Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune
50 brings return of gangsta rap
In February, 50 Cent was an underground hip-hop star known more for his nine bullet wounds and his crack-dealer past than for his music. In the five months since, the Queens, N.Y., rapper has sold 5 million copies of his CD "Get Rich or Die Trying" and has become the biggest new star in pop music.
As a result, he is leading a renewed demand for, or at least acceptance of, rappers armed with a street-thug image and violent lyrics. Not since the 1996-97 murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. has mainstream hip-hop been so filled with guns, gang-style feuds and songs about killing.
A good indicator of the rebound of gangsta-leaning rap have been concerts with 50 Cent, the concert features partyin' thug rapper Fabolous, and 50 Cent's sidekicks the G-Unit. Along with other newcomer hip-hop stars such as Joe Budden and Bone Crusher, each has aimed to ride 50's bulletproof-vest-tails to the top of the charts.
Even the veteran stars - Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg - resorted to their old thug-life ways to stay in the in-crowd.
Jay-Z has been using gangsta imagery in such new songs as "La-La-La (Excuse Me Again)," with the lyrics, ".45 gun smoke, choke off that." Snoop Dogg, meanwhile, arrived at an awards show last month with bodyguards carrying an arsenal of guns. Three of the guards were arrested, but Snoop got a lot of press.
"There's definitely been a return to more hard-core lyrics and lifestyle," said Rashaun Hall, rap editor of Billboard magazine.
Hall believes the revival is a sign of economic times.
"Unlike the (late '90s), when the economy was doing well, people today are hurting, and they don't want to hear just the bling-bling party songs anymore," he said.
"When people are down, so is the music."
In the nearly 20 years since gangsta rap was born, the music has ebbed and flowed. Hard economic times are harder in inner cities, and rappers such as 50 Cent (real name: Curtis Jackson, 26) tap into people's anger while selling hopes for a higher, richer lifestyle.
Although nearly all of today's rising thug rappers are from the East Coast, gangsta rap's roots are mostly on the West Coast with such '80s acts as N.W.A., Ice-T, Too $hort and Ice Cube.
Although popular acts such as DMX and the Wu-Tang Clan continued to make angry, street-level recordings in recent years, no prominent new rapper since the Biggie/Tupac murders has come on as strong with gangsta-isms as 50 Cent.
50 Cent has also helped bring back one of gangsta rap's most prominent sideshows: feuds between rappers. He and fellow Queens rap star Ja Rule have traded barbs in the press and in their lyrics for more than a year, akin to the verbal sparring between Biggie and Tupac before their unsolved murders.
One of 50's best-known songs, "Wanksta," featured on the soundtrack to Eminem's 2002 hit movie "8 Mile," accuses Ja Rule of being an artificial street thug: "You say you a gangsta, but you never pop nothin'/ They say you a wanksta, and you need to stop frontin'."
The 50 versus Ja battle is just one of many such feuds. Jay-Z has maintained a similar fight with Nas. Eminem has gone at it with Boston rapper Benzino, as well as Ja Rule.
So far, though, nothing as tragic as the Biggie and Tupac murders has come of these public spats, although several feud-related theories have surrounded last year's murder of rap pioneer Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C.
Said Hall, "The feuds are good for everyone, so long as they stay in the music."
Millions of young fans are buying this music, including many who don't live anywhere near an inner city.
"50's a smarter businessman than we think," said Hall. "He knows that this sort of music can cross over from the inner city and into the suburbs. And when it does that: Watch out."