50 Cent has embraced many personas throughout this lengthy career: drug dealer, television producer, professional beef-instigator, accidental cryptocurrency millionaire and too many others to mention. However, for many of us, he will be fondly remembered as the rapper who barged into our earholes with both guns blazing, armed with one of the most impactful hip-hop debuts in history: Get Rich Or Die Tryin’.
At the turn of the century, Curtis Jackson was shot nine times in front of his grandmother’s home. Soon after, like Jesus Christ in a du-rag, he was resurrected and proceeded to flood the New York mixtape circuit with street anthems alongside his G-Unit stable. With bullet fragments lodged in his tongue and a Southern drawl, 50 reeked of staunch authenticity; and he had the hard-headed catalogue to back it up. “The only business model I had was from selling drugs, so that’s how I marketed my product,” 50 says. “I knew the only way to get into any market is to give out free samples. I had to build up a clientele before I could see a profit.” Soon after, his 2002 compilation Guess Who’s Back? caught the attention of Eminem, who alongside Dr. Dre, signed him to a million dollar deal on Shady/Aftermath.
50’s shooting and subsequent comeback was the ultimate underdog narrative. He was a crack dealer named after an old Brooklyn stick-up kid, who survived nine gunshot wounds and not only lived to tell the tale, but seemingly stared death in the face with a wide smirk. The hype was overbearing and the stage was set for his debut, and it did not disappoint: Upon dropping in 2003, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ sold 872,000 copies in its first week and made 50 one of the era’s most omnipresent stars. The cover artwork set the tone for the album before you even opened the CD case (because back then, physical CDs were still a thing). It features 50’s ice cold stare, a bullet hole to reference his shooting, and even a Gucci-branded gun holster; one that art director Julian Alexander retouched to avoid legal troubles with the Italian fashion house.
Sonically, the album is unapologetically raw, especially by mainstream standards. Littered with overblown gangsterisms, threats to enemies (as well as their dear mothers) and violent soundscapes, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was a brooding shift away from the early 2000s landscape that saw rappers flirt with pop crossovers with greater frequency. “What Up Gangsta” is still one of the bluntest opening chapters of a rap record, while “Patiently Waiting” features cinematic, looming production and Eminem’s infamous September 11 reference. “Heat” is driven by production centred around gun cocking every few seconds, with 50 noting that it was recorded with his real-life firearms. “We had them with us, so we’d just go in the booth and use it instead of going with a sound effect,” he says.
The album’s assertive tone reaches its cold-blooded crescendo with “Back Down,” a tactical takedown and burial of fellow New Yorker and arch-nemesis, Ja Rule. It’s a feud that’s somehow still continuing in 2018 – via Twitter, of course – and just one of the countless conflicts that 50 has engaged with including Rick Ross, Jadakiss and Fat Joe. In 2007, 50 was able to directly monetize a more playful rivalry with Kanye West, where they competed to have the highest first-week album sales to cash in on their respective Stans. And while that might be a flagrant display of 50’s marketing genius, it was still very much evident on Get Rich Or Die Tryin’.
The album’s biggest chart monster, “In Da Club” begins with the oft-quoted “Go shorty, it’s your birthday” refrain that ensures it plays every time someone turns a year older. 50 referenced the track’s eternal relevance (bolstered by timeless club appeal) by asking, “Every day is someone’s birthday so it sticks around, right?” And as much as 50 criticized Ja Rule for his R&B-flavored romance jams (usually ft. Ashanti), he released his own crossover love confession with “21 Questions.” 50 recalls that Dr. Dre disapproved of the track, asking “How you goin’ to be gangster this and that, and then put this sappy love song on?” Still, 50 had enough charisma to pull off the sweet-toothed radio single and its stupidly goofy punchlines, including “I love you like a fat kid loves cake.”
50 even admits that the album’s ode to marijuana, “High All the Time,” isn’t quite as factual as it is a selling point. “I don’t drink and I don’t use drugs, and I didn’t back then, either,” he says. “I put that joint on the first record because I saw artists consistently selling 500,000 with that content.” And long before the days of influencer seeding and Instagram product promotion, 50 scored big with Steve Jobs when the “P.I.M.P” video featured an early edition iPod in its opening scene. “At the time, I’m the first person to do Apple product placement with the iPod inside a music video, or anything that they spent money on at that point. That dude gave me $175,000 that went against recouping the budget for ‘P.I.M.P,'” he says. “That’s the first time they ever did that, and they did it because I convinced them that I could sell an iPod.”
From his gangster demeanor to lucrative endorsement deals, it’s easy to see how Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and its stunning chart success impacted hip-hop today. 50 isn’t the world’s most technical lyricist, but his commanding presence, entrepreneurial mindset and standover persona made the album all the more magnetic, and a destructive Godzilla of the rap game and beyond. Plus, he’s probably the only person on the planet that could build a sizeable chunk of his empire on the fact that he was shot nine times, where most of us would have just rolled over and died. For those entering their teens when 50 rose to prominence, he isn’t just a rapper; he represented an exciting era that was dictated by flip phones, getting viruses off Limewire and buying albums with those little ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers on them.
If you love this record, you’ll remember watching 50 do upside-down sit-ups in the “In Da Club” video while Dr. Dre and Eminem stand pensively in laboratory coats, looking like they’re carefully crafting the rap game’s answer to the Terminator. You’ll quote every word of the skits from “Heat” and “Back Down” that offer a little relief on the dense record. You’ll be able to perfectly time that first bark on “Blood Hound.” And while he’s far from a high school teacher, you’ll remember that 50 taught teens around the world what ‘Wanksta’ means and that ‘Southside Jamaica’ isn’t actually in Jamaica, but in Queens, New York.
Last Friday in Australia, 50 played a colossal show to commemorate 15 years since Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ dropped. Although his setlist was dominated by his latter singles, and despite the fact that he didn’t wear a bulletproof vest, I can’t help but feel a tingle down my spine when the lights dim for “Many Men.” 50 may have never reached the heights set by his blockbuster debut, but listening back on Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, it seems like that might be all that he needed.
For more like this, read our tribute to Kanye West’s seminal ‘Dark Fantasy’-cut “Devil in a New Dress” right here.
- Cover Image: Scott Gries/Getty Images
- Words: Christopher Kevin Au