Aaron Beam is the lead vocalist and bassist for Portland, Oregon hard rock group Red Fang. He has also played with Helms Alee and Federation X in addition to writing for the Portland Mercury and working on the film Coraline. When not relentlessly touring the world or making viral music videos, he enjoys cooking, telling bad jokes, and spending time with his family. Aaron used to love beer but no longer drinks it due to a recurring yeast infection on his anus.
In 2003, 50 Cent burst into the mainstream with the huge hit “In da Club” from his massively popular debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The first time I heard the song, it was actually a co-worker of mine singing it, and when I asked him about it, he said he was sure I had heard the song before, as it was blowing up.
I am usually pretty oblivious to mainstream music, and I am also pretty selective about what hip-hop I listen to, but I had been fascinated with Eminem since hearing his debut single “My Name Is,” and finding out there was an association between 50 Cent, Eminem and Dr. Dre intrigued me. And then the infamous backstory about 50, aka Curtis Jackson, getting shot nine times, including in the face? I was practically sold before I heard the first note. And when I heard the track, all my anticipation turned out to be well founded.
The spare production, featuring Dr. Dre’s simple, immediately identifiable Parliament-inspired keyboard stabs, grabbed my attention right off the bat. The hook was infectious, and the bridge even more so. I still put the song on mixes to this day, 11 years later.
And where did 50 Cent go from there? I remember watching him on television, doing live performances with G-Unit right around the time that “In da Club” came out, and being pretty disappointed. Whereas Eminem has an unavoidable presence onstage and can have an entire stadium focused on him alone, 50 seemed to lack confidence and had very little stage presence; he surrounded himself with a giant crew of people onstage. I was starting to feel like there was perhaps a bit too much truth to the storyline in the video for “In da Club,” which suggested 50 was an entertainment robot created by Eminem and Dre.
So, aside from “In da Club” surviving on my iPod, I pretty much totally forgot about 50 Cent as the years went on. Really, the only other thing I remembered about him was the fortune he made when Coca-Cola bought Vitamin Water, which he had a share in. I remember having two thoughts about this. The first was, “Holy fuck, that water with a little bit of food coloring and some chemicals is worth $4.1 billion dollars!?!?!!” and the second of which was, “Wow, 50 Cent sure got lucky in that deal.”
But apparently, 50 Cent fashions himself an entrepreneur, and his latest album Animal Ambition is a hodgepodge of songs purportedly revolving around the themes of prosperity and ambition. But don’t get your hopes up for a concept album about the perils of success. The music is stylistically inconsistent, bordering on incoherent. And then there’s the lyrics. By my count, there are six songs whose theme is no more than “I came up from the streets, and now I am rich,” three songs whose theme is basically “I chase money, not girls,” one love song, and one sappy victory ode to being a rich winner. Actual song titles include “Hustler,” “Chase the Paper” and “Winners Circle.”
I went into this hoping for the best though, and the opening track, “Hold On” offered a brief glimmer of hope that 50 might have a different take on these well-worn subjects: “I woke up this morning, this is insane/Rich as a motherfucker and ain’t much changed/Open my eyes, no surprise, I’m with a different bitch/Different day, different ass, different tits/Strap under my pillow, I done went legit/I’m not supposed to do this shit, but I forget.” At this point, I am expecting a lyrical turn to express his disillusionment with the trite, almost comical ’90s rap themes of becoming rich and famous, driving expensive foreign cars, wearing gold chains, etc.. But no, the line that follows is: “The true principles of life are supply and demand/Guess if you never sold dope/it’s hard to understand.” And it gets worse from there.
To add to the frustration, the line “A different bitch/different day, different ass, different tits” is so ripe with metaphorical opportunity. But it seems that in this case, the words are to be accepted at nothing more than face value. The “different bitch” could have been any number of things. He could have used the word “bitch” as a double entendre to discuss the new problems that arise from being so rich. Instead, he wholly squanders the opportunity. Turns out he is still a fairly single-minded dude. Money, money, money. That’s what it’s all about. Chasing paper.
I have to wonder, though, with the repeated references to being from the streets and carrying a gun and being dangerous, if 50 is starting to feel like he is no longer perceived as dangerous, and desperately wants to remind people that he is. Living such an incredibly hard life as a kid (having an absent father, losing his mother at a young age, becoming a drug dealer at 12, being shot nine times at close range) would, I imagine, feel so ingrained in your identity, that once you became known as the guy who did that song about drinking champagne in the club, it might feel like you were losing your real self to a public persona.
Oddly, though, the songs on this record that feature lyrics about being hard and carrying a gun sound much less menacing than “In da Club” did. Perhaps that is a function of being desensitized to his peculiar, lackadaisical flow. Something about the way he slurs his lines in that song, like he is so bad-ass he can’t even be bothered to enunciate, makes it kind of terrifying. Lyrically, he was just talking about having sex, but it has a threatening quality, like he might be talking about having sex with your woman, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing here has that same menace to it.
It is just hard to buy that 50 is still a threatening dude, given how far removed he now is from the world that produced him. I must reiterate that I am certain that the intensity of his upbringing continues to affect him in a very real way as an adult. Having no father and losing his mother so young probably meant that he had to become emotionally guarded. And that is probably what motivates him to continue to present himself as a hard gangsta. But if you just add up the pieces that the public sees, it is a difficult sell. He has been a millionaire many times over for a decade, based on raps that are mostly about partying and having sex and how rich he is; he made a large part of his fortune in a Vitamin Water deal that pretty much fell into his lap, and he pals around with Oprah.
But another, less contextual part of what makes the potentially threatening songs on Animal Ambition so toothless is a result of 50 using pliers to yank the teeth out himself. One second he is talking about how he still carries a gun and is still hard, but the next second he is saying (on “Irregular Heartbeat”) that “You think my rap shit a gimmick/I ain’t seen parole in a minute.” So is he a gangsta, or is he a rapper who avoids conflict? And don’t even get me started on this line from “Hustler”: “My mind on the money/I ain’t tripping on the hoes/I blew a whole lotta money on clothes/Dig it, I’m a hustler, baby.”
The more I think about it, the greatest weakness of 50, at least on this album, is, ironically, this facade of strength he is putting forth. In fact, I believe if he were more forthcoming about the pain of his upbringing, and presented less of a hard persona, it would come across as a sign of far greater strength. Contrast his style with that of Eminem. Eminem opens up his life like a book. And whether you like what he is presenting or not, he is making himself extremely vulnerable by being so honest and open. It is much much braver to be authentic, and it feels much stronger than all the hard posturing in the world.
All right, having gotten through all the negatives, I would be remiss not to point out that there is one highlight on the record. The best moment comes at the 1:48 mark on “Everytime I Come Around.” However, it’s not even 50, it’s guest Kidd Kidd’s verse. To my ear, this verse sounds like it must have been cut together digitally because he flows uninterrupted from 1:48 until 2:29, delivering every line as if he is about to run out of breath. It is one of the coolest tension-building effects I have heard from an MC in a long time. If he did indeed deliver the entire line in one breath, then it is one of the most impressive rapping achievements I have heard in years. I am sad that it is totally buried in a mediocre track in the middle of a very forgettable album.
Ultimately, none of the lyrical banality or weakness of production on this record would be much of an issue except for one critical point, which is that there is not one memorable hook, melody, or chorus on Animal Ambition. There are just no hits on this album. It is easy to forgive all the weaknesses in the world if there is even just one standout track. But even after repeated listens, I can’t really hum any of the songs. By contrast, “In da Club” was stuck in my head before the song was even over. The strength of 50 Cent is his ability to make a blasé backing track sound amazing. He is prolific at producing melodies, but every hook from Animal Ambition sounds like it is from the B or even C reel.
In the run-up to this release, 50 Cent said in an interview that “With Animal Ambition, the project is about prosperity. I got an interesting way of writing it, ’cause I wrote it from a distorted vision or viewpoint.” When I read that quote, it made me recall when the Bush administration drafted a bill to allow corporations to pump even more pollutants into the atmosphere and called it the “Clear Skies Act.” It seems pretty clear that 50’s team knew exactly what the limitations of the album were, and decided to try to sell them as the opposite and make them into strengths. Unfortunately for them, it only takes 39 minutes to listen to the whole album and see the chicanery for yourself.