In the second week of September 2007, the hip hop world was abuzz with exactly what usually sets the hip hop world abuzz: a good feud. It was a manufactured feud, of course, not deeply rooted in bad blood between two rappers, but rather drummed up in the spirit of a friendly competition of sorts. When 50 Cent and Kanye West were each set to release their third studio album September 11, 2007, Fif made a bold statement—if his Curtis didn’t outsell Ye’s Graduation, then he would retire from rap.
At the time, the G-Unit general’s brashness seemed to fall in line with the oft-repeated cliché that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The artists’ respective fan bases were electrified, vowing to raid stores the day the albums dropped and ensure “victory” for their favorite rapper. Ultimately, the numbers reflected this frenzy: Graduation and Curtis flew off U.S. shelves, selling nearly 1.6 million copies combined in the first week and marking only the second time in recorded history that two albums moved over 600,000 units in one week. The problem for 50 Cent was that, even in selling 691,000 copies of Curtis, he had lost the sell-off to a very well-reviewed Kanye album that nearly went platinum in that first week alone.
Of course, 50 reneged on his vow to quit the rap game—but you might not realize it. After the 2007 release of Curtis—which, at heart, was a lackluster album that doesn’t hold a candle to his earlier work—he effectively disappeared from the rap scene for a bit, content to take his endorsement deal with VitaminWater to the bank while drifting from his own product a bit (though he did rake in $100 million in 2007 from that deal alone, so perhaps you can’t blame him). The only lingering hit single from Curtis was “I Get Money,” a solid song that ultimately lacked the appeal of “In Da Club,” “21 Questions,” “P.I.M.P,” “Disco Inferno” and “Candy Shop,” the smash hits that graced his first two albums, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003) and The Massacre (2005). When the economy turned in 2008, the Kid’s economic ventures soured and allegedly led him to lose millions in the stock market, causing him to delay the release of his fourth album, Before I Self Destruct. Unfortunately, by the time Before hit stores in November 2009, it seemed that the 50 Cent who ran the game only four years earlier was well on his way to self destruction. Before I Self Destruct was a disappointing effort both critically and commercially; worse yet, it was so forgettable that the general public tends not to even realize how badly it missed the mark.
In the summer of 2011, 50 returned to making the brand of noise that garnered him national attention in the first place—but not in the booth. He’s taken to Twitter and the press to fire shots at Interscope about the slow pace of progress on his fifth studio album as well as what he thought was a label-coordinated leak of “I’m On It.” Although the only material available from the yet-untitled album is “Outlaw,” a promotional single released in June, Fif still claims that the project will be ready for a November release. The most startling point to be made here is that the actual music we’ve heard from Curtis within the last few months—and really the past few years—has not been good; in fact, “I’m On It” is such a frightening mess that one can only wonder what could have possibly driven 50 to tag it as his desired single. What happened to the 50 Cent sound that was universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike?
Taking a broader look at 50 Cent’s career arc, particularly his fall from grace over the past four years, ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers. The man was always a loose cannon, picking fights and making enemies seemingly whenever he could. But his work ethic was undeniable, his timing was magical, his partnerships with Eminem and Dr. Dre were remarkably fruitful, and—most importantly—his music was classic. What went wrong?
Did 50 have too much too quickly? It’s easy to forget that the XXL-rated, Grammy-nominated Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was his first studio album, and the national frenzy it created was unlike anything hip hop had seen before. Rap had long been a regional affair, but 50’s debut swept the country and unified the genre’s fan base in a way no rapper before had managed. Was 50’s status as a near-cult figure too much for him to handle? Was the way he and G-Unit permeated pop culture unhealthy? Did the success of his remarkable debut album set the bar too high? That is, was 50 Cent a flash in the pan?
The successful release of The Massacre in 2005 seemed to answer that last question with a resounding “no.” The Massacre opened at the top of the Billboard charts, selling 1.14 million copies in its first week. While it failed to match the astounding four number one singles Get Rich or Die Tryin’ spawned, 50’s second album was a well-reviewed commercial success stocked with hits. At this point, other big hip hop names like Eminem and Jay-Z had reached (relatively) quiet points in their careers, meaning that, for a three-year span that encompassed the release of his first two albums, 50 Cent was the undisputed face of hip hop. Was this bad? Is it possible that 50 Cent was too universally loved from 2003 to 2005? Did 50 need more competition to thrive? Is that why he picked so many fights? Is that why, in 2007, he challenged Kanye to a sell-off? Was the throne that 50 owned through the middle of the 2000s too undisputed for his own good?
For the record, Kanye West was arguably making better music than 50 Cent all along—with that in mind, it seems only fitting that their paths would cross on the day each released his third studio album, with one giant felling another, albeit in an artificial setting. But the question remains: did 50 lose more than a faux-competition in the name of record sales on September 11, 2007? Did his effort to go toe-to-toe with Kanye finally knock 50 off his throne? Had 50’s brand of music, the pounding beats and gangster tales that carried his first two albums, simply gone out of style? More worrisome, had the Kid’s defining swagger reached its expiration date?
50 Cent is damn sure still talented, because that kind of talent doesn’t simply leave. But in hearing songs like “Outlaw” and “I’m On It” and watching his antics on Twitter, the question lingers: does 50 want to return to his pinnacle? Is he content to take his millions and slink off into rap obscurity? I hope not.
I grew up with 50 Cent. He was an icon who defined and dominated my adolescence, and even though the Kid is down and out right now, I still have love for him. As I sit here today, “21 Questions” pumping through my headphones, I long for the 50 Cent who made headlines and hit records, bold statements and bangers. What ever happened to the Kid 50 Cent who we all knew and loved? And is he ever coming back?
Perhaps 50 Cent was never meant to be a lasting hip hop legend. The songs, the swagger, the superstar status—I’ll remember all of it. But 50’s career arc may always remain a mystery, forever clouded by unanswered questions.
Evan Ribot is a contributing writer who writes news and analysis about culture and rap for haywirehiphop.com. This article is an edited version of the one on the website.