Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, Barely Awake

"Why thank you, I have been working out a lot": Shady/Aftermath/Interscope/G Unit/Violator rap artist 50 Cent
Zach Gold

Maybe some other MC has been brave or stupid enough to brag about having nothing to say, but no one has conceptualized his own lack of imagination quite as heroically as 50 Cent. Repeatedly on The Massacre, 50 dares you to sift content from his indolently muttered syllables, and repeatedly 50 thwarts your effort by ferociously expending none of his own. "I try so hard," he lies on his take-no-prisoners beef-starter "Piggy Bank," "I make motherfuckers wanna kill me." But if any death threats are instigated by his generic swipes at Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Nas, trust me, they won't come about because those rappers consider the assailant a tireless dynamo of hip-hop ingenuity.

"Piggy Bank" has been deservedly slammed as "The Takeover" told by an idiot, but in many ways it's something more (and less). It's the unfortunate triumph of one aspect of Jay-Z's legacy over another--Jigga's snide, careless persona riding roughshod over the meticulous formal aesthetic that balanced it out. You can hear this transformation most clearly in the way 50 has modified the particular strain of contempt for women he inherited from Jay. It's not just the garden-variety misogyny of a scared little man, but something more sinister, a lack of respect that's alluring because it's rooted in a genuine seductive mood. The playful art of the tease is transformed into the bullying sneer of the taunt. "I got no pickup lines," 50 Cent shrugs on "Get in My Car," a boast of sexual irresistibility that he backs up with some bona fide banalities.

What's frustrating about 50's sluggish vanity is that he's half-justified--in some ways his lumpen charisma does transcend mere skills. Even when 50's on autopilot, the signature lazy mumble that haters commonly disparage reveals itself as a caress of consonants, the vocal luxuriance of a sensualist. "Every word out of my mouth is felt," he tells one foe, and it's true--his syllables have a material heft and presence his current rivals generally lack. The only popular rapper to flaunt style over substance so lavishly is Snoop. In other words, this knucklehead's got flow.

If he can't be bothered to write the lyrics that his flow deserves this time around, he does have beats that place his delivery in a suitable context. The mood is ominous, and no matter how many producers troop across the set, 50's tracks are of a piece. The subtle yet insinuating bump down below has an Asian lilt even when the instrumental orientalisms aren't pronounced; the keyboard hooks accent his natural singsong without overwhelming his laid-back assurance. But though the music has its moments, as when a moody sax solo emerges from the otherwise austere "In My Hood," the set pieces mostly echo past glories. The lead single "Candy Shop" is "Magic Stick" without Lil' Kim and with a suckier metaphor for sucking--as rewrites of hits go, it's way more "Let's Twist Again" than "ABC" or "It's the Same Old Song"--while the slightly preferable "Disco Inferno" may as well be "(Still) In Da Club."

There was no reason not to take the title--at least the first half of the title--of Get Rich or Die Tryin' at face value. Which means we deserve an explanation why a superrich and apparently undead 50 Cent hasn't split the game to bang coked-up supermodels or hawk his own line of designer rims. From Pac to Jay, most reigning MCs have seemed driven to continue by ambition, paranoia, or some other unseen power; 50 seems driven by nothing more mysterious than the dude behind the wheel of his limo. But when he commands his unquestioning army on "My Toy Soldier," you can hear why he keeps at it--he's in love with the sound of his own voice. Or, more specifically, he's in love with the effect his voice has on others.

And so "A Baltimore Love Thing," in which he adopts the voice of heroin, is a major or a small triumph, depending on whether or not you know James Brown's "King Heroin." For once his monochrome menace is genuinely chilling. As with the playground taunts of "Piggy Bank," there's no real hatred in his voice, just cold-blooded contempt, and there's no real motive for his lashing out other than self-possessed malevolence. Like so many character actors who want to be leading men, 50's better playing the heavy. Okay, actually he's best as a nonperson, which is fitting because no recognizable humans cross his path over the course of an album.

Okay, maybe one recognizable human. As his wife's lawyers are aware, Eminem has never loved wisely or, for that matter, too well. And when he and 50 pledge allegiance to one another on "Gatman and Robin," Em's devotion to his comrade is almost pitiful. 50 is basically incapable of human warmth--one reason his squabbles with the Game have seemed so predictable is that G Unit has always felt more like a business arrangement than a genuine crew. In fact, that lack of empathy is what has made him the ideal sex symbol for an era when self-involved macho is the way to the ladies' hearts--he's Usher without the emo baggage. Crushing out on a sociopath is the ultimate in unrequited infatuation--a fact Eminem doesn't understand any better than the little girls with whom he's conspired to make 50 Cent a star.

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