50 Cent Inc.
A perfect storm of exposure - including films, a book and a video game - highlights a rags-to-riches rap icon.
There is a moment in the arc of an artist's public life when the heavens open wide. It's not the initial blast, the coming-out moment when he introduces himself to the world. And it's not the embarrassing moment, the court case or reality-TV appearance that drags him through the mud with cameras rolling.
And for 50 Cent, born Curtis James Jackson III (a.k.a. Boo-Boo) in July 1976 in Queens, N.Y., the time is now.
"I liked the music, and I saw him in a video with Snoop Dogg, and I got his story," film director Jim Sheridan said recently after a long day of massaging "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," which is the hotly anticipated 50 Cent biopic due in theaters Nov. 9.
"Although it was a bit predictable, I liked the idea of his story. And the first time I met him - at a hotel, Fitzpatrick's, in New York, where I know the owner - he was very interesting. I can usually tell from talking with a person if he can act. And he can."
"A working-class story"
50's soaring popularity - his moment in the spotlight - is really no surprise in this modern and formulaic age of entertainment staging and cross-platform marketing.
Just look at Eminem's moment, which came around the release of "8 Mile" in 2002. There was a still-hot album on the radio and a soundtrack with new material on the way. And amid the hype Interscope Records and Universal Pictures could muster, Eminem's first feature film hit with a bang heard round the world.
It was impressive, but 50 Cent learned from his Detroit-born mentor, and his boom will shake the heavens - or at least heavenly cash registers.
50's ever-expanding clothing line is red hot. His anticipated video game "50 Cent: Bulletproof" is out Nov. 22 and has been nominated for six awards at next month's third-annual Spike TV Video Game Awards. His new biography "From Pieces to Weight" is out, and it's not the only medium telling his dramatic, rags-to-riches story.
There's also a straight-to-DVD documentary on his life, "50 Cent: Refuse to Die," in stores Nov. 8. But the much-awaited cornerstone is Paramount Pictures' "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," an "8 Mile"-esque biopic of 50's story with the help of esteemed director Sheridan ("In America," "In the Name of the Father" and "My Left Foot").
"He's pretty hardworking, very charismatic and self-confident - but not in a egotistical way," said Sheridan, who, as a 56-year-old Irish film director, is 50 Cent's most unlikely fan. "It was great getting to tell a working-class story in America ... The way you have the black culture in opposition - Black Panthers and the different formations - and suddenly you have gangsta rappers who take capitalism at face value. And in some way, that's more scary to middle America than them actually criticizing it. That's what 50 Cent is about."
50 Cent is a product of his generation - and a beneficiary of those who came before him. Without the success of Diddy and Jay-Z and others, would 50 Cent - who survived an assassination attempt in a 2000 shooting - have hit as hard and large as he has?
"If someone like 50 had come along five or seven years ago in the same exact guise that he had, he wouldn't have been able to find the same success," said music journalist Jon Caramanica, who was born and raised in New York City. "The selling of gangsta culture has been a response to the kind of ostentatious culture of hip-hop in the mid- to late-'90s. It allowed room for that different narrative. People were getting tired of artists more invested in jewelry and fashion than they were in the narrative. And 50 benefited from that."
It wasn't until the late-'80s that "gangsta" was spelled that way and introduced into the popular lexicon by rhyme-slingers N.W.A., Ice-T and the journalists covering the burgeoning West Coast hard-core rap movement. But that remained on the fringe for a long while as other, cleaner, fluffier acts such as DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and MC Hammer rocked the radio and larger performance spaces. Even today, the gangsta pose remains controversial, as demonstrated this week when some people in L.A. objected to Paramount billboards promoting the upcoming film that show 50 Cent holding a gun in his left hand and a microphone in his right.
"Hip-hop is a funny thing," said Thomas DeFrantz, associate professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It wasn't built on the idea of realness in the '80s. It wasn't until the '90s when it started representing the realness, where your credibility was built on being a gangbanger and being shot up. (50 is) coming in at the right moment to all this. It's Horatio Alger again, rising up from way underneath, from way below to bring out all this media, all this convergence."
Raised on hip-hop
As a commodity, 50 has eclipsed most other pop culture icons dollar-for-dollar.
"It is extremely unusual (he's accomplished all this), because what's not unusual are the drugs, the violent shootings and stabbings," said Mike Corbera, who directed "50 Cent: Refuse to Die" and the similar "Eminem AKA" in 2004. "(50 Cent and Eminem) have broken and set standards that few, if any, artists have ever achieved. These guys are breaking new ground, and that's a sign ... These guys are the Beatles and Elvis of today."
50 still seems restless for more recognition and attention. It's hard to blame him. His drug-addicted mom was murdered when he was 8. Grandparents raised 50, whose only allies were his little green Army men and the occasional sympathetic family member.
But they were few and far between. As an ignored, 8-year-old, Boo-Boo took Ritalin and was sent on cocaine runs for his uncles. Three years later he made his first of many profitable drug transactions.
The more developmentally profitable experiences of his youth came in the form of his aunts' dollar parties. "They charged their friends one dollar to come into the backyard and party," 50 wrote in "From Pieces to Weight." The title refers to his promotion in the dealing realm from moving small pieces of cocaine to larger amounts, or weight, of crack.
"Those parties were my earliest experiences in marketing. They were also the first time I got to see how hip-hop affected people. A lot of times, they played old soul grooves and everyone just played it real cool. But when a hip-hop song came on, the party really got jumping. The guys would all start rapping with the music, and the girls would break out into little dance routines."
And 50 has been hooked ever since - on the music and that accompanying rush of adrenaline. 50's latest full-length CD, "The Massacre," already had sold more than 6 million copies worldwide when he rereleased it in September, ambitiously including a music video for every track on the record.
On the soundtrack to the new feature film, out Nov. 8, 50 appears on all but four of its 17 tracks, which feature G-Unit family members Young Buck, Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, Olivia and Mobb Deep. On the strength of the singles "Hustler's Ambition" and "Window Shopper," the record could very well take off à la Eminem's soundtrack to "8 Mile," which sold 3.5 million copies in America in 2002.
"He's got his finger on the pulse of pop culture right now, and he's kind of dictating how it all plays out," said Andre Emerson, an executive producer with Vivendi Universal Games, the creator of "50 Cent: Bulletproof."
How long at the top?
"Some people see 50's life as a parallel to a Rocky story, a rags-to-riches story of the underdog - and America likes to root for the underdog. To see this guy who came from a broken home and a tough life and upbringing turn everything he's involved with into a success is just incredible. The number of things he's doing well, it seems unsurpassed by any other artist out there.
"That's why it was critical we had the game ready this year," said Emerson, who said his staff did 24 months worth of work on "Bulletproof" in 18 months to meet this deadline, "to be in the middle of the film, the soundtrack, everything he's got going on."
50 is a commodity more than he is an entertainer. But on both fronts, you're dealing with a fickle consumer base.
"Can you imagine the pressure of being that one guy?" asks MIT's DeFrantz. "The other side of all this attention is that the stakes become unimaginable and pretty much impossible. There's no way to sustain this visibility and exposure."
DeFrantz said all that attention soon will shift to someone else. "And the cycles are only getting shorter and shorter."
Nonetheless, he said, it's important for "these individuals to stand for a moment. And it's one of the ways we can connect around the country and around the world. This is something we all know, we've all seen the movie, and we all know the song.
"It's a cultural flash point, giving us stories to talk about. And we need these big, pop-conglomerate characters just as much as we need the underground and local scenes, local musicians and bands."