About a year ago, I went to the first of the big Eminem/Jay-Z stadium shows in Detroit, and I was surprised when 50 Cent emerged onstage for a few songs. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering all the shared history and 50’s proven ability to rock vast crowds. But the mid-decade cold war between 50 and Jay had ended decisively in Jay’s favor, and I’d had a tough time imagining those two sharing a backstage area. And anyway, I basically didn’t think of 50 as a rapper anymore by that point; he was more a weird quasi-celebrity who made tons of shitty straight-to-DVD action movies that nobody watched. But in his 15-or-so minutes onstage, 50 delivered about the most exciting three-song set he could possibly do (“Patiently Waiting,” “In Da Club, “I Get Money”), and I pretty much lost my shit. It was a very serious oh yeah, this guy moment. And on a smaller level, 50’s new mixtape The Big 10 is like that, too.
In retrospect, 50’s fall from dominance happened with mindboggling speed. In just a few years, he went from snarling commercial juggernaut to total cultural nonfactor in unprecedented time. When 50 and Rick Ross got to beefing a couple of years ago, it seemed like 50 would completely decapitate Ross’s career. He had so much to work with (Ross’s prison-guard history, the prolonged flirtation with and sex-tape exploits with various Ross baby-mothers), and he’d once reduced Ja Rule into a punchline with far less. But Rick Ross won decisively without even doing much, simply because he was a fresher character with better songs and because everyone was sick of 50’s cackling-supervillain schtick. 50’s persona had grown so unbelievably grating over the years that he became impervious to sympathy as he once apparently was to bullets. These days, protege Lloyd Banks is actually more popular than 50 in plenty of circles; his world’s upside-down. But in the past few or so, 50’s been having something of a quiet creative renaissance, one that my friend Jayson Greene chronicled nicely in the Village Voice. On those songs, he once again found a sweet spot because he stopped attempting to recapture his lost commercial dominance and simply made 50 Cent music again.
During his fall from grace, 50 hastened things along with a series of clueless crossover moves, like the ultimately damaging big-hit Timberland/Timberlake collab “Ayo Technology.” The music was plenty passable, but it got away from the smirking, melodious stomp-your-face anthems that 50 had built his name on. When 50 mattered, he made unbelievably gruesome threats sound appealing simply by sing-songing them in his slurry bullet-flattened what-me-worry mumble. And he’s back to doing that. The Big 10 is full of the same sort of stuff that made 50 famous: Grisly tough-talk, squirmy sex-talk, triumphant money-talk. And even though his ear for hooks isn’t what it was in 2003, it’s still way sharper than that of just about anyone else in rap. Musically, the tape returns 50 to his thumping synths-and-samples comfort zone; he even rides an utterly shameless KC & The Sunshine Band loop on “Na Na Na,” and he’s back to finding the pocket of every beat that comes his way. But now he’s got the bitter-underdog defiance of someone who knows his moment is over but can’t understand why. 50 might be able to fuck models and swim around in money like Scrooge McDuck for the rest of his life, but his lack of respect still eats at him. It’s a pretty fascinating place to find him. On “Niggas Be Scheming,” he even seems to toss a subliminal at ASAP Rocky, of all people. He’s in uncharted territory.
But weirdly enough, this uncharted territory looks oddly familiar. On the tape’s intro, 50 points out that it’s been a decade since he release 50 Cent Is The Future, the mixtape that made him an underground hero and landed him on Eminem’s radar. When 50 released that tape, he was a bullet-riddled industry castoff who’d burned all his business bridges by threatening to jack all his peers on “How To Rob.” And now he’s back in that same outsider-underdog place, spewing bile at the business from just outside its borders. And he’s back to making outsider-underdog music — stuff that’s catchy and bloodthirsty in equal measure. Sometimes, things come full circle.
Download The Big 10 for free here.