Retrospective: Get Rich or Die Tryin’
“I get shot in the face and it knocks a tooth out of my mouth and now I make a little hiss sound when I speak, but this is the voice that has sold nine-million records so I got shot in the face for a reason” – Curtis Jackson, 2003
For some, the album that brought them to hip-hop. For some, the start of the rot.
Before Eminem signed him to a seven-figure contract in 2002, the Jamaica Queens native Curtis Jackson lived through what most rap stars simply postured about. Raised in a broken home, Jackson started hustling young. Crack dealing was lucrative but also carried with it spells in prison, stabbings and shootings – all of which would feed into the 50 Cent persona. Spotted by Run D.M.C’s DJ Jam Master Jay in 1996, 50 Cent began crafting his debut album Power of the Dollar. In 1999, the LP’s lead single How to Rob gained attention due to its controversial, darkly humorous lyrical content – in which 50 detailed his plans to mug a long list of major hip-hop artists.
The bravado backfired in May 2000 when an assassin tried to take 50 Cent’s life. With one bullet in the cheek, one in the hand, and seven in the legs 50 was lucky to survive, and Columbia Records shamefully offloaded him immediately, terminating his contract and scrapping the album. With the facial injury altering his vocal style, Jackson returned to the NYC hip-hop underground. He formed the G-Unit collective and churned out mixtapes that built his rep – not just for his baiting of arch-rival Ja Rule, but for the venom with which he addressed the failure of an increasingly out of touch hip-hop mainstream. Eminem won the ensuing bidding war, signing 50 to Aftermath, and pulling 50 into the studio to work with him and Dr. Dre on what was by then the most highly-anticipated hip-hop LP of the year. Wanksta got a preview on the 8 Mile soundtrack, and then In Da Club exploded.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was at the time the biggest selling debut album in hip-hop history. In Da Club, Wanksta, 21 Questions and P.I.M.P were huge crossover smashes and little Curtis Jackson from Southside Jamaica, Queens, could legitimately call himself the most discussed figure in hip-hop, as likely to grace the cover of The Source as the New York Times. You could sense it was a level of attention 50 wasn’t entirely comfortable with. All the pan-media interest (sustained by almost constantly being questioned by police for various shooting incidents) set a firm wedge between 50 and the hip-hop cognoscenti, a wedge that still remains.
For a lot of hip-hop fans Get Rich… was less an album than a commercial fact, and 50 is the artist who pioneered the phenomenon of rappers being more famous for their jail sentences and beefs than their music. A lot of hip-hop heads saw, and still see, 50 as a rapper for non-rap fans. A rapper whose exploits distracted from the one-dimensionality of his music, the simplistic, monomaniacal nature of his lyrical focus. What these snobs overlook is that hip-hop has always thrived on a mix of genuinely multi-direction genii and single-minded maniacs. Maniacs like Schooly D or Snoop Dogg, so seemingly engrossed in a single subject – themselves – that their whole careers can be seen as one long, indulgent, public confession.
Although from LA and Detroit respectively, Dre and Em’s production was classic East Coast gnarliness throughout. Inevitable comparisons to Pac and Biggie showed 50 wanting in terms of lyrical skills. But listening to the album in 2018 it’s precisely his lyrical limitations – the mumbling Southern-rap-influenced monotony and almost robotic lack of emotion – that works a treat, rendering the album a strangely vivid premonition of trap’s monomania and confinements. Where so many big-name rappers in 2003 (Diddy, Nelly) were busy softening rap, blurring the lines between pop and hip-hop, Get Rich… was a reaffirmation of gangsta rap in a world crying out for a new thug god.
If you’ve ever listened to Jeezy, Rick Ross, The Game or anyone currently plying gangsta motifs, it’s 50’s resuscitation job on the genre via Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that you should thank. In mixing Southern-style textures with gritty East Coast lyrical content, 50 hit on a template still being explored now. You can feel its effect on any of the mixtape sites, radio stations, rap gossip feeds and Twitter beefs where hip-hop currently lives. Wherever style obliterates substance, wherever visibility trumps longevity, wherever impact matters more than music, you will hear Get Rich…’s influence. Without a doubt, better hip-hop albums were released in 2003. Yet none casts quite so long a shadow, for good or ill.
Original release date: 6 February 2003
Label: Aftermath / Shady / Interscope