When your hits dry up, take the hint and disappear: Whether you’re Kool Moe Dee in ’88, Ice-T in ’93, or Nelly in 2006, this is hip-hop’s natural law. There are off-ramps: Maybe you remain a local celebrity to the fan base that nurtured you, like E-40; maybe you go behind the scenes or shift into another line of work, like Atlanta’s Cool Breeze. But as far as pop is concerned, your time is over. This is “falling off,” and you can hear the terms of the bargain implied in what the phrase leaves unsaid: “the face of the Earth.”
50 Cent, who helped write a book on the laws of power, is having none of it. This week, he releases his fifth record, Animal Ambition, on his own imprint, G-Unit Records. The last time he released an album, 2009’s Before I Self Destruct, he sold fewer than 200,000 records in one week, humiliatingly close to his then-rival and favorite target, Rick Ross. The numbers matter badly for 50 Cent; numbers define his career, mark the contours of his achievements. When “In da Club” hit no. 1 in March 2003, it stayed there for nine weeks, eventually becoming the most-played song on hip-hop/R&B radio since Nielsen’s Broadcast Data Systems began tracking airplay. This kind of success has geological implications; for 50, it was validation at its purest and most irrefutable. “This record is saying that it’s acceptable for an artist to be exactly what the fuck he wants to be,” he told Vibe in 2003.
Flash forward to present day. You could be forgiven for not paying attention, but in the last five years, during what 50 has modestly described as the “longest album cycle I’ve ever been in,” he has released close to 100 songs. Here are, like, 10 — “Outlaw,” “Major Distribution,” “I’m on It,” “New Day,” “First Date,” “Girls Go Wild,” “Non Stop,” “Shady Murder,” “The Enforcer,” “Right There.” Some of these are just mixtape cuts, and some are throwaways with no clear home. But many were attempts at big comeback singles, efforts to convince Interscope to finally release his fifth album, which was at one point called Black Magic, at another point called Street King Immortal. “New Day” was produced by Dr. Dre, featured Alicia Keys, and was initially going to be a track for Dre’s long-delayed Detox before 50 Cent ended up with it. It peaked at no. 79. “My Life” had a hook from Adam Levine and a verse from Eminem; to promote it, 50 performed dangling from the ceiling of the MGM Arena at the Gamboa vs. Farenas fight and even performed it with Levine on The Voice. It peaked at no. 27.
In other words, 50 Cent exists in a strange kind of limbo. He’s refusing to disappear, but he also isn’t making hits. He has no purchase on the current rap culture — he admitted recently to GQ that it scares and confuses him — and yet he remains a walking giant, a living legend. He’s a grizzly bear stuck in a Fiat; he cannot be ignored, but he’s also trapped, helpless, and immobile. Watching him attempt to interact with the rap-listening public right now, a millionaire trying to force his way into the conversation, is fascinating.
Every move he makes seems to take place behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass. In 2010, he had the business acumen to sniff out a developing cluster of radio hitmakers a coast away — YG and the nexus of artists that would soon coalesce into the HBK Gang. But despite appearing on remixes alongside Mann on “Buzzin’,” LoveRance on “Up!,” and YG on “Toot It And Boot It,” he had little to do with the resulting boom: The kids who are making “Gas Pedal” Vines in their bedrooms aren’t bumping 50 Cent. His guest verse on Chief Keef’s “Hate Bein’ Sober” was another ripe-seeming moment — 50 Cent was ruling the world when Keef was a little kid, and Keef’s image as a walking terminator would not exist without him. But things fell apart there, too — Keef was a no-show to the video shoot, 50 Cent ranted on Twitter about it — and the moment, at least for 50, turned to dust.
In his own music, he’s done everything he knows how to do — worked with every producer with a current hit, recorded with everyone. He released songs with Kendrick Lamar in 2012, and with 2 Chainz in 2013. He even tried reuniting with Fat Joe, who once vowed to throw a party when he died, to throw some lines at Kanye (“I had them wearing vestes / Now these n—– wear dresses“). Nothing made a dent.
He’s accomplished a Great American Novel’s worth of trivial shit in the meantime, nonsense on the edges of fame. He released a workout book called Formula 50, and coauthored a book on bullying called Playground. He established a NASCAR partnership, a collaboration between SMS Audio and Swan Racing, as well as his film work, appearing in a prison-break film called Escape Plan with fellow aged hams Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He got his boxing promotion license in Nevada, appeared multiple times on QVC to push his SMS headphones, guested on Robot Chicken, and made ads with Joan Rivers and Deepak Chopra. He discussed ballet with Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa.
Throughout this struggle for relevance, he has evolved into a new king of commercial exile. He is the world’s most visibly invisible rapper, fallen off and famous at the same time. The bubble he moves around in is suspiciously similar to that of Rick Ross’s. It’s a realm where there is no friction, no more observable cause and effect. His money and clout grant him high-profile access to the radio stations and magazines he wants to appear in, and when he’s asked, he feeds dull, rote answers to this promotional machine about his inability to score hits: “I’ve spent a long time period on hiatus,” he told HipHopDX. “I was in the back portion in the music business. I was in the business portion … Because it was my fifth and final album requirement for Interscope we was in a position where we would have to do audits and go through the books and everything.” This is the language he speaks now, the only one.
With Animal Ambition, he finally has a sandbox to play in all by himself: Interscope has agreed to let him release his own music on his G-Unit imprint, and it is letting him avail himself of its distribution channels. In theory, this should be the best possible scenario for someone like 50: He doesn’t have to pretend to be relevant anymore or strain to make hits for a radio that doesn’t want him on the airwaves unless he’s being interviewed. He can be relentlessly entertaining when he leans into the demented-millionaire side of himself, the one that consistently shoots terrible films and brags about hanging out with Bette Midler.
And yet he’s hardly ever made music as this guy. Animal Ambition is as carefully rote as anything he’s ever released. The hooks to “Don’t Worry ’Bout It” or “Chase the Paper” or “Pilot” could be the hooks to any of the interchangeable little songlets he’s tried tempting us with on his Thisis50 page: “You Like Me Better Rich,” maybe, or “Dial 911” or “When I Come Back.” (Again: 50 Cent has released a lot of songs you’ve never heard.) The production has the same sealed-off and disengaged feeling of all 50’s music post–The Massacre: He worked on these tracks in complete seclusion, without the input of any of the track’s producers, and you can hear it.
In XXL’s recent “Making Of” feature on Animal Ambition, producer after producer expresses polite surprise that their track got picked at all.
“The beat I had given to 50 was made around 2008; I had completely forgotten about it.” says Charli Brown Beatz (“Don’t Worry ’Bout It”).
“I wasn’t in the studio with him when he recorded ‘Hold On,’” says Frank Dukes. “It was a surprise to me, when I heard it eight or nine months ago.”
“I didn’t get to meet him,” admits Shamtrax (“Pilot”). “Normally the way I work with people, I’m in the studio with them or I get a chance to sit in at least during the mix portion or whatever, but in this situation I didn’t get to meet 50 at all.”
This has long been 50’s MO: He talks in interviews about his reluctance to let producers into his studio, lest their in-person enthusiasm mislead him into picking a weak beat. But a little in-person enthusiasm would go a long way in 50’s music right now; the essence of the track feels emailed into place.
As with most of his studio albums, you could take five of his lyrics and bolt them onto any other song on the record with no observable effect. The number of purely narrative songs in his commercial releases is tiny — there’s “Baltimore Love Thing” from The Massacre, there are the flashes of jailhouse life on “Gotta Make It to Heaven,” and then there’s almost nothing else. Giving the audience pieces of himself has seemingly never occurred to him, and he has never once grasped that pure artistic risk, i.e. leaping into the unknown and praying your audience follows you, is part of the business model for the kind of long-term pop career he desires.
This is the artistic crux of 50’s relevance problem; he is steadfastly unwilling, or unable, to rap about things. Since the beginning, he has been his own “about”-ness: His survival, his miraculous success, the mere fact of his climb was the story. But that isn’t enough for rap audiences anymore: Hip-hop hasn’t been self-evidently the music of the youth since roughly 2004, when 50 was its victor. In order to be a rapper the world cares about, on a global level, you have to rap about something — your life, your thoughts, your career. Drake, 50’s antithesis, has “about”-ness in spades: his grandmother, his drunk-driving, or Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree. His songs are a series of narratives you pass into and exit. 50 Cent has never been one to share pain — even on Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the closest he came was “I grew up without my pops, should that make me bitter?” on “Patiently Waiting.” And even that was ladled contemptuously. On “Hold On,” the opening song on Animal Ambition, he opens up like this: “I woke up this morning, this is insane / Rich as a motherfucker, ain’t much changed.” It’s both a summary of his last five years and an epitaph for his entire career.
Jayson Greene (@Jayson_Greene) is managing editor of Wondering Sound and a contributing writer and columnist at Pitchfork.