Now that 50 Cent has solidified himself as a television mogul, it seems appropriate to reflect on his position in the hierarchy of hip-hop greats.
Upon discovering an old tape of his formative project Power Of The Dollar, 50 Cent issued a confident declaration. “Damn i did this in 1998 and i still can rap better than you fools." A reminder that behind all of the antics and brand-pushing hashtags stands a proud emcee. One who seldom gets the credit he might deserve. Despite having held his own alongside lyrical elites like Eminem and his own group-mate Lloyd Banks. Despite having engaged in battle with rappers like Jadakiss, The Game, and Rick Ross, three foes who would surely lay waste to a lesser challenger. Not to mention the fact that his breakout movement was based off a simple premise, which is to say, freestyling over established beats and outshining the original artist.
Consider that mixtapes of that nature have essentially gone extinct. These days, mixtapes are basically albums, albeit generally more free-flowing and lax. Back when 50 was carving out his lane, attempting to crack into an industry that was essentially too fearful to do business with him, he was spitting with a hunger not often seen in this era. Unafraid to call out names and make enemies, Fif’s intensity carried into his early music. The aforementioned Power Of The Dollar, his classic mixtape Guess Who’s Back. His reputation as a wild card allowed him a certain presence on wax, one who seemed willing to back up any threat made. For a gangsta rapper, that’s an invaluable tool. And while many have explored similar territory as young 50 tended to favor, few did it with as much relish. He seemed to feel a devilish glee while detailing acts of violence, one that imbued him with a villainous charisma -- the likes of which are still felt to this day.
Dave Simpson/WireImage/Getty Images
Remember, this was a rapper who eyed the coveted New York crown. He expressed as such on the classic “Be A Gentleman,” when he called out one of his chief competitors in Jay-Z. “Still n***s actin' like I don't get down or something, like I ain't the next n***a to wear the crown or something,” he taunts, a rhyme basic on paper but impactful on wax. “You gonna talk about your chips 'til we run in your crib and you gon' ask dumb questions like, ‘can I live?’” At the time, the race for New York kingship was tight -- names like Jay, DMX, Ja Rule, Ghostface, and Raekwon were comfortably in the running delivering excellent music. And while each one was more established than Fif, he somehow managed to remain in the race. Immense hustle and work ethic can go far, but not without the skill to match. Without the ability to toggle beast mode, longevity is out of the question. It’s the reason tapes like the aforementioned two stand up today, not as historical relics but as genuinely badass servings of grimy NYC rap.
But what about his rapping ability makes him a top tier emcee? Insofar as the lyrics themselves are concerned, Fif seldom engaged in what has come to be unflatteringly described as “rappity-rap.” He’s concise in his messages, letting the attitude present within his voice emphasize any point. “In the hood summertime, it’s the killing season / it’s hot out this bitch, that’s a good enough reason,” he shrugs, on the Dr. Dre produced “Heat.” Lines like that hold more character than some rappers conjure in an entire song. The entirety of “Heat,” arguably the greatest song of Fif’s career, is a masterclass in visual storytelling. "Don't think you safe 'cause you moved out the hood, cause ya mama still around dawg, and that ain't good," he continues. "If you was smart you'd be shook of me, cause I get tired of looking for ya / spray ya mama crib and let yo ass look for me." Where a lesser lyricist might have simply delivered the threat in a passing line, Fif's internal rhyme scheme set up gives it even more power.
And if “Heat” doesn’t hold the crown as 50’s greatest record, there’s a strong case to be made for another Get Rich Or Die Tryin classic, “Many Men.” It should be noted that as a writer, Fif seldom gets overtly conceptual in his use of language. He tends to operate in a rather frank manner, drawing from personal experience and presenting his philosophies accordingly. “In the Bible, it says what goes around, comes around,” raps Fif, in the climactic verse. “Hommo shot me, three weeks later he got shot down, now it's clear that I'm here for a real reason / cause he got hit like I got hit, but he ain't fuckin' breathin'.”
On paper, the lines read relatively simple, the premise straightforward. Yet it’s exactly this approach to morality that makes his rapping so compelling. It’s not entirely different from an emcee like DMX, whose words were imbued with a similar gravitas; neither have to flow in a dexterous fashion to impress, masking lack of character with aimless lyrical gymnastics. Instead, 50 was able to paint vivid pictures with the simplest of lines, evoking the smell of gunfire, the scowls of his foes. “I’m observant in my hood, cause n***s be dumbing, shots forfeit the dice game, all you see is the running,” he reflects, on Massacre opener “In My Hood.” Words that may as well be a scene off a cinematographer’s storyboard.
How does all that factor into 50 Cent’s ability as an emcee? Those who would reserve him a spot in the top ten might be quick to tout his songwriting prowess, his ability to adapt to a variety of instrumentals, or his ear for melodic singsong flow schemes. Yet it’s unlikely that many would place him in the same conversation as artists like Royce Da 5’9”, Black Thought, Nas, Eminem, Andre 3000, or Jay-Z, rappers that have become known and regarded for their lyricism. Though 50's writing does possess depth and authenticity, his preference for a frank and minimalist delivery has given him the illusion of simplicity. That should never be mistaken for weakness. There's an authoritative quality to his tone that made him, at his prime, one of the most compelling rappers in the entire game.