"In my neighborhood, when you're shot, you get up and keep going."
Within a single week during February 2003, over 800,000 people flocked to the stores to hear the Queens-bred rapper Curtis Jackson — better known as 50 Cent — tell them that it was their birthday. At one point, he received so much media coverage that I actually thought the bullet-proofed urban icon was running for political office.
50's debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin', went on to become the best selling CD of 2003, proving not only that Hip Hop is the dominant cultural force in America, but also reinforcing our collective thirst for the lowest common denominator in mainstream entertainment.
Yet, I must sadly report that 50 Cent's days are numbered.
At this very moment, social architects are preparing for the worldwide release of a Version 2.0 Prototype — a bigger, badder, meaner, more thugged-out rapper whose mission it will be to eclipse 50 Cent's current, true-to-life urban-legendary status. This Hip Hop Manchurian Candidate will redefine the way we think about Hip Hop music and culture for years to come.
In the meantime, most people I talk to admit that the current 50 Cent is only a marginally skilled rapper — certainly not a true lyricist (in the Rakim sense of the word), despite what the 6.4 million owners of Die Tryin' might have you believe. Yet his scarcely believable bags-to-riches tale presented the media with a perfect opportunity to chronicle how a young, violent, alleged ex-drug dealer becomes a rapper (who, by the way, raps about violence and drugs) and goes on to make millions — legitimately. I'm forced to wonder if 50 Cent would have been as popular if he chose to rap about how not to get shot nine times.
But we now know that positive, culturally relevant life lessons under the guise of music would present a significant marketing dilemma for most major record labels. How many times did you hear Zion I's name invoked in the media last year?
I will concede, however, that 50 Cent elevated and perfected the art of guerilla Hip Hop marketing by sending copies of his visceral mix-tape freestyles to every influential DJ with an ear to the streets. His mega-single "Wanksta," reportedly aimed at rival Murder Inc. artist Ja Rule, generated so much industry buzz that by the time Die Tryin' was released, 50 was already a "manufactured" man.
Now, according to a recently published interview, 50 Cent says he wants to "start a nonprofit organization and do things for the community." Nice. But he doesn't need me to tell him that time is running out. 50 may have re-defined the game, but he is also a product of the game. Though he is an easy "target" for a column that focuses on positive Hip Hop, my beef is less with his message ("I'm not the type to get knocked for DWI/I'm the type to kill your connect when the coke price rise") than with the nefarious forces that created him. That's why I hope he heeds my heartfelt warning.
The pop culture gatekeepers ultimately responsible for his mainstream success (as well as his G-Unit clothing line, signature Reebok sneakers and movie deals) are already searching for 2004's Next Big Thug. Somewhere lurking on the mix-tape circuit, Version 2.0 is poised and ready for attack. His label reps and publicists will flood the blood-thirsty media with press releases describing how Version 2.0 was in a coma for a year after being shot 99 times and half eaten by sharks while fleeing from DEA agents on a Sea Doo in Miami.
Sound familiar yet?
Version 2.0's programmers will instruct him to lash out (lyrically, we can only hope) against his rivals — most predictably 50 Cent ... and anyone else popular at the time. By approximately the fourth quarter of 2004, the unsuspecting masses (readers of this column excepted) will eagerly await the most highly anticipated Rap album since 2003's Die Tryin'. The world will want to know more about the Hip Hop gladiator who c-walked his way into the limelight, eliminating all who stood in his path. There will be MTV interviews, BET exclusives, Source/XXL/SPIN/Rolling Stone cover stories and the usual fork-tongued media outcry about Version 2.0's criminal past. He might even be featured on an E! True Hollywood Story, even though we will have heard various versions of the story a thousand times by then.
By this time, 50 Cent (Version 1.0) will be well-paid ... but all but forgotten. Malcolm X once said that we've been "hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray and run amok." And while we're sipping our Bacardi in da club, the 50s (versions 1.0 on) will be laughing all the way to the bank.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.