The Diamond In The Dirt: 50 Cent’s ‘Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ Turns 20

Casey Taylor reflects on 50 Cent's violent symphony of American desperation.
By    January 31, 2023

Image via 50 Cent/Instagram

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Casey Taylor is working on finding the optimal Twitter formula, which includes muting words such as “me” and “Ben Simmons.”

Don’t think you safe cause you moved out the hood
‘Cause your mama still around, dawg, and that ain’t good.
If you get smart, you’ll be shook of me,
Cause I get tired of lookin for you, spray your mama crib, and let your ass look for me.
– 50 Cent – “Heat”

Even 50 Cent’s name was a curated statement, named for a neighborhood stick-up artist infamous for robbing celebrities. As with all nicknames on the street, there’s about a million different explanations for how Kelvin Martin came to be known as 50 Cent, but the most plausible is that he would rob you even if you only had 50 cents in your pocket.

Curtis Jackson’s iteration of 50 Cent carried this message forward with his first notable single, “How to Rob,” a 4-minute satirical romp about jacking all the rappers more famous than he was at the time. Most took it in stride, including Jay-Z who gave 50 the heads up that he was going to respond in his own track (“I’m about a dollar / what the fuck is 50 Cent”).

But not everyone was thrilled to be mocked by an up-and-comer. For all the posturing that rappers do on their tracks about street activity, the boasts are normally supported by past behavior or associations, as is currently on display while various district’s attorneys around the country try to prosecute rappers and use their lyrics as evidence. These are also the folks who decide who does or doesn’t get to put out an album, so 50 Cent’s challenge to the status quo had very real and dangerous consequences.

It’s easy to remember the Ja Rule disses, which hilariously and effectively sunk Ja’s career. But the people involved in the business end of Murder Inc. were no joke. When 50 Cent released another track, “Ghetto Quran,” some in the New York streets thought it revealed too much about the street code, which led to some very bad shit going down.

50 was shot nine times outside of his grandmother’s house and blacklisted from the music industry by the powerful and violent gatekeepers then calling the shots. Jam Master Jay, the eponymous DJ of Run DMC fame, ended up dead with whispers that it was linked to his relationship with 50 Cent. Ever since, the go-to insult that has chased 50 is that of a “snitch,” which has always rang hollow. For one thing, there’s never been material evidence to tie 50 to state authorities (he mentored 6ix9ine early on, but distanced himself when the rapper turned state’s witness), and for another thing, “Ghetto Quran” didn’t tell people much they didn’t already know. The names in the song were the names of men who already had considerable rap sheets and the feds didn’t need 50’s help to know who was running the drug game in Queens.

If the goal was to shut him up, the plan spectacularly backfired. 50 Cent developed a slur in his speech that can be heard on the tracks released after his recovery from the shooting, but it otherwise lit an insane fire under a man who had already shown superhuman determination to survive. Aside from his own motivation, it also gave 50 Cent the most marketable story in the history of rap music. This guy wasn’t performing or putting on a persona when he stepped into the studio, nor was he an entertainer backed by a gangster entourage. He was the bulletproof terminator with the scars and hospital bills to prove it.

The story of 50 Cent’s survival became so ubiquitous in American culture that The Sopranos satirized it in a late-season episode, where a struggling rapper begs mobster Bobby Baccala to shoot the “meaty part” of his thigh to boost his street cred. The story (and 50’s talent) were so spectacular that it caught the eye of Dr. Dre and the hottest rapper on Earth not named Jay-Z, Eminem. Almost five years after being blacklisted and after recording mixtapes in the worst place on Earth (Canada), 50 Cent was finally ready to release a proper debut album. The rapper that had been all over the streets of New York for the better part of a decade was going to get introduced to the broader American audience. It went pretty well. The album went 9x platinum and is still a certified street classic. The rest of 50’s career to this point has been a little rocky, but not because of his talent. It’s because that fire on Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – rap’s violent equivalent of the other lower class symphony of American desperation, Born to Run – wasn’t an act. 50 Cent the public person is similar to 50 Cent the rapper: he says what he thinks and doesn’t especially care if people get mad at him. What are they gonna do, shoot him?

But there are other forces at work, as rap is an industry like any other, with money exchanging hands and fortunes to protect. 50’s status as an outsider is also reflective of his rise to fame: nobody in New York wanted the best rapper in New York to get his due, so it took a down-on-his-luck icon from the West Coast to resuscitate his promising career. West Coast rap has always been a little more anarchic and more willing to speak brutal truth about the system that exploits the people. Suge Knight tried to introduce the mobster aesthetic but it didn’t take, as Raider gear always looked cooler than some Italian-made suit for dipshits who watched one too many Scorsese movies. Many have tried to tame the West with lies, but the guy with the fastest gun always ends up winning out that way. The New Yorkers built the City of God and thought they’d found the lie that could keep the heathens outside of the gates, but the stick-up kid from Jamaica, Queens didn’t have much interest in Catholicism.

They ran Ward Churchill out of academia in the aftermath of 9/11 not because he was wrong when he wrote On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, but because he was the only guy who had the balls to say what anyone with half a brain and a passing knowledge of Arab history already knew: those planes weren’t sudden, but rather an expected outcome of American foreign policy.

Churchill was mostly writing about the brutal treatment of Islam and the blood spilled by our bombs and tanks. But for the esoterically inclined, this beef goes back a lot further, probably to when the first Saracen got their belly impaled by some Catholic dickhead wearing a St. George’s cross on his chest. You poke the lion too long and you end up getting airliners flown into your monuments to global capitalism. Nobody’s happy about it, but sometimes those are the breaks.

This foreign policy can probably best be described with the name of an Italian guy who was also pretty popular with rappers, particularly Tupac Shakur, the best rapper to ever live. Machiavelli has become shorthand for “By Any Means Necessary” and there are times when that approach is hard to argue against, but it’s important to examine the specific circumstances around Machiavelli’s work that allows it to resonate centuries later. Machiavelli was a Catholic like all the other rich pricks in Europe, and his work The Prince is the ultimate satire of Catholic society and The City of God as built in the vision of Augustine: all that matters is preserving the City. If you’re a powerful person, you’re supposed to lie as much as you want. Say whatever the f*ck you can say to stop people from realizing that they’re getting the short end, otherwise they might leave (or cut your head off and put it on a spike).

In other words, “Machiavellian” may be shorthand for doing whatever you have to do to get what you need, but that’s a bit of a bastardization of a very specific aspect of civilized society that the Italian diplomat was criticizing. Later theologians like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would expand on this line of thinking in the concept of the Noosphere, which is an unseen force best thought of as a sort of blanket of conventional wisdom that, ideally, prevents future atrocity as people come to realize that they’re all part of the same struggle; that powerful people are intentionally misleading them towards false gods. The Prince isn’t about the powerful doing whatever they want to get what they want, it’s about us. It’s about the rubes who swallow the lie because it’s more comfortable than the truth. Like the lie that Arab people wanted to be colonized by the West because it would liberate them, or the lie that if you work hard enough, you can achieve success in the American meritocracy.

Hip-hop was always supposed to be a reflection of that meritocracy, one of the reasons why it’s such a devastating poetic art form. One man and a microphone, much like the cowardly standup comedian but without the artifice of self-flagellation. The rapper is ego made manifest; boasting not just as a lifestyle but a braggadocious reminder that despite the fact that this place keeps trying to kill us, we’re still alive and using the air in our lungs to advance the human spirit. That’s why it was so terrifying to white America, and why George Bush was probably a little relieved when N.W.A. came on the scene to scare people with the strength of street knowledge – in contrast to Public Enemy advancing pan-Africanism over turntables.

This all may feel like too much context for a 20-year retrospective of a single album, but hip-hop isn’t music. Hip-hop is folk history, and history has no end – it’s a throughline. And histories must be correct, particularly the folk histories, because while those in the citadels can create the state sponsored versions of events for the affluent classes, the people’s histories are meant to reflect truth. That’s where Machiavelli comes in: there’s corporate rap and there’s rap written from the ground level. At the turn of the century, just before the towers got hit, the corporate rappers had almost won. Biggie was dead. Tupac was dead. People were still pretending that southern rap wasn’t the hottest thing on the streets. The only steward for hip-hop was Jay-Z, who rightfully ascended the throne as greatest rapper alive. But, my God, what came of his reign?

You can draw a straight line between Jay-Z’s business-oriented crack rap and media properties like The Wire or Freakonomics, multimillion dollar cultural empires that were primarily oriented around showing white audiences that the urban brute they feared was just an average working stiff like them. That’s not really Jay-Z’s fault, but it’s goofy to pretend he wasn’t massively influential. Jay always wanted to project the mafioso lifestyle, seen on the cover of The Blueprint (which has its own relationship to 9/11) lounging in an expensive suit and sucking back a cigar. Tupac and Biggie were tired of living on the street and tired of having to take shit just for someone to recognize their humanity, so much so that they would rob you for what was rightfully theirs. Jay offered a different vision: hey, this capitalism stuff isn’t so bad, as long as I’m the guy making the most money, and I can take care of some of my pals. Mobsters are their own American religion, but at the end of the day, it’s Catholicism like every other fucking Italian thing, including paying tribute to one guy that everyone has to pretend is infallible–or else.

In his seminal work The Groundings with My Brothers, the brilliant Walter Rodney once observed that this quality was what delighted European audiences the most. Body politic is the West’s greatest achievement, and therefore societies that descend from European worldviews see everything through that prism: how well does this guy command the forces that form a political economy? How does he consolidate power? It’s why it’s so easy to get Americans to jerk themselves off over corporate mergers, a bunch of efficiency-obsessed piggies who are happy to get crushed under a boot heel if they get good cartoons and hamburgers out of the deal. Jay-Z’s talent and body of work speaks for itself, and that cuts both ways.

His ascent and marketability allowed a new clean, business-friendly version of rap to flourish, perhaps most effectively leveraged by Murder Inc. and Ja Rule, who turned out chart toppers regularly featuring sexy women on the hooks and in the videos. Jay-Z had enough talent and cred to get away with it, but there were rappers rising the ranks that didn’t sit well with some on the street. That’s when The Prince showed up.

50 Cent was more than just the rapper that altered the course of popular rap when he released Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. 50 was the reckoning, a manifestation of the nihilism that flourished on the streets during the crack epidemic. If Jay was the business owner who got fat off the fruits of his destructive labor selling rock, 50 was the new normal that crack rock had created: you can enjoy being fat and happy all you want, but I’m the guy with the gun and if I point it at you, you’re gonna give it up or you’re gonna die. Jay was what Americans wished they were – calm and cool, unbothered by the harm they cause pursuing their lifestyle – but 50 was a better reflection of the post-9/11 American reality. This whole thing is bullshit. Get what you can get while you can get it.

For a record that’s low on subtlety, the symbolism on Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ seems retrospectively prophetic. As Puffy went Hollywood and became Diddy, the famously fractured New York City rap scene grew relatively stale. It was all Roc-a-Fella, and the two best rappers on Roc records aside from Jay were from Philly. Beanie and Freeway would take over some of the tracks they were featured on, so much so that it started to become evident just how much New York was lagging. DJ Clue and Funk Flex would never let it die and helped keep things hot, but the national names were starting to emerge from New Orleans and Atlanta and somehow even St. Louis.

Hip-hop heads were still eating just fine with Mobb Deep and Wu releases, plus the Ruff Ryders temporarily ran the game over with a 4-wheeler. But dominance? Somehow the two cities that were synonymous with the beginnings of what was quickly becoming the definitive American art form were relative has-beens. Even a white boy from Detroit was outselling New York rappers.

But that white boy wasn’t outselling New York rappers on his own, something that Eminem was quick to remind people on his first of many chart toppers. He had help from Dr. Dre, who was then in artistic purgatory after changing the trajectory of music forever between 1988 and 1994. It turns out that hitching your legitimate business career to Suge Knight can backfire on you, and Dre was persona non grata in the wake of too much controversy and minimal album sales to mitigate the blowback.

Despite being one of the most ubiquitous names in hip-hop, Dr. Dre didn’t have a whole lot of power in the industry at the time. The Aftermath compilation flopped. He’d been without a hit for nearly a half-decade. It’s unfair to say that Eminem saved Dr. Dre’s career because Eminem himself raps often about how Dr. Dre is the one who saved his ass. The fairest assessment is to say that they needed each other and linked up at the absolute perfect time for both in terms of creative output and market opportunity; the endorsement from Dre went an incalculable distance in offsetting skepticism about another white boy on the mic. That added up to lots of album sales, and Dre was back on top of the world by the time Chronic 2001 dropped.

Just like Shady did on his album, 50 Cent went out of his way to credit the Good Doctor for making him feel “real bulletproof up in this motherfucker.” The beginnings of the East Coast – West Coast beef infamously started in New York City, where Tupac got beaten and robbed at Quad Studios. A few years later, Tupac’s collaborator fittingly got his revenge on New York’s hip-hop scene. When the East Coast enforcers of the industry tried everything to keep 50 Cent out of rap, Dr. Dre and Interscope swooped in. The success of Get Rich had a sort of “insult to injury” quality to it, if only symbolically. 50 Cent had brought the grittiness back to New York rap, but over West Coast production.

Twenty years later, it’s still just as effective. The opening salvo of the album remains one of the best “fuck you” boasts of this century, given that everyone listening knew the guy rapping it had survived nine shots: They say I walk around like I got a “S” on my chest / nah, that’s a semi-auto and a vest on my chest. 50 plays a lot of characters on the album, but unshakeable confidence carries the whole thing forward. Standouts like “Heat” still deliver the best of what Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ had to offer, where 50 delivers Tarantino-level violence in smirking one-liners that have you laughing at things you never thought you’d find funny. You’re supposed to separate art from artist, but given the way the Mythical 50 Cent preceded the album drop, it’s also impossible not to hear the Tarantino cartoon violence and remember that maybe this guy isn’t 100% kidding around. Maybe you’re laughing because you’re a little uncomfortable, too. If there’s one knock on the album, it’s that it takes some serious balls to make fun of Ja Rule for singing like Cookie Monster on the same album that features “21 Questions.”

On an album with so many standout bars, it’s the final one of “Patiently Waiting” that still feels like 50’s mission statement. His loyalty is to his spirit – his Divine Spark – and he’s going to do whatever he has to in order to fulfill it. “Your b*tch a regular b*tch / you calling her ‘wifey’” may have the ghost of C. Delores Tucker rolling in her grave once again, but 50’s talking about the state of hip-hop at the time, not anyone’s girlfriend. If there’s any doubt what he means, he ends his verse with a declaration of war on fashion rappers sporting colors they don’t understand.

The whole verse is delivered with a menacing tone that matches the melodramatic movie score production, but you can hear 50 smirking through the whole verse – maybe because all his rhymes are a little funny, or maybe because he’s daring someone to call his bluff. They say it ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun, but the rabbit sounds like he’s having a hell of a goddamn good time on Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. Doesn’t he?

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