Death is a hip-hop institution. It has inspired moving songs-as-eulogy (Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y. [They Reminisce Over You]”), political rallying cries (Ice Cube’s “Endangered Species”), and completely noxious sentimentality (112 and Faith Evans’s “I’ll Be Missing You”). There’s even an emerging cottage industry of live-dead-rapper duets (Nas and Tupac’s recent “Thugz Mansion,” released over six years after Tupac’s death).
But when it comes to obsessing over death, 50 Cent is a rapper without peer: His new album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, doesn’t ever stop knocking on heaven’s door. It’s hard to fault 50 for the focus on his own mortality: He grew up during the eighties in South Jamaica, Queens, a neighborhood of such intense violence that it inspired Mayor Koch to take out an ad in the New York Times urging President Reagan to be even tougher in the war on drugs.
50 Cent has been a victim of violence himself: He was shot nine times in 2000 and has been stabbed and beaten repeatedly since then. Last fall, his mentor, Run-DMC D.J. Jam Master Jay, was killed at his recording studio in Queens.
But even given 50 Cent’s rough history, Get Rich is relentlessly, unforgivably grim, from “Patiently Waiting,” in which he imagines himself in heaven “politickin with passengers from 9/11,” to the album’s conclusion, “Gotta Make It to Heaven.” When he’s not foretelling his own death, he’s wishing it on others: On “What Up Gangsta,” he boasts, “I’m not the type to get knocked for DWI, I’m the type that kill your connect when the coke price is high.” The sense of menace extends to the music (produced by Dr. Dre, it’s all funereal strings, portentous timpani thumps, and gunshot sound effects), the cover art (50 Cent is pictured behind bullet-shattered glass), and even the CD itself, which is imprinted with a target and bullet holes.
This is a thrilling dose of reality for most music fans, but to me it just feels exhausting. Without question, 50 Cent has one of the most distinctive voices in hip-hop: He raps in a molasses-slow, beyond-laconic drawl, and chants in a singsongy patois reminiscent of dance-hall stars like Sean Paul. But there isn’t enough invention in the rhymes, and, worse, barely any humor (the closest he comes is comparing arch-rival Ja Rule’s gravelly tone to that of Cookie Monster). This is especially disappointing because 50 Cent made his name with “How to Rob an Industry Nigga,” a hilarious, subversive song about sticking up big-name rappers and pop stars.
And I’m turned off by 50 Cent’s incessant flaunting of his bullet wounds and his shortened life expectancy; it’s as if dying young can now be showcased right along with your iced-out Rolex. Only a fool would expect protest music from 50 Cent or any other street rapper. But even in their bleakest moments, most hip-hoppers see something more at stake in violence than mere braggadocio.