By now, 50 Cent’s coronation as the new king of hardcore hip-hop is all but assured. Check his credentials: Years before the 8 Mile soundtrack introduced him to the world, 50 Cent established himself as one of the underground’s best MCs, turning out dozens of bootlegs and mix tapes full of hilarious disses and first-rate freestyles. He was touted as “the illest motherfucker in the world” by none other than Eminem, who signed 50 Cent to his label for a reported $1 million. His songs have been all over MTV and the radio, and even casual pop fans are aware of the most arresting part of his biography — namely that this former hustler, crack dealer and inmate has taken more bullets than most platinum-selling rappers have hits.
If this combination of big-name backers, undeniable skills, radio-ready tracks and a marketable thug persona make Get Rich or Die Tryin’ a sure-shot smash hit, it also makes it a great record. 50 and his cadre of producers didn’t set out to reinvent gangsta rap, but they succeeded in exploiting both its brawniness and its imperturbable cool, not to mention its cliches.
Dre, Eminem and a handful of lesser-known producers are at the top of their game here, concocting these alternately club-ready and spaced-out tracks out of dark synth grooves, buzzy keyboards and a persistently funky bounce. Both “Wanksta,” one of Jam Master Jay’s last productions, and the Dre-produced “In Da Club” have already torn up the pop charts, and it’s easy to see why: Both sport a spare yet irresistible synth hook augmented by a tongue-twisting refrain; both sound anthemic even though they don’t shout their messages. Elsewhere the hooks are equally slick and powerful: the half-sung, half-shouted chants of “Life’s on the Line,” the slick steel drums on “P.I.M.P.”
Wandering stoned through this engaging sonic landscape, pulling off rounds like he’s just cooking breakfast, drawling and balling, 50 complements the production with an unflappable, laid-back flow, the basic tenor of which he sums up in “Like My Style”: “I’m a New Yorker, but I sound Southern.” When Eminem pops up with two excellent cameos on “Patiently Waiting” and “Don’t Push Me,” you kind of wish 50 could be as brassy and definitive. But his real strength lies in making thugism sound effortless, and much of the time his rhythmic slurring glides along so easily you wonder if he’s just freestyling.
Lyrically, nothing on Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is as clever or funny as “How to Rob,” a mix-tape classic from 1999 that explained how 50 planned to jack nearly every big-time rapper alive. Instead, 50 mostly traffics in line after line of foreboding thug-speak, as on “Heat”: “I do what I gotta do/I don’t care if I get caught/The DA can play this motherfuckin’ tape in court/Bitch, you slipping? I’m-a kill you.” This cold-bloodedness goes hand in hand with a sense of gangsta gravitas, whether he’s asking his listeners to pray for him (“Don’t Push Me”) or claiming he’s going through hell (“Gotta Make It to Heaven”). Given his history of violence, the sense of impending doom on “Many Men (Wish Death)” rings clearer than it would coming out of the mouth of any other rapper, save maybe Biggie and Tupac. Part of the reason he seems so credible, so really real, is because you actually believe 50’s life may be in danger. So what if the video for “In Da Club” — which features Eminem and Dre as puppet masters in lab coats, observing 50 through a one-way mirror — suggests that 50’s producers are clinically exploiting his real-life dramas? Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is so full of life, it makes you hope the only bullets 50 will need to fire from now on are metaphorical.