While most of today's hip-hop cognoscenti offer their fans a view of life from the back of a Bentley, 50 Cent is mowing down a less-traveled path from the driver's seat of his shiny new Hummer.
And if there's anyone who personifies the unstoppable force of a four-wheel-drive truck, it's this Queens-born lyricist. Having faced every possible detour — from failed record deals to assassination attempts — 50 has mastered the art of breaking rules. And it's finally paying off.
How unorthodox are 50's methods? Well, right now the scarred and tattooed rapper is sitting pretty as the biggest buzz in the music industry, with everyone from fellow artists to clothing companies scrambling to get a little piece. But he built up much of his buzz by launching a grass-roots mixtape campaign.
"I worked the streets," 50 boasted. "The mixtapes are the entry level of hip-hop. So I saturated the streets, the black market." And not only did he flood mixtapes with catchy freestyles, 50 also released amateur LPs featuring tongue-in-cheek remakes of any and every hip-hop hit.
"I'll do everybody's record over," 50 admitted. "I'll do Mobb Deep, I'll do LL's new record, I'll do Talib Kweli. So whoever likes those records will get a chance to hear my vision over the same music. Now it's getting to the point where I'm doing show dates with other people's records!"
But it is one of 50's own unconventional songs that gets the credit for fueling the current fire. "I recorded 'Wanksta' a year ago," 50 said of the sparse street track. "I put so many other records in the street, when I put it out I didn't intend it to be as big as it turned into."
So what is a wanksta?
"A wanksta is a gangsta that doesn't progress. [Someone] that just goes through the cycle constantly. Most gangstas' actions are for finances — they're motivated by money, the root of all evil — but how are you gangsta and you're not getting any money? You're going back and forth to jail. And you're telling stories like, yeah I'm gonna get this [BMW]. And then we see you at the car lot, and you're there looking at the [BMW], and you still don't get it."
And while the song's sardonic lyrics are meant to elicit laughs, the message is clear: 50's had to suffer the consequences of the streets on his road to riches, so he doesn't suffer studio gangstas lightly.
With such a low tolerance for fronting, you might think it'd be hard for 50 to find peers worthy of sharing a track with. On his upcoming album, Get Rich or Die Trying, the former hustler has invited a select few, from Eminem to Trina (see "50 Cent Works With Dre, Em, Trina, Possibly DMX On Debut"), but even the cocky 50 Cent shows deferential awe when he describes "We the Realest N---as," which pairs 50 with the late Notorious B.I.G. The song, produced Red Spider for a DJ Whoo Kid mixtape, features vintage unreleased verses by B.I.G that neither 50 nor DJ Whoo Kid seem to know the origin of.
"Whoo Kid is a thief," 50 Cent joked. "He got the [Biggie] vocals from somewhere and Red Spider produced it. I wrote the chorus and the third verse. I was excited, and the lyrical content was crazy. It came out tight. I rapped about Big 'cause he ain't here right now."
The track even received P. Diddy's blessing. "Puff called. He said he was excited to hear Big back on the airwaves, that's what's up! He had good energy, and he said he was gonna try and clear the record for me."
With Puff's help and a thumbs-up from B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace, 50's unconventional have turned a lyrical hijacking into an legitimate duet with a late legend. Just try telling 50 Cent that crime doesn't pay after that.