Every Goliath needs his David, especially in hip-hop circles, and for the past few years, no one’s been happier playing the role of giant slaya than 50 Cent. The ride began with his brazen 1999 single ”How to Rob,” in which he took down everyone from Bobby Brown to Juvenile to Mariah Carey. Then last year’s surly, rubbery-grooved breakthrough ”Wank-sta” took aim at 50’s current archnemesis, the unabashedly careerist Ja Rule: ”Me, I’m no acta,” 50 proclaimed. (Judging by his arrest record and jail time, plus the wounds he sustained after being shot nine times in 2000, he’s certainly not pretending to be a gangsta.) Whether 50 Cent was seriously bugged by rap-industry excesses or was simply looking to call attention to himself, he reveled in rubbing the hip-hop elite the wrong way.
So what happens when the giant killer is on the verge of becoming a giant himself? That question hovers over Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the hyper-anticipated major-label debut from 50 Cent, who spent years recording and releasing discs independently. Eminem, the man behind 50’s crossover break, not only signed the rapper to his Shady label but also produced two tracks here. (The album may be the first instance of a white rapper guiding a black one — a sort of historic moment, and another indication of how much Eminem can get away with.) You expect 50 to pick up where he left off and start a few new feuds, and he does. With Eminem joining him at the mic on ”Patiently Waiting,” 50 declares, ”Industry niggas ain’t friends.” On ”U Not Like Me,” he takes a shot at easy target P. Diddy: ”He got fat while we starved.”
Overall, though, biting remarks are held in check, as if 50 doesn’t want to offend rappers he may now run into on ”TRL.” Instead, he spends the bulk of ”Get Rich or Die Tryin”’ riffing on his crime-ridden past (”Got a Purple Heart for war, and I ain’t never left the city”) or rolling out old-school gangsta talk of Glocks and bitches. Anyone expecting Ashanti or some other hook girl to appear will be sorely disappointed. The focus here is 50, who compares himself to Muhammad Ali on ”Many Men (Wish Death),” brags about smoking ”that good s — -” on ”High All the Time,” and threatens to kill someone ”when the coke price is too high” on ”What Up Gangsta.” As reality-based as the words may be, we’ve heard variations on these themes before, and 50, far from being the world’s most nimble rhymer, doesn’t always infuse them with new power. Some of the humor falls flat (”If I don’t smell so good, would you still hug me?” he asks coyly in the smarmy ”21 Questions”). And not enough lines make you backtrack for another listen, like his crack about a certain ex-Fugee did on the ”8 Mile” soundtrack’s ”Love Me” (”Used to listen to Lauryn Hill and tap my feet/Then the bitch put out a CD that didn’t have no beats”).
50 Cent is known for a posse that sports bulletproof vests, and an equally strong crew of producers — Dr. Dre, Sean Blaze, and Rocwilder among them — has his back throughout the album. As trite as the sentiments of ”Blood Hound” seem, Blaze’s slithery grooves and textures enhance 50’s stone-faced delivery; Darrell ”Digga” Branch (Jay-Z, Ludacris) turns the prison tale ”Many Men (Wish Death)” into a sinuous piece of hip-hop soul. Dre and coproducer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Elizondo offer up ”If I Can’t,” a celebratory bit of G-funk. Eminem’s two tracks, meanwhile, don’t make much of a case for him as a producer. With 50 Cent imitating Em’s flow, those songs come across as little more than dollar-store versions of Em’s incendiary work, and it’s hard to tell who’s to blame — rapper or producer.
50 Cent strives to emulate his mentor in other ways, too. As the album title asserts, he wouldn’t mind becoming the kind of cash-generating star he has routinely mocked. He never addresses that contradiction, but does make his goals bracingly clear on the current single ”In Da Club.” As Dre churns out another of his classical-rap stomps, 50 boasts unashamedly of his career objectives and newly flush bank account: ”I’m feelin’ focus, man, my money on my mind/Got a mil out the deal and I’m still on the grind.” If he stays that driven, 50 Cent may wind up the Goliath he wants to be — complete with a grudge-toting David of his own staring him down, waiting for the mighty to stumble.