The problematic New York rapper built his brand on shock value and adjusted his approach to keep that same energy in today’s climate.
(Image via Getty/Jordi Vidal)
A few weeks ago, 50 Cent did something out of character: He caved to public pressure.
Curtis Jackson had recently hit up Trey Songz to remix the theme song for Power—the Starz drama that 50 Cent produces and acts in. The R&B singer was reluctant to participate, but 50 convinced him it was a good idea. When the remix dropped, fans let 50 have it. The show’s passionate fanbase felt connected to the original “Big Rich Town” song by Joe. They weren’t ready for change.
It’s a relationship that 50 acknowledged in a recent interview on The Breakfast Club:
“It’s the Sanford & Son type thing. You need that record. If it doesn’t play like that, you don’t even know the show’s coming on.”
It was a relatively humbling moment from someone who rarely gives a fuck. 50 Cent doesn’t apologize or soften his stance for anyone. It’s a persona that the “In Da Club” rapper has stayed true to. In the early 2000s, he embodied his role as America’s Favorite Gangsta. But as we approach 2020, those same antics have made him Hip-Hop’s Problematic Uncle. He bullies Wendy Williams, defends R. Kelly, and makes fun of tsunami victims. There’s not much he can do that will surprises us.
But 50 has yet to be silenced by cancel culture. The 44-year-old knows exactly where “the line” is. He crosses it often, but stop before it damages his long-term opportunities. His evolution is a fascinating, although troubling, microcosm today’s fragmented landscape.
Shock value saved his life
In the 90s, 50 Cent was just another New York rapper vying to break out. He had a co-sign from Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay, got signed by Columbia Records, but was still relatively quiet.
Things changed in 1999 when he dropped “How to Rob”, a parody diss track that made fun of every big name artist in the game.
He reflected on “How to Rob” in an interview with AOL:
“I did it cuz…when you’re on a major label.. there’s a hundred artists on that label… you gotta separate yourself from that group and make yourself relevant… all I was doing with that record was makin everybody at one time say “WHO’S 50 CENT? Who is this guy?”…And it worked.”
50 generated more buzz with songs like “Ghetto Qu’ran”, which name-dropped several drug dealers in Jamaica Queens, NY. But months later, 50 Cent got shot nine times. During his recovery, his record label dropped him. His near-death experience gave him a chip on his shoulder. It was an effective marketing tool that launched a memorable mixtape run, which put him on Eminem and Dr. Dre’s radar.
The iconic album cover for Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was a reminder to America that he got shot nine times and lived to tell the story. His relentless disses at Ja Rule and Murder Inc. were publicity stunts to increase his popularity. The brand appeal of 50 Cent was fueled by the lines he was willing to cross.
As 50’s brand grew, the partnership opportunities expanded. The brands that were best fits for 50 were those that also thrived on shock value. Back then, Reebok was all in on hip-hop culture with its partnerships with Allen Iverson, 50 Cent, and Jay Z. Additionally, Vitamin Water was eager to make waves in the beverage industry and benefited from 50’s association. Similarly, Effen Vodka teamed up with 50 Cent to follow the example set by Ciroc’s partnership with Diddy. Everyone wanted in on the 50 Cent show.
“Shock value” in today’s climate
As times changed, Curtis Jackson adapted his approach to shock value. It made his job both easier and harder.
It’s easier because 50 can raise hell on social media. In the past, 50 relied on diss tracks, visits to Hot 97, and appearances on 106 & Park to start beef with someone. The gatekeepers—record labels, radio, and TV — amplified his message to the masses.
With Instagram and Twitter, 50 can now start shit with whoever, have an audience of followers who endearingly engage, and get popular hip-hop websites to write articles about his trolling.
But social media has desensitized us to the outlandish antics that drove 50’s initial rise. If today’s rappers tried to execute 50 Cent’s 2002 playbook, it would hardly raise eyebrows. Those that tried to modify that playbook, like Tekashi 6ix9ine, took it too far and turned out as expected.
To stay true to his brand, 50 had to take things to another level. He discussed this evolution in a 2018 interview with Business Insider:
“I knew that the premium cable space, Starz is the place for me because of how graphic our culture has become. In music culture, youth culture, hip-hop culture, things are a little different.
At one point, to give you an example, I would write a song that said ‘I’ll take you to the candy shop’ and it was graphic at the point we were releasing that song. But now, solo artists are using lines like ‘you gotta eat the booty like groceries’. In this climate, you have to make adjustments. What am I supposed to say for shock value if I gotta to eat the booty like groceries?”
50’s partnership with Starz was a match made in heaven. There’s only a handful of companies that would put up with 50 telling fans to cancel their Starz subscriptions! Can you imagine if Zendaya told people to cancel their HBO subscriptions because she was in a dispute with the producers for Euphoria?
In this climate (to use 50’s words), he had to find business partners that either embraced his trolling persona or could care less about it. That group of partners is smaller than it once was, but there’s still more than enough money available from those partners.
From rapper to mogul… back to rapper?
Earlier this week on the same Breakfast Club interview, 50 responded to a very relevant question about how he gets away with all his outlandish statements:
“My brand is built different. They like to put you in the mogul section, I like to stay rapper.” They want to say, ‘You’re a mogul now, you can’t say that shit 50!’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a rapper. So I can still say what I feel, like my honest opinion.’ I know you look and say ‘in this climate why would you say some shit like that’ and some of the stuff I say, and it’s because of the way I made myself into this position.”
This implies that the expectations for “rappers” is lower than it is for “moguls”, but there are two issues with this. First, this distinction is now blurred. Most of today’s rappers have numerous business interests. Young Thug and Tyler, The Creator have more business ventures than the average entertainment ‘mogul’. It’s foolish for someone like 50 Cent to separate himself from that class.
Second, 50 didn’t always view himself this way. For years, 50 proudly welcomed his status as a hip-hop mogul. His business pursuits were discussed in the same breath as Jay Z and Diddy’s were. He got the same glowing coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other outlets.
50 Cent hasn’t been “canceled” because he preemptively canceled himself. He now solely focuses on brands that embrace his shock value and avoids outlets that would be outraged by his behavior.
For instance, 50 Cent caused a stir when he mocked Terry Crews’ sexual harassment. A petition with nearly 40,000 signatures called for Starz to cut ties with 50 Cent and remove him from the show. If Power was on ABC, the petition might have led to a mandatory public apology by 50 Cent. But today’s version of 50 would never make a show for ABC for that specific reason.
Is this problematic? Yes. Of course it is. But this is the culture we live in.
The great aspect of today’s consumer landscape is that there are more ways than ever to reach an audience and get paid for it. The troubling thing about today’s consumer landscape is that there are more ways than ever to reach an audience and get paid for it.
50 said that he’s yet to lose out on an opportunity because of his antics. Even he has lines he won’t cross. He turned down Donald Trump’s $500,000 offer to appear at a 2016 campaign rally. He also disassociated himself from his former ‘son’, Tekashi 6ix9ine.
But even folks who actually get ‘canceled’ still get their money one way or another. Look at someone like Azealia Banks. She has largely been blackballed in hip-hop for her consistently abhorrent remarks but still has a record label that releases her music, still has a fanbase, and still gets media coverage when her music drops. Her behavior may have stunted the potential she had after “212” came out, but there’s still a place for her to make money with an engaged base.
The same is true for 50. He’s smart enough to know where his place is and when to stop. And the way his businesses are set up, he won’t change any time soon.
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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie: info [at] trapital.co