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Whether the motivations stem from a Derrideian desire to transform our monsters into pets, a post-feminist need to latch onto a lost sense of dominant masculinity, the streets' unquenchable thirst for heroes, or simply a quest for a compelling urban narrative, hip-hop's obsession with the gangsta has dominated the genre for more than a decade. It has resulted in political pundits-- many, it must be noted, with latently racist agendas-- dismissing the entire culture as violent, misogynistic, and ultimately destructive. Stylistically, gangsta is a mesh of Cinema Verite and action blockbusters, where the grime and moral ambivalence of the crack trade clash with the unmitigated bravado of playa anthems. At its best, gangsta delves into these contradictions-- the pull between community and wealth, morality and survival-- with a deftness and wit alternately charming and horrifying.

Unfortunately, Get Rich or Die Tryin' rarely reaches these pinnacles; for most of the album's duration, 50 wallows in the genre's clichés. The wit is sparse, the details are slim, and the threats are hollow. This isn't as much a moral quarrel as it is one of thematic development. Biggie came with the soul, Pac came with the charisma, L. had the wit, and Nas had the words. But, with the exception of a few quality verses sprinkled here and there, 50 strikes as a parody of these masters, and does little on his debut to establish a persona of his own. He doesn't delve into the character of the gangsta any deeper than the prosaism he spits, and while he obviously has an excellent vocal cadence and a finely tuned ear, his lyrics lack the textured imagery and dexterity of themes necessary to sustain interest over the course of a full album.

In perhaps his biggest misstep, 50 Cent eschews a world inhabited by real people doing real shit for most of Get Rich, instead relying on generalized threats, proclamations of invincibility, and calls for pussy. Even the threats and declarations, bereft of the violent, pull-no-punches absolutism of Big L.'s early horrorcore, seem sanitized for Middle America. To put it bluntly, 50's rap sounds cold and mechanical, as though he were paralyzed by the pressures of hype or the prospect of his album being used as evidence against him in his trial for alleged weapons possession; the album sees him alternately declaring that he cares/doesn't care whether the D.A. hears these tracks.

Yet, for all the flaws in 50 Cent's persona, Get Rich or Die Tryin' isn't without its redeeming qualities. For one, the album offers a handful of great singles (obviously: "In Da Club", "Wanksta"), anchored by his distinctive, rolling drawl. Loping beats and Caribbean Casios adorn "P.I.M.P." while 50 flosses that misogynistic swagger; trigger-happy snares and organ punches cry out from the Dre-produced highlight "Heat". Yet, none of the tracks touch his appearance on 1999's In Too Deep soundtrack-- even while its fish-in-a-barrel attacks on virtually every platinum-selling artist of the last five years smacked of Eminem strategies, "How to Rob (An Industry Nigga)" factored heavily into the anticipation surrounding Get Rich, offering a glimpse of the juggernaut he might become.

In the meantime, the production work remains Get Rich's strong suit, boasting contributions from Sha Money XL, Megahertz, Rockwilder, Kon Artis, and both Eminem's and Dr. Dre's crews. Dre's team drops four tracks, each supreme examples of the raw ingenuity and virtuosity that, beyond the killer rhymes, made 2001 such a visceral, addictive party record. He also proves that, though rarely as experimental as Timbaland or as self-consciously high-tech as the Neptunes, he can still drop a hit to rival either of them, and with half as many layers. The bounce on "In Da Club" is straight-up irresistible, Dre at both his minimalist best and most deceptively infectious.

Still, 50 just isn't quite there yet. Had he offered more tracks that showcased his talents quite as tangibly as "How to Rob (An Industry Nigga)" alongside the massive radio hits bumping from every inner-city Escalade, Get Rich or Die Tryin' very well might have been the landmark achievement it's being touted as. But as his character presently lacks the dynamism and depth required for that elusive gangsta magnetism that's a prerequisite for notoriety, 50 goes down as simply a decent MC with a wrenching back story, whose potential landed him a gig with the world's dopest beatmakers and the hype machine that shot the Great White Way into the pop culture stratosphere.

-Sam Chennault, March 5th, 2003

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