February 2003. It was the hottest month in the warmest winter in hip-hop history. But global warming wasn’t the culprit back then like it is now. Nope, 8 years ago a rapper named 50 Cent a.k.a Curtis Jackson was the cause for the fever pitch that engulfed the hip-hop community (except my homie, Khalid Salaam. He was on his Kanye West fix. Way ahead of his time). 50 Cent and his G-Unit mixtapes sold by the millions and in my hood were actually considered a type of currency. That winter I scored three bags of Purple Haze for the “God’s Plan” and the “No Mercy No Fear” CDs. Lovely! But those mixtapes were only appetizers for his upcoming “debut” album, even though “The Power of The Dollar” was his actual – and overlooked – debut album (Dope joint by the way).
I can’t even remember a hip-hop album anticipated like 50’s debut album was. Sure, we were excited about Snoop’s debut and Biggie’s debut and his Life After Death follow-up, but hip-hop heads were waiting on 50’s album like Christians wait for the second coming of Christ, Jews wait for the Messiah, and Kardashians wait for famous black athletes. And it wasn’t because it was produced by Dr. Dre and Eminem or because we were going to hear Ja Rule’s gay lover speak on the record (though those did play a role in it), it was because 50 was – at the time – one of the illest MC’s in the game and was an actual gangster with a story to tell. I mean I remember lamping and building (pull out your Ebonics Dictionary) with my Queens nuccas back in high school in the late 90’s when 50 first came out with “How To Rob.” They let me know that 50 had heads under pressure in that hood. “50’ll kill a n*gga for real, O. He ain’t no joke. Nuccas is scared of him. Now stop hogging the ‘L.’” A few days after having that quick convo with the gods, 50 got blasted 9 times. After that happened, 50 became an afterthought to the hip-hop world.
A few years later – after somehow graduating – I was working at XXL when 50-mania ran wild on you. 24 inch rims would tremble at the treble of Wanksta and the bass of In Da Club. That was during the whole XXL and The Source beef too. Remember how Benzino and his peeps ran up in the XXL office? Sh*t was real. XXL and The Source were always trying to find new ways to one-up the other. But 50 was down with XXL and people don’t even know how 50 teaming up with Dr. Dre and Eminem helped shift the balance of magazine power in the streets in XXL’s favor. Once 50, Em and Dre did the cover for the Feb 2003 issue of XXL, one by one members the hip-hop community started sticking their forks in The Source magazine. And Mr. Jackson’s album hadn’t even drop yet! It was slated for a February 11th release, but because it was leaked, was pushed up to the 6th.
On it’s release date it broke records by selling 800,000 copies in it’s first week. Even though I didn’t think the album lived up to the hype, I have to admit that the album was a street classic. The kind of street classic that ran in the same vein as Busta Ryhmes “The Coming,” Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” and Big Pun’s “Capital Punishment” (But not nearly as flawless as those albums were). Not necessarily ahead of its time, but an embodiment of what hip-hop was at that very moment, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” was an album almost frozen in time that only the heads of that very era could appreciate. That album was sold out everywhere because people just had to have it. A few of my homies was actually out there sticking up cats walking out the record store for their copies. They was taking receipts too. That’s how bad fans had to have that album. They were risking their freedom to get a copy.
From the very moment you heard those two quarters drop and a gun cock, you knew you were in for some gangsta sh*t. Sho’nuff, the very first cut from the album, “What Up Gangsta,” basically set the tone for the kind of album we were in for. Songs like that along with “Many Men,” where he addressed getting Swiss-cheesed up, “Back Down,” where he pulled Ja Rule’s card and had Rule’s boy-toy put him on blast, and “NYPD/LAPD” were the kind of album cuts that most rappers wish they could think up. But they ain’t live it so they ain’t think it. And these were just simple joints with catchy hooks that had commercial appeal without sacrificing a drop of street credibility. I was kind of surprised that “Heat” never caught on as a street banger. Not only was it a Irv Gotti diss record (hating on Murder Inc. was the thing to do at the time), but it also implemented the sound of a gun cocking and blasting into the beat. Though the whole notion of sampling the sound of a gun cocking and shooting had been done before – and used more effectively on Bone Thugs and Tupac’s “Thug Luv” – I still felt like “Heat” was one of the illest and overlooked cuts on the album.
But as dope as those joints were, it was “In Da Club” and “21 Questions” that helped shoot 50 to the kind of commercial stardom that few rappers ever reach. Those songs ruled the airwaves for the next year and change. It got to the point where you just knew that Fiddy was doomed to never repeat that kind of success. “In Da Club” had that bounce that could start in the club, continue to your whip and go on in your iPod. It was a monster and it had a life of its own. Sort of similar to Jennifer Lopez’s ass, which had a career of its own. Jenny was just along for the ride. “21 Questions” was the song that appealed to the females, and man did it prolong Fiddy’s dominance. For the record, my man Nate Dogg – R.I.P. – doesn’t get enough credit for making that song as banging as it was.
But for all the dope songs on it, there were a few joints that were either overrated or just weak. For the life of me I can’t understand why heads were swearing by “Patiently Waiting.” 50’s verse was borderline wack and his flow was worse. “50 fear no man. Warrior, swingin’ swords like Conan.” The only thing more elementary than this rhyme was probably the rest of the verse. But nuccas was taking the oath with this joint like it was the gospel. I would ask “what the hell was these dudes smoking?” but it was the same ish that I was smoking, so I couldn’t call it. I felt that “Don’t Push Me” was the better track, but no one bought it at the time. “High All The Time” was one of the weaker joints that I thought the album could’ve done without along with “Blood Hound,” but I know that “Blood Hound” was Fiddy trying to reach that down south market. I mean Young Buck was the feature on it. But seriously who was the genius on the label that really thought “Gotta Make It To Heaven” would get played more than once by anyone outside of G-Unit? I bet they’d only play it while 50 was around too. There were too many things going on with that beat to actually pay attention to what Fiddy was doing, which was basically nothing.
By the time “Life’s On The Line” was over I felt that New York hip-hop was back with a vengeance. G-Unit was here to stay and 50 would inherit the throne whenever Jay-Z decided to call it quits. No, 50 wasn’t a lyrical monster and he sure as hell couldn’t flow to just any beat, but he had the street history, charisma and muscle – both literally and figuratively – to command the world’s attention. Then he started singing about “Candy Shops,” “Best Friends,” “Disco Inferno”’s and it was all “Just A Lil Bit” too much for me. But I will give him credit for being the savior of the streets of NY when we needed him to be. No disrespect to Jay, Nas or Wu, but their success sort of stripped them of that street edge that NY rappers were and are known for. Curtis Jackson was straight off the block and taking it to any and everyone he felt needed to be checked. He was the underdog filled with confidence that let it be known that he was ready for a shot at the title. And not only did he get his shot, but he took home the hardware. “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” sold 8 million copies and is the 4th highest selling hip-hop album in history. So I have to give props to Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson for not only achieving the improbable, but for also giving the hoods in NYC someone to root for and be proud of… even if it was only until after that weed plate called “The Massacre” dropped. I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson, I am for real…