In Da Flub: 50 Cent's Disappointing 'Animal Ambition' Is Part of a Master Plan to Reconquer Rap
This is 50's plan to get popular again or die trying.
The results are in: 50 Cent’s new album Animal Ambition moved less than 40,000 units its first week out. The G-Unit general scored his first flop.
There was a time when Fif was hip-hop’s cash king, the face of the genre at the apex of its national crossover moment. But he used his power to marginalize his peers—Joes, Jadas, Cams, Nasirs. He destroyed Ja Rule’s career for kicks. When things got prickly within his own crew, he publicly excommunicated them one by one. During a recent Hot 97 interview, program director Ebro Darden point blank accused 50 of fracturing the New York rap mainstream and sending it into the present tailspin. To his credit, 50 is an elite businessman, preternaturally aware, it would seem, that the ill will he engendered in his heyday hangs over his head like an iced-out sword of Damocles and that the five year break since his last proper album snuffed his buzz. And yet, for reasons presently opaque (boredom, sport, nostalgia—more than likely a bit of all three) he’s cooked up a protracted plan to get his rap career back. Animal Ambition is not the result of that plan—it's an important stepping stone in it.
A year ago, erstwhile hip-hop heavy hitters Nelly and LL Cool J found themselves in a similar space. Nelly’s M.O. sought to restore hip-hop’s fourth best-selling artist of all time to a position of dominance by pairing him with a parade of peak A-listers, from Nicki Minaj and Pharrell to T.I., Future, and 2 Chainz. LL’s Authentic cast a wider net, corralling everyone from Brad Paisley to Eddie Van Halen into the Queens legend’s return to rap after a lengthy sabbatical and a break from Def Jam. Both albums performed dismally. Both erred in assuming the pervading presence of celebrities was enough to negate public disinterest in the artist. It’s a fallacy 50 Cent knows all too well after two years spent spitballing aborted lead singles for a new album to varying degrees of audience apathy. He eventually realized just being 50 Cent isn’t enough to float a single onto the Billboard charts and put the triumphant comeback album Black Magic AKA Street King Immortal on hold until he could figure out how to make it a profitable venture. Which he will do, or, um, die trying.
Animal Ambition was discussed early on as a “viral marketing plan.” Videos for new album cuts were premiered every week or so in a strategy that combined Kanye’s 2010 G.O.O.D. Friday campaign with Beyonce’s video album release. The track sequencing carries a little marketing intent as well: We start with “Hold On,” a snarling depiction of our rich, bored kingpin being roused back into action. A few war-ready cuts later the old pop smarts show face on “Pilot” and the Dr. Dre-produced Trey Songz collaboration “Smoke”. “Irregular Heartbeat” pulls Jadakiss, who 50 famously fried on “Piggy Bank” just for having the nerve to do a song with Ja Rule during the Aftermath/Murda Inc. wars. “Hustler,” “Twisted,” and “Winner Circle” drive the album’s back half home on a string of hooky, aspirational bangers before “Chase the Paper” closes it out with a grizzled New York posse cut. It helps to view Animal Ambition as both a methodical plot to snakecharm public interest in 50 Cent (flanked by a wave of radio appearances reintroducing Curtis’ snarling, competitive charm) and as a pipe cleaning exercise for his rusted hitmaking apparatus.
If Animal Ambition’s rollout didn’t reveal it for a training exercise, its insular sonics ought to have. Back when Fif was really gunning for a comeback, he called in Dre, S1, Em, Adam Levine, Alicia Keys, and Kendrick Lamar. Here we get the LOX, Prodigy, a pair of relatively green R&B vocalists, and loads of Kidd Kidd. An XXL interview with the album’s producers revealed that many of the beats here were received around five years ago from guys who (with the obvious exceptions of Dre and Jake One) have yet to pop nationwide. The modest guestlist along with the release strategy, which ensured everyone heard the majority of the album far in advance of the street date, make this the closest thing to an independent album that we’re likely to get from a 50 Cent (its release on Caroline and Capitol Records rather than Interscope bears this out as well). It’s essentially a mixtape he decided to recoup some money on.
Critics came out with the good flatware, lobbing irresistible analogies to Fif’s errant first pitch at last month’s Mets-Pirates game. Spin said the album suffers under Fif’s delusion that “his success was built on bona fide gangster rap swagger rather than incredibly accessible club bangers.” The LA Times‘ review fears he doesn’t know “how to honestly express the experience of newfound wealth and fame without rubbing it in our face.” But asking 50 Cent to step out from behind the Terminator veneer that cemented his legend is a lot like criticizing X-Men: Days of Future Past for a fixation on superheroes. The complaint speaks more to a critical ennui regarding our subject than anything he’s doing wrong. You can bet that if this album was full of Vitamin Water board room minutes or whatever other mogul shit is currently True To His Experience instead of the tough guy posturing we’ve gotten here, there would be a riot.
This isn’t to say that Animal Ambition is without faults or above reproach. There are moments of frustrating roteness throughout (see the go-nowhere four-minute hook “Don’t Worry ‘Bout It” and the blah Kidd Kidd collab “Every Time I Come Around”. Better yet, don’t.). But to suggest that 50 is out of touch for rapping about guns and money in an era where ostentatious, unattainable wealth and cartoonish kingpin capers are mainstream rap’s primary topical currency seems unfair. Fif’s late 2000s decline happened because rap’s center had drifted away from him, but in 2014 his gruff, melodic street rap sits much closer to the pulse. Where a rapper like Jay-Z weathers tempestuous shifts in sound and style to maintain relevance, 50 Cent’s strategy was to hang back until his songwriting tics slipped back into vogue
The critical narrative affixed to Animal Ambition posits the album as the rock bottom point in a lengthy fall from grace tipped off in 2007 when Kanye’s Graduation beat Curtis to the top of the charts after a highly publicized sales race, a sales-obsessed tyrant’s own meeting with the kind of downfall he joyfully spectated in better days. But it’s a ruse. The record didn’t perform well at retail, but its primary objective—reinstating 50 as a conversation piece—was a success. After weeks of laughing off questions about reforming G-Unit, 50 got the band back together at Summer Jam two weeks ago and commenced the real comeback: a mercenary string of freestyles over other artists’ songs and a group album scheduled for fourth quarter 2014. The new material is a touch clinical, but it’s been met with a level of excitement that 50’s last few years of stopgap mixtapes and airball lead singles haven’t. The boys haven’t had much luck going it alone in recent years, but casting their lots back in with Fif appeases a certain growing nostalgia for the music of the early 2000s.
Mainstream rap cachet is a lit match, burning when the artist is hot and generally gone for good once extinguished, so the Animal Ambition experiment is a prickly one. But as one of the best selling rap artists of all time and a famously deterministic businessman, 50 figures the audience is there for him if he can just grab their attention. Animal Ambition’s long con to defibrillate 50’s rap career won Street King Immortal a November release date. He’s not about to let this actionable spike in attention escape him. Cropdusting the streets with product is what got G-Unit’s foot in the door in the first place, so it’s fitting that the group’s comeback should take place on the same terms. 50 and G-Unit seem poised to restore the feeling of unrest that shook rappers up in the era when those Queens boys could steal your song out from under you. They’re bringing angry, flossy New York street rap back robbery after armed robbery.
Craig Jenkins would still have love for 50 Cent if 50 was down and out. He's on Twitter - @CraigSJ
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