Essay

After Empire: What’s The Future Of Hip-Hop On Scripted Television?

The recent announcement that Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson would be developing a single camera comedy called My Friend 50 for FOX was surprising for a few reasons. FOX has been breaking ratings records this year with a hip-hop drama, Empire, but one of the show’s most public detractors has been 50 Cent, who sees it as a competitor to Power, the somewhat similarly themed drama he produces for the Starz network. Perhaps 50 Cent has taken an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude towards FOX, or perhaps FOX is just happy to be in the business of scripted television about rap with anyone now that it’s so profitable.

The news about 50 and FOX comes just a couple months after ABC Family announced plans to air a comedy series executive produced by Nicki Minaj and based on her teenage years in Queens, the latest of several rappers with shows in the pipeline. Donald Glover, the actor who parlayed a role on the sitcom Community into a successful rap career as Childish Gambino, will be starring in a half-hour comedy about underground rap, Atlanta, on FX next year. Former Das Racist rapper Heems has gotten a script commitment from FOX to develop a sitcom based on his life and tentatively named after his 2015 album Eat Pray Thug. And Sean “Diddy” Combs is developing a series with ABC called The Hustle, based on his former assistant Sarah Snedeker’s experience’s working for the rap mogul.

What’s notable about all these series is that while Empire’s success and Straight Outta Compton’s huge box office may have helped get them into development, none of these half-hour comedies seem to be coming for Empire’s hip-hop soap-opera crown. And they will all feature successful rappers either playing themselves, portraying a character who is also a rapper, or telling their life story. Cable television is full of reality shows about rappers and rap-adjacent celebrities — VH1, which for 20 years was the video channel that never played rap, now has an entire primetime slate dominated by reality shows about rappers. But scripted television has a higher barrier of entry, both in terms of budget and in terms of the writing and acting talent required to make a show work.

It’s been 25 years since Will Smith used The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air as a stepping stone from his rap career to movie-star glory. But ’90s sitcoms like Fresh Prince, LL Cool J’s In The House, and Queen Latifah’s Living Single all depicted their stars living fairly normal middle-class lives, far removed from rap stardom. Hip-hop was being used as farm system to recruit charismatic performers who were ready to make the jump to primetime, but the rap world was still a little too edgy to be considered subject matter for network television. Even as Hollywood slowly flooded with successful rappers-turned-actors like Ice Cube, Common, and oh yeah, that Marky Mark guy, they were seldom asked to actually play rappers. Networks have discovered lately that catering to the African American viewership is good for ratings. But rappers have only scored supporting roles in the latest high-profile projects with black casts, including Common in the recent The Wiz Live and T.I. in an upcoming remake of Roots.

It wasn’t that long ago that rappers playing themselves onscreen didn’t seem like such a booming business. In 2005, 50 Cent starred in Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, a gritty drama loosely based on his life in the mold of Eminem’s 8 Mile, but it was a dud at the box office. Method Man and Redman parlayed their hit stoner comedy into a 2004 series on FOX where they played themselves, Method And Red, but the dull laugh-track sitcom was quickly cancelled. In 2011, Limp Bizkit rapper/screamer Fred Durst developed a sitcom for CBS with the working title Douchebag that was loosely based on his life, but it never got on the air. And in 2007 Kanye West made a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style pilot for HBO in which he improvised his way through scenes based on his life, but the painfully awkward clips that leaked years later made everybody cringe, and not in the good Larry David way.

My Friend 50 actually sounds a bit like 50 Cent’s own twist on what his old rival Kanye attempted, a mockumentary-style single camera comedy about what it’s like to be in 50 Cent’s entourage. And the thing is, 50 Cent hasn’t made compelling rap music on a consistent basis in a decade, but he might actually make some funny television. 50’s brief, memorable cameo on Entourage spawned a thousand gifs. His social media presence has taken an odd, hilarious turn in recent years, tweeting disarmingly honest reflections on subjects such as jerking off. And anyone who’s familiar with 50’s countless diss tracks for Ja Rule, the Game, Rick Ross, and other enemies knows how profanely witty he can be.

The shows being developed by Minaj and Heems sound like they’ll follow the Wonder Years-inspired formula of Chris Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat: a celebrity narrating humorous dramatizations of their adolescence. And those stories may or may not involve the future rap stars discovering their talent for performing or falling in love with hip-hop, or they may be more universal coming-of-age stories. But the fact that network TV wants these rappers to tell us about their lives, instead of coming up with a convoluted backstory about going off to live with their Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil in Bel Air, is a strange, small sign of progress.