What is it that makes an artist special? Certainly, talent plays a part: no amount of hard work would have made Sinatra “The Voice” without his God-given ability to sing. Naturally, hard work and practice allow an artist to grow and improve their abilities over time. Of course, luck plays into it, where an artist comes from, who they know, and whether a special someone ever hears their work can be the differentiating factor in gaining a record deal or fading into obscurity. Every artist has a number of different attributes that make them who they are, and nobody has the same amount of luck, talent, or drive as anybody else. I will submit that the special something that brought Curtis Jackson III, better known as 50 Cent, is resilience.
50 had earned himself a record deal with Columbia by the beginning of the 21st century. He had recorded Power of the Dollar which was to be his debut studio album. Things were looking up for the Queens New York native until he got shot 9 times in his home neighborhood. 50 survived the attack but learned shortly thereafter that Columbia records not only canceled the release of his album but dropped 50 entirely. Most artists would take all of that as a sign. It is so hard to get a record deal in the first place, and if Columbia dropped him then what could he hope for next? In spite of everything, 50 was determined to follow his dream and he got back to work. For 2 years he ground away, honing his craft and releasing mixtapes until, sometime in 2002, Detroit native and then biggest rapper in the world Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, came across Guess Who’s Back? This mixtape that 50 released in 2002 was enough to impress Slim Shady, so much so that he flew 50 out to Los Angeles where he was introduced to legendary west coast producer Dr. Dre. In LA Mr. Jackson must have done something right because he walked away with a 1 million dollar deal with Dr. Dre’s record label “Death Row”. Within the year 50 would release his proper debut studio album which featured an extensive collaboration with Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Sha Money XL. Credited as one of 4 executive producers and the primary writer on all of the album’s 16 tracks, these collaborations would not detract from the fact that this was 50’s album, through and through. This 2003 debut, titled Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is universally considered a great among the hip-hop genre. It was met with good critical reception and exceptional commercial success, and thanks to its excellent mix of rap and R&B amidst a series of impressive lyrical outings and displays of hip-hop production mastery, it is today’s entry into the Musical Training Plan catalog.
What is it that separates 50 Cent as a lyricist from his peers? He doesn’t rap fast, he doesn’t use crazy words nobody else could squeeze into a rhyme scheme, and he doesn’t throw in complex rhythms that turn his voice into a percussive instrument, but the man knows how to pick his words. 50 is surgically precise in his bars, masterfully communicating stories of the violent street life he, and many others, endure in American cities. He tells these stories in as few words as possible without sacrificing any potency and the absence of verbosity in his bars affords 50 the ability to deliver each word with clarity and proper annunciation. Where other rappers move quickly through their words and soak them in slant rhymes stylized accents, 50 provides the listener with clear and understandable verse. By giving himself space to work with each word, 50 is also able to better convey his persona. His careful expression brings the stories to life and in moments like the final words of “Many Men” when 50 assertively declares “He got hit like I got hit but he ain’t fuckin’ breathing”, it is hard to not be convinced that 50 is exactly who he says he is. The identity of the thoughtful thug was not novel, but since Tupac, nobody had expressed the duality of the persona so well. In songs like “Many Men” and “P.I.M.P.” 50 illustrates, with confidence and honesty more than pride and braggadocio, that he is hardened. He knows himself to be a “gangsta” and doesn’t try to convince us of it. Instead, he just tells his stories and talks about himself in a way that never feels fabricated or forced. Late in the album, though, 50 opens up, exposing his humanity, his fears, his love, and his vulnerability in songs like “21 Questions” and “Gotta Make it to Heaven”. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ may still be a product of its time and, in moments, is bogged down by the glorification of misogyny and substance abuse that has always plagued rap music. However, 50’s sobering portrayals of violence and revelation of the soft side that even the most hardened among us possess manages to make the album more thematically dense and powerful than most any of its peers.
There is less to speak of when it comes to the production of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, because, simply put, it’s all just good. The 4 part executive producer team of 50, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Sha Money XL fused a collection of stylistic sensibilities and creative minds together for an album whose instrumentals are nearly as satisfying as its verse. On the charting singles (especially “In Da Club”) the catchy beats steal the show and complement what 50 raps about, but in the more serious tracks like “Patiently Waiting” it serves only to set the scene and support the lyrics. For being released 18 years ago, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ has aged extremely well sonically thanks to its refusal to commit to 1 particular style. More importantly, the quality of the instrumentals on the album transform Get Rich or Die Tryin’ from a lyrically impressive work of rap into an enjoyable and relistenable piece of entertainment. I always appreciate hip-hop for the lyrics more than anything else, but if you aren’t quite wired that way you should still be able to enjoy Get Rich or Die Tryin’ simply for the way that it sounds. It is an album for every kind of hip-hop fan and it is the marriage of style and substance that made it so appealing to so many people, and that has allowed it to continue to be a great record.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is so appropriately titled. In his quest to fully realize his musical ambitions, 50 went through the wringer. He literally got shot 9 times and survived only to find himself back at square one as an artist. But these troubles and tribulations are what sharpened 50 and matured him into the artist that we hear on his debut album. His perseverance and determination, as we now know, allowed him to become rich. Along the way, though, he came pretty close to meeting his end. Nobody knows how different his impact or his career would have turned out had he not gotten attacked in 2000, all that I know is that I am damn sure glad that none of those 9 bullets killed him. If they had, we would’ve lost an excellent artist.