.
With his status growing by the week, he never had the opportunity to sit in the wings and learn performance technique before being presented to the public. Last year when a pre-"In Da Club" 50 was selling out clubs solely on the strength of his mixtapes, at times it felt like he didn't have any direction in his live set. The segue from song to song wasn't always smooth, some tracks seemed to come out of nowhere and pull the energy down, his pronunciation wasn't always crisp and his G-Unit hypemen would sometimes be too hype, out-shouting his lyrics with their ad-libs.
50 has, however, shown to be a quick study. During the past 10 months — especially over the summer — his skills have been improving. As the venues he's been performing in continue to grow in size and capacity, Southside Jamaica, Queens' finest has been stepping his game up. He's attending a school-without-walls of sorts, getting a hands-on education in live performance by sharing time in venues with the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott and rap's preeminent live showman, Busta Rhymes. Not to mention that tour veteran Dr. Dre is always a phone call or T-Mobile Sidekick page away.
"I watch a lot of these n---as," 50 says about his tourmates. "That's how you learn."
Fellow New Yorker and proven purveyor of excitement Busta Rhymes has been a helpful advisor to 50 while on the road with Rock the Mic. Onstage, looking at Busta is like watching a mixture of a cartoon, a corner freestyle rap cipher, a wrestler and a rock star. Busta's breath control and articulation are immaculate, he jumps and dances all over the stage, he physically acts out lines from his raps and he's more energetic with each track he performs.
"Every night Busta is probably one of the most charismatic guys onstage," 50 explains. "He'll come out and be like, 'Yo, man! If you just change [up your order of songs], if you do that song in front of that record right there, it's a wrap! I don't see how anybody is gonna be able to survive out here.' I switched up too. I'm learning, I'm open to anybody's suggestions as long as it makes sense to me."
Using trial and error with his playlist, 50 now has a set that he feels appeals to all his fans.
"I got like a favorite six records," 50 says. "It's the first six records I perform: 'What Up Gangsta,' 'Wanksta,' 'Back Down,' 'High All the Time,' 'In Da Club,' 'P.I.M.P.' It's the way you set up and how you position the show."
As 50 is discovering, a road scholar doesn't only learn from one-on-one consultations. One can quickly pick up skills by observation. And one thing 50 has learned from watching the mighty from the wings is that whether you're jumping off speakers or simply standing in the middle of the stage, it's all about knowing how to work your crowd.
Jay-Z is probably the performer closest to 50 in his stage presentation. Jigga doesn't sing, dance or bring a live band onstage like Snoop Dogg, he doesn't yell or threaten to jump in the crowd like Busta Rhymes, he relies more on his stage guests and dancers for that hype factor. Young Hova's expertise lies in how he feeds off of the kinetic energy of his songs and manipulates the crowd to his benefit.
Jay will stop rhyming in the middle of a verse while the fans are rapping along and make them finish his lyrics. He'll rhyme a cappella so everyone can feel and hear the brilliance of his lyrics. And as 50 has seen, Jay-Z will also keep the crowd guessing.
"Jay's probably the coolest guy alive..."
"Jay is a different type of performer," 50 observes. "Jay's probably the coolest guy alive. He's not gonna sweat, he's not gonna move. He pulled a G move on me last night. He got up and [slowly raised and waved his hands, beckoning the crowd]. That's experience from him being around and knowing that [a simple move like that is] effective. Ahead of him doing that, he had no movement. So the crowd was looking around waiting for him to do something. Then when he did something they knew to respond."
One of the most obvious changes in 50's live show is his stage set. Long gone are the days where he can get away with just going onstage with a banner with his name and logo up there to represent him. As he's seen by watching Slim Shady's Anger Management set and the July Detroit concerts, a true superstar has to have staging that not only embodies the feel of their music, but dazzles the audience as well.
While Em chose a carnival setting, 50 has opted to stick close to home of late, using a set with replicas of Big Apple skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty. As Dr. Dre proved with the Up in Smoke Tour a few years back, a set isn't just a piece of eye candy — it's an integral part of your show. The Dr. rolled out such props as lowriders and smoking skulls to bring his productions to life. 50 now uses pyro, confetti, his "Many Men" music video and 10-foot-high leaps out of the New York skyline to spruce up his show.
50's life on the road hasn't blurred his focus on making music. After all, that's why everyone is coming to see him in the first place. He rarely stays up all night partying after shows; instead, he rests up for an early morning wakeup or lays down vocals with his longtime producer, Sha Money XL, on his studio tour bus. Besides finishing the G-Unit album, Lock and Load, he's practicing the first lesson he learned once he became a superstar: You can't let your street credibility slip.
"We always put out a mixtape 'cause you gotta keep your presence in the street..."
"We do a mixtape for everything we do, put it right onto the street," he says. "We always put out a mixtape 'cause you gotta keep your presence in the street. [Fans] start to doubt you ... if you don't consistently keep something hot in front of them. So I keep it out there."
With the mixtape game under his thumb and Get Rich or Die Tryin' resting comfortably in the upper reaches of the Billboard albums chart, 50 obviously has two-thirds of his game well in hand. If he continues to absorb the fine points of live performance at his current rate, he should be a complete rap superstar by the time his second solo LP goes double platinum.