They say what goes up must come down. But if you ask 50 Cent, or his devoted G Unit crew, not even a hot head can stop their rise. Noah Callahan-Bever investigates whether he’ll ultimately defy this simple law of physics, or die trying.
50 Cent is something like a phenomenon.
In a little more than a year, the once marginal 27-year-old Queens, N.Y., rapper has gone from lukewarm to hot. Aside from selling more than 6 million records and rocking more than 400 shows in the past 18 months, he’s inked deals for a record label, a movie, a Reebok shoe line, a clothing line, a book, and a video game.
But having saturated the market unlike any artist in recent memory, one can’t help but wonder how 50 will maintain his celebrity in the face of a public that loves to build its heroes up, only to tear them down—and, if those heroes are lucky, build them up again. With 50’s improbable rise, industry insiders wonder if a backlash awaits. “At first, I thought the same thing that made 50 Cent huge—his accessibility and willingness to do anything for press, radio, or TV—would be his downfall,” says MTV News correspondent Sway Calloway. “But after seeing him in action, I think that 50 has created a new relationship with the consumers, and all the other artists have to put themselves out there with the same frequency in order to remain relevant.”
As it is, you can’t get enough of 50 Cent. Even when his Get Rich or Die Tryin’–acclaimed in the ‘hood and the talk of suburbia—was overlooked by the Grammys for Album of the Year, he still managed to stomp off with five nominations, including Best New Artist, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap Song (“In Da Club”). And that’s why you care about his boys, the three other bullet-ridden fellas that make up G-G-G-G Unit: Queens MCs Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, and Nashville-bred newcomer Young Buck. It’s why 376, 950 of you rushed to the store to fork over 15 bucks for their debut, Beg For Mercy, the week it was released. And when you brought said CD home, you probably noticed that, unlike most alpha-rapper’s crews—who generally just suck—Banks, Buck, and Yayo are all unique and engaging. They add to 50’s appeal rather than get in his way.
Tony Yayo, 25, whose prison term for a December ‘02 probation violation charge is set to end in January, is the crew’s meathead maestro, bringing tough rhymes ripe with unlikely references and great adlibs (“I put the llama to ya mama and beat her like a piñata”). Banks, 21, is by far G Unit’s biggest gun—lyrically, that is. He’s armed with a distinctive deep voice that’s perfect for 50’s sing-along choruses. His sense of humor will leave tears in your eyes (“Fuck if your favorite rapper dies, to me that’s my spot / I celebrate his burial and eat at IHOP”). And then there’s Young Buck, 26, formerly down with Juvenile’s UTP crew, whose Southern-fried drawl masks surprising East-Coast style punch lines (“Got the wrist of a chemist and the heart of a hustler / Plus, I prob’ly done robbed more artists than Russell”).
Yes, believe it or not, G Unit is something like a phenomenon as well.
Unfortunately, as Hammer and Sisqó have taught us, phenomenons burn hot and bright, yet often quickly extinguish—something 50 company say they have no intention of doing. But let’s be real, despite their considerable contributions, it’s not a secret that, for the time being at least, G Unit’s success hinges on 50 Cent. “He’s been calling the shots since day one,” says Banks, “and look where it’s gotten us. So there’s no question that what he says goes for G Unit.”
Seated in The Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court restaurant in Manhattan during a busy day promoting the group’s LP, 50 is not a worried man. He swears adamantly that he’s strapped with backlash-proof vest. “As long as you maintain good material people are going to buy,” he says. “Why? Because you leave no room for other people to generate new interest as long as your consistency is there. Look at R. Kelly. People who don’t like R. Kelly bought Chocolate Factory! Niggas had a perfect lane to take R. Kelly’s spot, but the bottom line is that he’s the best.”
However, Curtis Jackson’s future is not quite as simple as banging out hot records. While his aggressive approach is premeditated, it’s also his instinct—the result of living with his back against the wall, where he stood one wrong decision away from jail or a funeral home. So with seemingly one shot at success, 50 employed a familiar strategy—the same one he’d been using all his life: He put it all out there, detailing his life in the street with real names and real stories. He verbally attacked rappers, knowing that—like the dealers on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard—nine out of 10 MCs would move out of the way of an assault.
No longer stuck in a corner, it’s unclear how the aggressive tendencies that helped propel him to the top will impact his success in the long term. Dodging his own Incredible Hulk-like temper may be trickier than navigating the overexposure possibilities. Anyone who’s watched TV or picked up a magazine in the last year knows the gist of 50’s story (a drug dealer mother who was murdered, sold drugs himself, shot nine times, stabbed, down with Eminem and Dr. Dre, beef with Ja Rule, blah, blah, blah…). But this is much more than just his selling point or tipping point—it’s the point. It’s his beginning, middle, and if he’s not careful, it could be his end.
Today at The Plaza, 50 is frank about his precarious situation.
Your critics say you’ve used beef to fuel your success, starting with “How To Rob.” Did you plan it that way?
50 Cent: You know why I did “How To Rob”? I didn’t have a choice. I was on Columbia Records. My album release date was coming. I had no buzz. It didn’t matter if it turned into beef with everybody. I took that shot because it was my only shot. If it didn’t work I was going back to the ‘hood. I provide for myself by any means—I mean, any means—if I’m starving.
It’s also been said that your beefs are being exploited by Shady and Interscope for their financial gain. How do you see it?
50 Cent: They’re not helping me promote the beef. They’re allowing me to be me. Some things are inevitable, and they don’t want to alter their relationship with me by saying, “Aw, 50, don’t say that.” Or else I’ll say to myself, Why am I in business with them? Then at the first opportunity, I’d leave because I’d be uncomfortable.
So it’s you that’s exploiting your own situation?
50 Cent: I’m not exploiting it. If you don’t write about your true experiences then what do you have to write about? You’re a fraud. “Keep it real” should never be said in music. If you’re not already doing that, what are you writing about?
You’ve come under attack for violating the code of the streets with songs like “Ghetto Qu’ran,” where you mention names. Is that a fair criticism?
50 Cent: Everything that’s in “Ghetto Qu’ran” is in Cop Shot—a book in the fucking library. Everything in that song was in the newspapers at the time that it went on. The shit that these niggas is talking about don’t make fucking sense—and that’s why they’re getting booed. You think I pay people to go boo them?
* * *
We all know the booed rapper 50 is speaking of. And on November 3, 2003, on the eve of the release of Ja Rule’s Blood in My Eye LP, which is filled with anti-50 sentiments, Ja sat down with Minister Louis Farrakhan on MTV in an apparent attempt to squash the beef between he and 50. “I’d sit down and talk to Farrakhan and see what he’s talking about,” said 50 at The Plaza, weeks before the special aired, “but they’re not gonna alter me as an artist.” 50 later declined to appear, saying that it was a “promotional stunt.” The meeting went on without 50 and yielded no tangible results. Ja blamed 50’s jealousy and the public’s blood lust for their beef. All while Farrakhan focused on the personal rift between the two, rather than addressing the larger issues between the camps as well as their violent history.
Their opposition stems from either 50 being snubbed at a Ja video shoot or Ja catching feelings over a chain lost to an associate of 50’s, depending on who’s telling the story. Since then, Ja’s been punched in the fact in Atlanta, and 50 was stabbed at the Hit Factory recording studio in New York City, after which an order of protection was issued on 50’s behalf against members of Murder Inc. (the label recently dropped Murder from their name) without, according to 50, his knowledge or consent. But even worse, there are questions about The Inc.’s involvement in the 2000 shooting of 50 Cent.
An IRS affidavit presented in the feds’ ongoing case against The Inc. alleges that label associate Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff was involved in the shooting. And though it wouldn’t stand in a court of law, a lyric from 50’s “Many Men (Wish Death)” seems to beg the question of The Inc.’s possible involvement—at least in 50’s mind. “Slim switched sides on me / Let niggas ride on me / I thought we was cool, why you want me to die, homie?” According to Irv Gotti, Slim, aka Chaz, whom he says used to be 50’s manager, had tried unsuccessfully to broker a peace agreement between the two camps.
Soon after Farrakhan’s “intervention,” 50 appeared on Angie Martinez’s radio show on New York’s Hot 97, remarking that, while he is also tried of the beef and has moved on mentally, formally addressing it at this point only helps Ja’s situation, something he’s not interested in doing. Later, while reflecting on that interview, he’s more forthcoming about their feud.
How have you used the beef with Ja Rule to your advantage?
50 Cent: When you try to destroy a career that doesn’t exist, you create one. Their attacks at my credibility made my opportunity even greater. In the fall of ‘02, Ja had a fan base, but he was so bothered by my coming that he panicked. Every place he went on the radio to talk about the order of protection, I phoned in the next day to respond.
That’s a difference in our characters that’s so visible you’d have to be blind not to see it. While Ja doesn’t understand an portion of business, I own G Unit Records. I own G Unit Clothing. I have a sneaker deal with Reebok. I have a video game deal. I have a book deal. These are my deals that I made happen with the people I put in place. He owns nothing. He wasn’t smart enough to make these things happen for himself, even when he was in this position.
He’s suffering and can’t think straight because he’s never been in a real situation. Whatever obstacles that are in front of me are put there on purpose. Every situation I’ve been through has enhanced my character, and when I get past it all, I’ll become what God wants me to be.
What do you think that is?
50 Cent: I don’t totally know. When I figure it out, though, everyone will know.
Do you look at the world differently than you did a year ago?
50 Cent: Absolutely. Now I can actually help some people. I’m going to start a nonprofit organization and do things for the community. Even the shoe, it’ll be priced at $80.50, the 50 cents does to charity. I’m going to donate that to programs in low-income housing. And I’m going to do a certain number of free performances to generate a few million dollars for charity. To do free performances is nothing. I did so many things for free to get in this situation that it’s not a big deal.
* * *
Riding up Sixth Avenue in a black SUV, 50 lounges in the backseat rocking a bulletproof vest; his bodyguard sits shotgun. 50 peeps a brown van that has been following for at least 10 blocks. A bit annoyed that security didn’t catch it quicker, he alerts the driver to the van’s presence. Evasive maneuvering manages to shake their pursuers momentarily. He barks at security, letting them know he’s not pleased. But he’s not really worried, after all, the truck is bulletproof. At a red light near 35th Street, the van catches up, pulling up to the left side of 50’s truck. Much to everyone’s relief, the van is filled with female teens desperate to catch a photo of their favorite rapper.
Relieved, but still cautious, 50 surveys the scene and notices a black GMC SUV with two middle-aged, mustached white men in the front seat. “Everyone wave to the hip hop police!” he says through a big smile. Laughter erupts, and 50’s security guard that the truck in question is most likely carrying members of the NYPD’s so-called hip hop task force. It’s funny, because these days, 50 very consciously obeys the law. But he’s got a pretty good idea why they constantly follow him. “They figure, even if I don’t commit the violent act, that I’m a magnet for that stuff anyway,” he says.
It sounds like profiling but the task force’s tactic isn’t the stupidest strategy ever conceived. On September 10, 2003, the news reported a shooting at a Jersey City, N.J., hotel that appeared to be directed at 50 Cent, who police believed was staying at the hotel. Reports surfaced that 50 had been subpoenaed in relation to the shooting, demanding that he turn himself in for questioning within five days. But the G Unit disappeared for the European leg of their tour in the days that followed. Rumors circulated that Ja Rule, who was shooting a movie within walking distance of the hotel, may have been involved. But it was later reported that the suspected shooter had connections to Lil’ Kim, who 50 may have offended the previous evening on Hot 97. Either way, 50’s name was the major news peg.
What was the Jersey City shooting about?
50 Cent: I wasn’t even physically present! I wasn’t in the place they said the shooting took place, but the newspaper needs to put me on the scene to make it news. You had the police from Jersey saying I got five days before they put out a warrant. Why is that? I still haven’t seen the police about that incident. Why is there no warrant out?
Do you think the element of danger associated with you might keep you from the type of success you want?
50 Cent: I haven’t had any incidents in public situations. Not one. I sat in customs for four hours in London because of the things they put in the newspaper about me over here.
Do you feed off of the negativity?
50 Cent: Yes, I use it for energy. I haven’t missed a magazine interview. I haven’t missed a radio interview. I think I missed one show, and I’ve been touring the entire time. It doesn’t stop.
On “Stunt 101,” you call yourself a psycho. Do you really believe that?
50 Cent: I don’t think that I’m crazy—but crazy people don’t ever think they’re crazy.
Do you have a conscience?
50 Cent: A little bit, but it goes away.
What makes it go away?
50 Cent: Situations.
And you’re aware of that?
50 Cent: Yeah, it might not really make sense at first, but anger is my most comfortable emotion. You can use that energy for positive if you put it into your next move. So if you hurt my feelings, instead of crying, I get angry.
What put you in the place where anger is your most comfortable emotion?
50 Cent: My upbringing, period. When you come from my neighborhood, you don’t walk around crying. When you see me acting, in a scene, crying—and it looks real—then you know I’m getting good. I spent my childhood learning not to cry. I’ve adjusted to situations because I don’t want to get killed. Most people just get uptight about a situation and get mad. But for some people, it could be something from last week that’s a reason someone gets punched in the eye today. It’s still affecting you because you didn’t deal with the feelings in the right way.
When was the last time you cried?
50 Cent: It’s been a while. [Long pause] I guess after I got shot.
From the pain?
50 Cent: Nah, it was the confusion. Getting shot wasn’t the most confusing thing. In my neighborhood, when you’re shot, you get up and keep moving. The most confusing thing was being dropped from Columbia Records. I had decided that I was going to write music for a living, and it that’s taken away from me then what was I going to do? When you send a nigga back to the ‘hood with no direction, you sentence him to die, whether he knows it or not. It’s like a prison term, sentencing him to kill somebody or get killed. And the people around me were like, “Goddamnit kid, you almost had it.” Like it ain’t gonna happen. You have to tune those people out and say, It’s gonna happen because I say it is. Then you start doing it on your own.
Do you think anger could be your undoing?
50 Cent: I don’t know. I do get mad faster now, but I don’t worry about it. I do need to deal with my anger. I got to be able to look at situations and take them for what they really are. I get angry at the idea, like, Why would you think you could say what you say? Niggas need to get shot down in the street to remind everyone of what can happen. I get angry at situations now, but I don’t act on them.
* * *
Not every piece of gossip about 50 Cent that makes the paper is fabricated. In what appeared to be 50’s attempt to capitalize on the nation’s current fixation with celebrity couples, he invited actress Vivica A. Fox to be his date to the 2003 MTV Awards. Between his ice and her cleavage, the two turned heads. But after a couple of weeks of romance, during which Fox spoke on the relationship in the press, things soured. Following the World Music Awards in Monaco, 50 said it was over. According to reports, Fox was upset over the attention 50 was receiving from the other females at the show.
What prompted you to invite Vivica to the VMAs?
50 Cent: I just wanted to hang out. You know what’s weird? In entertainment they got rules, like rules of engagement. You gotta keep it secret until you’re ready to be engaged, because everything gets altered, and there are rumors, stories, and situations that start to brew early when you’re not even sure about that person. It makes things harder.
What was the nature of your relationship?
50 Cent: Because of the way I feel about the situation. [Long pause] If someone is your friend, there are limits to what you can say about that person.
You mean in the press or in a personal relationship?
50 Cent: Both. I was saying we’re just friends and that’s it. She did press for Kill Bill and just took that shit to the next level. I think her people did it. They knew that Today’s Black Woman was going to have us on the cover together. But I ain’t ready to be on the cover of a magazine with you. So you’re making decisions without me. At that point it makes me feel like it’s too much.
I had problems with my son’s mother because Viviva mentioned my son. She had a conversation on the radio about me and said something about him—and his moms ain’t feeling that shit. It’s bad enough that she’s a little awkward because I’m not with her at this point. And then it causes problems between me and my son, and he’s the most important thing to me.
Vivica’s a sweet person. I can’t honestly say she’s foul or anything bad about her. It’s the other things that happened that bothered me so much that I’m not comfortable with it.
* * *
Back in the SUV, en route to Interscope’s midtown offices, Jay-Z’s new song, “What More Can I Say,” pushes its way through the truck’s speakers. The song is new to radio, and 50 immediately asks everyone to be quiet and turn up the music. He listens, seeming to enjoy the record, until it gets to the line “No I ain’t got shot up a bunch of times / Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines / And I ain’t animated like, say, a Busta Rhymes.”
50’s eyes reveals something between confusion and anger. “Did you hear what he just said!?” he questions, to no one in particular. It’s quickly explained that, while certainly a reference to 50, it’s not necessarily a dis, and that Jay actually bigged him up on the radio before debuting the song. 50 sinks into his seat thinking, brooding, his fingers folded together. Surprisingly, he soon returns to his more amiable demeanor, whatever concerns he had appearing to roll off his back.
A month from now, he’ll take a swing at founding Onyx member Fredro Starr—who’s been publicly badmouthing him—at rehearsal for the VIBE Awards. He’s a work in progress—not quite out of the woods, but not the same man seen laughing at Summer Jam saying he loved beef. Though he doesn’t want to speak about the Jay-Z song on the record, it’s clear from the body language that he’s not really sweating the line, whatever its intended meaning.
Finally, he has room to breathe, the room to think. And time to plan for the future of Banks, Buck, and Yayo as well. With a levelheaded general in command, their success seems that much more certain. It’s hard to imagine the 180-degree turn that 50’s life has taken in the last year, but his changing outlook suggests that he may be just as hot, and just as far from where he is now, in another 365 days.
Now that you have the success and finances, are you happy?
50 Cent: I’m doing things now to get where I want to be. I’m going to do everything an artist could do to elevate himself: be more lyrical, do storytelling, all that. But I’m happy with my progress.
Where is that place you want to be?
50 Cent: I don’t know. I believe when I’m fucked up I can do some shit where you’ll be like, “Damn why did he do that?” Because I’m fucked up! But I’m moving towards a cool space where I don’t have to do that.
How is your story going to end?
50 Cent: You never know, unless you’re psychic. Nobody anticipates death. Smart people prepare because it’s a given, but humans are habit-driven, and we always keep thinking about the future.