50 Cent talks losing weight, the state of the industry and his many rivalries
50 Cent is no longer the future. The commercial rap world that he owned from 2003 to 2007 has shifted from platinum-plated gangsta’ archetypes to sad sack skinny-jeaned emotionalism. Curtis Jackson was the swaggering villain with an impeccable pop sensibility and the street cred to get away with repeatedly writing awkward analogies equating genitals with candy.
But Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” ushered in a paradigm shift, with eclectic and ultra-sensitive types emerging as avatars for kids weaned on iPods and Internet file sharing. Considering that the only constant in youth culture is that the current generation will automatically repudiate the previous one, 50’s muscle-bound menace seems decidedly out of vogue — which would ostensibly explain the recently surfaced photos of his gaunt physique, done not to match his frail younger peers, but to play a cancer patient in “Things Fall Apart.”
Of course, 50 Cent is well aware of the pop world’s constant undulations. An astute industry observer, the Queens-raised rapper has kept an unusually low profile since the release of November’s “Before I Self Destruct,” plotting his next move and filming what he hopes to be his most notable cinematic turn yet. And though his fourth album marked his commercial nadir (with first-week sales of 160,000), it was his strongest effort since 2003’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin'.” Besides, having long since diversified his assets, it’s unlikely that he needed the record royalties to pay the mortgage on his still-unsold 50-plus-room mansion.
An entrepreneur who reportedly reaped a nine-figure sum from the sale of Vitamin Water, a co-author of two books (“The Ski Mask Way” and “The 50th Law”), and a raconteur capable of creating headlines with every interview, 50 remains one of the game’s biggest stars. Accompanied by a live band, "The Invitation," his month-long, 19-date tour stops tonight at Club Nokia. In advance of the performance, the ruthlessly candid rapper spoke with Pop & Hiss about his acting career, the state of the industry and whatever happened to his beef with Kanye West.
How difficult was it to lose that much weight in such a short amount of time and how did you sustain that type of focus?
It was pretty tough. The role itself helped me sustain my focus. It was a part that was really relevant to me, because when I was growing up one of my close friends died of cancer. The problem was that I was traveling for a UK tour when I was making the transformation, so it was really hard to do.
What was your daily routine like?
I’d wake up and have this power ice with electrolytes with vitamin C and then I’d run, then I’d go back to my hotel room and go to sleep. I wouldn’t wake up until the show. I was sleeping a lot more than usual.
But the real question is, could you still have taken Ja Rule at that weight?
[Laughs]. I wouldn’t be looking to get into an altercation at 160 pounds. Right now, I’m back to 190 and I’m trying to get my weight back to 214 pounds, where I was in the first half of the film. It was something I had to do to stand out as an actor and let people know how serious I was about it. It wasn’t like Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” or Christian Bale in “The Machinist,” they lost a lot more weight than I did, but they also had the luxury of having more than nine weeks to do it.
There were reports that you were working on a Euro-dance inspired album, “Black Magic.” Is that true?
I’d started writing “Black Magic,” but since I got home from the UK, I’ve been bombarded by new material and it took me in a different direction. In my career to this point, I’ve pretty much been on a shot clock and had to come with an album at a specific time. Right now, I have the luxury of taking my time writing until I have something special to offer. It’s kind of like what you see from Eminem and Dr. Dre — they’ll work on music until they have a bombshell that everyone in the system is excited about.
It’s a strange time in the music business. Everyone I had worked with on my early projects is gone -- they’ve all been fired and there are new guys coming in that think they can teach old dogs new tricks. They bring these people in and give them job functions that had been covered by multiple people in the past. It makes it hard to know what to expect from the records.
What sort of impact do you think this has had on music itself?
There’s no lack of interesting and good music coming out, it’s just the way the system works now. I’d like to have the comfort of thinking that everything that has happened to me hasn’t been luck; it’s been me making good decisions. When I don’t understand what’s going on, I just try to sit and watch.
It’s about trying to fit into the scheme of where things are going in the future. I’m an artist that wrote about the harsh realities and that’s always what’s translated the strongest about my music. In film thusfar, I’ve only taken on characters that embodied the same mannerisms or attitudes. I’m trying to broaden peoples' perception of me, so that when they see me they don’t pigeonhole me as being only able to do one thing.
Does the evolving industry make it more difficult for you to make music or does it have no impact whatsoever?
It’s hard if you’re not in a position where the machine is behind you non-stop. I’m lucky to be an artist that doesn’t have to look for press. If I say anything controversial in this interview, they’ll take this and run it on all the blogs.
What do you think about the evolution of hip-hop from gangsta archetypes to skinny jean-wearing hyper-emotional types?
It’s missing what I fell in love with about hip-hop culture. There’s almost no one creating or making the type of hip-hop that I grew up on. I’m a huge Ice Cube fan — I still watch Cube like I’ve never sold a record. I still watch his interviews and study him. He came from the position where his music reflected the aggressions and harsh realities of life, and now he’s highly respected on a broader scope. You can see a television show based on a movie he made. It’s interesting to watch someone's personal choices and how they impact their career.
Dre is different from me — his relationship with Jimmy Iovine will allow him to stay relevant regardless of what he does. He can stay home for another 10 years and then put out a record and it will get tons of promotion... He’ll always be a priority.
Whatever happened with the Rick Ross feud? Did you ever talk to him and clear the air?
I never had a conversation with him. My focus shifted during that record. A lot of times, earlier in my career, I was competing with artists because that was what I loved about hip-hop: The idea that battling someone was necessary to defend your spot and you had to take on all challengers — so I did that constantly. No one thinks that way now and everyone looks at me like I’m the Broad Street Bully.
The younger kids coming up missed that time frame, and even the conscious rap is gone, too. The stuff that Common Sense and Talib Kweli and Mos Def were rhyming about. What was socially conscious and responsible about the music has been replaced by hipster kids in skinny jeans and mohawks. Of course, that’s always been around, but it was usually confined to the Village. Artists have always had the opportunity to influence the culture, but now it’s the other way around: They’re trying to look like their audience to attract their audience. Now you can’t tell the difference between a Led Zeppelin fan and a hip-hop fan.
Do you think this is just part of a natural ebb and flow of cultural change?
It’s a cyclical shift. It’s like fashion, everything is recycled and comes back. I’m really excited by it. Sometimes, it’s best to just take a look at what’s going on and observe. On my first album, I was writing to one concept. With “Black Magic,” I wrote a bunch of material, but now I have time to spend on what I have to offer. I think it should be my best work. The biggest compliment I’ve had over the last few years was when people told me that “Before I Self Destruct,” was my best album since “Get Rich or Die Trying.” Obviously, the sales didn’t reflect that, but the fans gave me that gratification.
What do you think about Drake? He seems to be the new flavor of the month for the business.
Well, the system's been working him for a year, as though he was an established artist. There’s no records on radio without a marketing team. Trust me, there’s not. When you have momentum in the street like, say, Jay Electronica, you get a buzz and it means something, but it still can’t get you on radio. It’s interesting to see the industry go that hard to promote an artist, and I’m sitting here waiting to see what the results are, whether or not, in the end, all that time and energy spent marketing was worthwhile.
Where do you see things going next?
I’m still waiting. Right now, everyone has their own personal agenda and I’m watching rappers try to stay afloat and visible by standing next to other artists. You aren’t important if you have to be on someone else’s record to be important. I’m not from that era. I think you have to make the music right and have the right presentation and the rest follows.
What did you think of the fiasco with Kanye West and Taylor Swift?
I have Kanye West moments where I hear things from him and I think it's dope. At certain points, I’ll like what he’s doing musically. But we’ll see if people can get past his personal mistakes or if they’ve damaged him to where he can’t recover. As to what he said to Taylor Swift, I didn’t agree with him. Even the president called him an idiot, so who would agree with him? The question is whether his music is strong enough to overpower it. Take R. Kelly. He did what he did and then put out music following his struggles that was good enough to make R. Kelly fans continue to be R. Kelly fans.
For me, I’m always watching. I’m still a student of culture and hip-hop. Over the last few years, hip-hop culture has been absorbed by pop culture, and pop culture isn’t something you can just chime in on randomly and understand. You have to watch what’s happening always.
Right now, there isn’t much of a separation between stars and normal people. There’s so much reality television and there are so many artists in the business that they all view their music from a critic’s perspective, which is the wrong way to approach it. When I’m traveling internationally you feel the energy and the belief that stars are stars. In America, the music is in your face so often that you don’t even have to choose hip-hop as a genre of music to enjoy, you’ll know all the songs without even trying to. The problem is that it’s hard to figure out the difference between the stars on Twitter and the people following them on Twitter.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: 50 Cent performing at the Gibson Amphitheatre in December. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
50 Cent performs tonight, June 4 at Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd. $19.50-$85, 9 p.m.
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