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50 Cent

     Guess Who's Back? (Full Clip, 2002)
     Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Shady/Aftermath, 2003)
    The Massacre (Shady/Aftermath, 2005)
  Curtis (Shady/Aftermath, 2007)
     Before I Self Destruct (Shady/Aftermath, 2009)

When 50 Cent released Get Rich or Die Trying 2003, he became the biggest new name in hip-hop, a pop-wise thug who delivered brutal yet imperturbably cool rhymes and turned the bulletproof vest into a hot fashion accessory. Even casual fans became aware of the most arresting part of 50's biography—namely, that this former crack dealer had taken more bullets (nine) than most platinum-selling rappers have hit singles. 50 did get rich, very rich, but his output since that major-label debut has been anything but consistent.

Born Curtis Jackson in Queens, NY, 50 recorded an album for Columbia Records in 2000, Power of the Dollar. (The label declined to release it, though it's been heavily bootlegged.) In April of that year, he was shot nine times outside his grandmother's home. Miraculously, he recovered, and soon set about releasing a cavalcade of menacing, diss-heavy mixtapes—No Mercy, No Fear, recorded with his G-Unit crew in 2002, is one of the best. 50 soon caught the attention of Eminem, who touted 50 as "the illest motherfucker in the world." Along with partner Dr. Dre, Eminem signed 50 to Shady Records and Aftermath Entertainment. While gearing up for his debut, 50 released Guess Who's Back?, a commercially available collection of his early work that finds a middle ground between the off-the-cuff rhymes of his mixtapes and the more polished assault of his official studio albums.

Get Rich or Die Tryin' had a boatload of advance buzz, and nobody seemed surprised when became a blockbuster. "Wanksta," one of Jam Master Jay's last productions, and the Dre-produced party anthem "In Da Club" tore up the pop charts, and the album was full of slick, powerful hooks—the half-sung, half-shouted chants of "Life's on the Line," the slick steel drum on "P.I.M.P." 50 gets stoned, gets laid and fires off gunshots like it's nothing, all the while employing a steady, laid-back cadence. (His slightly mush-mouthed tone was due in part to a bullet hole in his cheek.) 50's biggest accomplishment on Get Rich is making thug life sound like hot fun on a Saturday night.

After conquering the world, 50 became more business than businessman, scoring his own G-Unit clothing line, his own PlayStation game, a semi-biographical movie, and even his own Vitamin Water flavor. His record label, G-Unit, released a stream of high-profile, no-bullshit gangsta rap from The Game, and a handful of releases from his G-Unit stable. (Young Buck's 2004 Straight Out Of Cashville remains the best and most slept-on.) But while 50's profile remained high, his modus operandi of "get even richer or die trying" had a deleterious affect on his music. On The Massacre, 50 leaned too much on his "cuddly thug" persona. He could still serenely seethe about cocaine coming out of his pores or hogtieing your mother, but he was less compelling while luring girls into the "Candy Shop," crooning to strippers on "Disco Inferno" or getting downright goofy with Eminem on "Gatman And Robbin'." His unpolished croon naturally started making more and more appearances, helping him score several more hit singles. But this would be the last time 50's lover and fighter personas lived comfortably side-by-side.

Curtis is an unmitigated disaster. It was released the same day as Kanye West's Graduation, and SoundScan showed that rap fans in 2007 were definitely more eager to lap up West's self-introspection than 50's circa-2003 bullets-and-braggadocio. Even though the single "I Get Money" is a classic 50 swagger, most of Curtis's gangsta tracks ("My Gun Go Off," "I Still Kill," "Fully Loaded Clip," a heavily censored version of "Man Down") come off like anachronistic and flaccid versions of vintage G-Unit. Bangers like "Ayo Technology" and "Follow My Lead" are 50 at his most desperate and cheesy. The backlash was severe—pop fans only latched on to "Technology," which was essentially a Justin Timberlake single; hip-hop fans stopped paying attention to his music and focused on deconstructing his hilarious viral video beef with Rick Ross.

Before I Self Destruct should have been received as 50's triumphant comeback record—but not many people paid attention to this no-fanfare, all-meat-no-gristle record. 50 is verbose and aggressive, full of hilarious puns and vivid gangsta-isms, practically bulging with the infectious energy that made him a hot mixtape property in 2002. "So Disrespectful," a diss track aimed at former pals The Game and Young Buck, is just giddily cruel, while "Death To My Enemies" is a classic Dr. Dre headbanger full of vibrant wordplay.

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