The Villain Everyone Loved: How 50 Cent's 'Get Rich or Die Tryin' Made Him a Rap God 15 Years Ago
Fifteen years ago today, 50 Cent had the country clutching its pearls while he took over as rap’s new supervillain. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was his sinister magnum opus, an Empire Strikes Back against rap’s would-be heroes. America has always had a soft spot for bad guys, and 50 Cent used that knowledge to create one of the biggest moments in rap history.
In the months leading up to the February 2003 release of Get Rich, underground circles had already been hip to 50 Cent -- if not from his mischievous, rapper-jacking single “How To Rob” during a previous deal with Columbia Records, then from his legendary unsigned mixtape run that led labels to a bidding war. Eventually, he settled upon a $1 million deal with Eminem and Dr. Dre’s respective Shady Records and Aftermath Entertainment labels. After establishing his mythology -- largely built around his surviving an attack where he was shot nine times in front of his house in 2000 -- his newfound crew introduced him to their audience.
First, this came through several songs on the soundtrack to 8 Mile, a starring vehicle for Eminem. “Wanksta” established 50’s authenticity with images of him chiding fake gangstas; “Rap Game” showcased his penchant for melody; “Love Me” showcased his willingness to shock people, with its references to R. Kelly’s sex tape and Lil Kim’s surgeries; and a freestyle over Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” showed that he could get busy with the flow. A then-important XXL magazine cover labeled the trio as “Triple Threat” -- and a blowout hit, “In Da Club,” proved it, earning a No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and a platinum plaque.
Rap was prime for a villain in 2003: 50 was the antagonist, and he had plenty of would-be heroes to terrorize. The year before, the charts were ran by the likes of Nelly and Ludacris, friendly faces who wooed women and filled dance floors. Kanye West was preparing rap for his own culture-shifting career with an early mixtape, Get Well Soon. And even Eminem veered from rap’s usual avatar, a goofball white rapper who talked about hating his mother, popping drugs and killing his baby’s mother.
Like many Trump supporters felt about their ways of life in 2016, some rap loyalists in the early 2000s felt that the hip-hop they loved -- street, irreverent, and uncut -- was becoming extinct in the name of poppier crossover fare. 50 Cent had a lineup of both covert, and in the case of Ja Rule, overt enemies; and with his muscle-bound frame and his 2Pac-ian invincibility, he was the leader who could take on those foes.
With a constituency under duress, 50 was able to twist any bit of info to his will on Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, and listeners were none the wiser. On ”Back Down,” he accused the chart-reigning Ja Rule of “singing for hoes, and sound[ing] like the Cookie Monster” -- but four tracks later, he used his own penchant for melody to drive his single “21 Questions” to radio dominance. He presented himself as an underdog and as the gritty antithesis of rap’s elitism, which was true to a point since he was nearly killed and dropped by his label.
But by signing to Shady/Aftermath, he gained the backing of the time’s most successful crew in rap. Fresh off the success of Eminem’s third multi-platinum album in a row (The Eminem Show), the multi-platinum Dr. Dre comeback LP that arguably established him as the greatest producer of all time (2001), and a blockbuster film that featured him on several soundtrack songs (8 Mile), 50 Cent had just as much, if not more corporate backing than the rappers he was rhyming about sticking up four years earlier. He was full of contradictions, but for his fans, it wasn’t an issue: either they were too lost in the sauce to recognize it, they figured it was means to an end of their values being represented, or they were satisfied with seeing the rap game burn.
It also helps that the hypocrisy sounded damn good - Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ still bangs, from the opening coin flip and cassette button of the intro. 50’s catchy, melodic hooks and bridges consistently hit their mark, whether it was to celebrate weed he wasn’t really smoking (“High All The Time”), to commemorate his rise to success (“If I Can’t”), or to recount his brush with death (“Many Men”). Eminem lent a pair of verses while at the peak of his powers with “Patiently Waiting” and “Don’t Push Me,” and 50 did more than keep up with his own vivid metaphors and strapping mic presence.
Singles like “P.I.M.P.” and “21 Questions” found their way to the pop charts, while a song like “Heat” could never live on radio with its gunshots for drums. Then there’s the production, overseen by none other than Dr. Dre himself -- his booming low-end always did its job, adding irresistibility (“In Da Club”) and menace (“Back Down”) with equal efficiency. And the album’s other producers (Mr. Porter, Sha Money XL, Eminem) kept up with Dre, lending an ominous, foreboding tone worthy of rap’s shadowy, bulletproof antihero. Like Slim Charles said on The Wire, “If it’s a lie, we fight on that lie” -- and 50 Cent gave his fans a lie that was worth fighting on, to the tune of six million copies sold by the end of the year.
Now, 15 years later, it turns out that most of those fears that rap fans had were ill-founded. Gangsta rap never truly recovered its footing, but hip-hop is blossoming with creativity and reaching new heights, with the melody that 50 both chastised and maximized still playing an integral part in that growth. Some may question the authenticity of newer artists, but the music is as diverse as ever, connecting to people with different experiences. Even if it’s not as East Coast-centric, street rap isn’t extinct by any stretch - it lives on through artists like ScHoolboy Q, YG and Freddie Gibbs, as long as one is willing to go get it.
50 was one of the last rappers to sign under one or more superstars who seemed invested in making him a superstar who’s just as big; most stars with their vanity labels now seem to either intentionally sign lesser talent, or to impede that talent’s success by taking their potential hit songs for themselves. But all in all, hip-hop is doing fine despite what seemed like a state of crisis in early 2003.
Meanwhile, 50 Cent is all but gone from rap altogether. His next two albums The Massacre and Curtis both sold well, and he’s found other business and entertainment successes like his hit show Power, but his faculties faded over the years when his attacks couldn’t destroy his rivals and his choruses could no longer wiggle their way into the public consciousness. 50 essentially made his coup and rode off into the night - like Keyser Soze fake limping his way out of the police station in Usual Suspects, and how Trump will almost certainly leave behind public service after his time in the Oval Office, out as quickly as he hopped in.
50 jokingly compared Trump to Kanye West during a recent visit to CONAN, but his own career bears a stronger resemblance. On its 15-year anniversary, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a reminder that with the right script, anyone can fall for the bad guy.