The Reign of Beef
They Say They’ve Made Up, But in the Hip-Hop of the Game and 50 Cent, the Fury Has Taken Over the Sound
And how. The Game’s The Documentary and 50 Cent’s The Massacre have each sold more than a million copies. Now, writers both pro and con hip-hop have hand-wrung over an industry cynical enough to reward getting shot as a career move and promote black on black violence, while white American businessmen make bank on the art and bodies of dead black men. What that big-picture discussion sidesteps is what the rise and current reign of beef does to the music, beef’s message and messenger.
Mainstream gangsta rap is as culturally conservative and as obsessed with tradition—perpetuating the mythology of its own founding history and icons, and perpetually enacting its vision of itself—as the organized crime syndicates from which it borrows attitude and imagery. And what really separates Documentary from Massacre is how each approaches this idea. The response of which is better has little to do with who has a better flow, more inventive rhymes, better beats, slicker production, or sharper verbal downs. What makes 50 Cent’s the better album is how little it asks of us as consumers, supplying exactly what we demand.
The Documentary is the more stylistically interesting at first listen. Game somehow looks both out and in, as his rhymes confess as much as boast. It’s a strut that makes the Game feel like both a traditional from-the-streets MC and a guy who learned everything he knows about hip-hop from watching videos and by reading Vibe, The Source, and gossipy hip-hop web sites and message boards. The Game might not be gangsta rap’s first student, but he certainly sounds like its nebbish eager beaver, sitting up front and raising his hand to every question.
“What happened in here pop, that got ’Pac and Big shot/ The thick plots, now every rapper claim he let his clip pop,” he opines in the title track, and he’s just getting started. He’s gonna name-check then bitch-slap R. Kelly, wink at Snoop’s real name in a tangent, and then unfurl this chorus: “I’m ‘Ready to Die’ without a ‘Reasonable Doubt’/ Smoke ‘Chronic’ and hit it ‘Doggystyle’ before I go out/ Until they sign my ‘Death Certificate’ ‘All Eyez on Me’/ I’m still at it, ‘Illmatic’ and that’s ‘The Documentary.’”
Aside from insinuating himself into a lineage, the rhyme is more clever than lean, the sort of literary move more common to backpacking hip-hop than hardcore rap’s muscular metaphors and narrative drive. But clever camouflages not having anything to say. Those are the same names Game coddles together in the lowrider throb of “Dreams” (“Rap critics politicking, wanna know the outcome/ ‘Ready to Die,’ ‘Reasonable Doubt,’ and ‘Doggystyle’ in one/ I feel like ’Pac after the Snoop Dogg trial was done/ Dre behind that G series and ‘All Eyez on Me’”), before emphasizing his marquee name-drops in his clipped delivery through the verse, as if setting the celebs in bold on a tabloid sheet. Every song includes such a highlighted name, just as every song includes some product placement: Air Ones, Nike Airs, Timba boots, Bentley coupe, Mossberg shotgun. These items move across color lines as easily as the music, and Game knows it: He is rapping for “niggaz doin 25 on they fifth year” and “them white boys in the Abercrombie and Fitch gear.”
Game doesn’t use these items for cultural currency, though, just fame markers indicative of the circle to which he aspires. They come in such a steady stream and many are repeated so
often that they lose any potency over the album’s stretch, and the rhymes themselves start to feel cookie-cutter. About the only time Game comes alive is when he abandons the self-elevation by association and dives into more traditional rap storytelling and ego-tripping. A quartet of songs touches those gangsta cornerstones—the hard road to a rap career (“Hate It or Love It”), the big-pimping luxuriating with cars and women (“Put You on the Game,” “How We Do”), the birth of a son that “changes things” (“Like Father, Like Son”). Game doesn’t break new ground here, and that’s the whole point. The beat of “How We Do” bobble-head wobbles like a tipsy toddler, the ideal background ass-shake for MC bragging. “Like Father, Like Son” is even more conventional, the fever dream of forgiveness seeking, birth celebration, and regret flirting that defines a gangsta becoming a daddy on record—although any babymomma’ll tell you an MC doesn’t become a man just by deciding to show up.
Two of the Game’s standout tracks feature 50 Cent, the most hard-line traditionalist gangsta rap has had since the early ’90s. On Massacre’s cover a comically buff 50 looks more ’roided than all of major league baseball, and inside he raps about nothing but hustling and killing, making bank and knocking boots. 50 is a lover and a fighter, and rap wouldn’t have him any other way.
Over patiently paced beats and few flourishes to get in the way of his sleepy-eyed stiletto flow, 50 dives right into the sex and violence and doesn’t shy away from the illuminating details that paint everything wide-screen Technicolor: “Different day same shit, old mac new clip/ 32 hollow-tips, gloves, no rubber grip” (“I’m Supposed to Die Tonight”); “I’ll clap your monkey-ass, yeah black on black crime/ Big ol’ chrome rims gleam, you know how I shine” (“Piggy Bank”); “You fuck with me, you’ll see/ I’ll react like an animal, I’ll tear you apart/ If a masterpiece was murder, I’d major in art” (“Gatman and Robin”); “I melt in your mouth girl, not in your hand” (“Candy Shop”); “I ain’t trying to beef, I’m trying to get my drink on/ And my diamonds, my fitted, and my mink on” (“Just a Little Bit”).
Massacre might not be the cultural marker of Biggie’s Ready to Die or Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but 50 Cent has aimed squarely for that territory and comes closer to hitting it than anybody has in some time, from tightly focused club-bangers (“Outta Control,” “Disco Inferno”) to laid-back menace (“A Baltimore Love Thing,” “Ryder Music”), from I-need-luv jams (“Just a Little Bit,” “So Amazing”) to guns-blazing promises (“Position of Power”). He’s following the blueprint like the old-school traditionalist he is, not wasting words and trying to make each one leave a mark. The Massacre follows an album strategy that’s been around since Criminal Minded and was perfected on The Chronic, and it’s a testament to not fixing what isn’t broke.
The business world knows something about the consistency of product delivery, and 50 (and his accountant) is no financial dummy. “In Da Club” was the song that helped ignite the ringtone fire back in summer 2003, and instead of lending his name to a soft drink or liquor, 50 had the presence of mind to ally himself with water. He’s wily enough to recognize what’s gonna connect with his audience and draw ire; his heroin saga “A Baltimore Love Thing” is merely glomming onto The Wire’s hip-hop popularity, feeling less like a Mobtown smear and more like the common opportunism of fast-food chains offering cash for product endorsement in song. Such moneymaking scheming fuels the sort of mainstream rap hubris that enables 50 Cent to boast about living in Mike Tyson’s $300 million former Connecticut mansion without wondering where Tyson is living now. In rap it’s the ’hood-to-riches rise that perpetuates the myths that street cred turns into bankrolls by the mere alchemy of following the gangsta-rap business plan. But that’s not street; that’s McDonald’s. Would you like some fries with your order?
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