Seventeen or so years ago, as the world was first getting to know the rising underdog Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, it would have been hard to imagine the most controversial man in hip-hop receiving a star on the Walk of Fame. It would have been even harder to imagine that his successes as a beverage entrepreneur, actor, venture capitalist and executive producer of cable and network television would have been just as central to that honor as his music.
But that’s exactly where 2020 finds the Queens hip-hop mogul. With “Power” — the Starz series for which he served as executive producer, co-star and, most recently, an episode director — finally coming to an end after six seasons, Jackson is already busy with several new small-screen projects. The in-production Starz spinoff “Power Book II: Ghost” is part of a massive development deal Jackson struck with the cable net, and just as significantly, he’ll be breaking into broadcast as executive producer of the soon-to-launch ABC primetime series “For Life.” And yet, no one is about to confuse Curtis Jackson with your average network development lifer. He’s hardly the first button-pushing rap figure to successfully cross over to the boardroom, but it’s tough to think of one who’s managed to do so without blunting any of the outspokenness and unfiltered provocations that were his stock in trade back when he seemed to have ongoing feuds with half of his fellow artists on the hip-hop charts.
Taking a break from this month’s TCA in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, the 44-year-old tries to explain why the rules of C-suite delicacy and cautiousness don’t seem to apply to him.
“Look, OK, it’s like this: When I’m having a good moment and everything’s positive,” he says, putting a friendly hand on this reporter’s shoulder and flashing a bright politician’s smile, “then I’m Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson — mogul, producer, executive producer, actor.
“But then as soon as something goes wrong, as soon as anything goes wrong” — and here he flexes his shoulders and unleashes the thousand-yard stare familiar to any of the 13 million people who bought his debut album — “then it’s 50 Cent, rapper. It’s a balance, right?”
There aren’t many who could manage that balance. Jackson has been a fixture of the culture for long enough now that’s it’s difficult to remember just how jarringly controversial his arrival was, and how fine a needle he’s been able to thread ever since. And even now, he still sees stirring up the pot and creating enemies as just part of the game.
“There are times in business where you don’t have competitors, so you make ’em,” he says. “But pick someone who’s really good at what they do, and then try to compete. It’s just the competitive nature in me. Look at your records, find your favorite records. Then when you’re making a record, go back and play your own record against that one. It tells you if you need more work.”
Sometimes it’s tough to tell how seriously Jackson means for his various call-outs and provocations to be taken. When he issues a warning to “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, promising that “For Life” will soon become the No. 1 show on the network, he’s clearly calling back to the not-at-all serious sales challenge he issued to Kanye West back when both had simultaneous album drops in the mid-2000s. But there have been just as many times when the objects of his scorn haven’t taken his prodding so lightly.
His origin story has been told and retold so many times it’s practically calcified into myth, but hardly any pop figure to emerge since can match it for sheer drama. Raised in conditions that can be genuinely described as Dickensian, Jackson had escaped a teenage life of crime, raised some serious noise within New York rap circles with his uber-combative yet playful early singles, and was getting ready to launch his debut album through Columbia Records when he was shot nine times in a car outside his grandmother’s house. As he recuperated, he was dropped by his label and effectively blackballed from local radio stations, with further threats to his life still circulating. After building up a new wave of notoriety via self-released mixtapes, he finally found the only three figures in the business who were willing to take a chance on music’s most high-risk investment: superstar label-owners Eminem and Dr. Dre, and the late manager Chris Lighty. Their gamble paid off almost instantly when his 2003 album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” became the highest-selling debut in hip-hop history.
Though he notched numerous multiplatinum follow-ups in the years after, Jackson is aware that he can never replicate the conditions that made his introduction such a phenomenon. “People love things that are damaged or distorted,” he says. “The album is ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’,’ and at the time it was: back then when all parties involved are still on the street, and the possibility of dying is very present. That’s what makes it exciting, because the stakes are so high. Either it works, or you die in the process. And people hear that and they go, ‘s–t….’ They watch it like a feature film.”
But just as much as his authenticity or his lyrical dexterity, the success of 50 Cent was driven by his innate musicality — his singles all had undeniable earworm hooks, and he was one of the rare rappers of the era who sang most of those hooks himself — and his ability to quickly recognize the potential of hip-hop as a border-crossing, translingual commercial force.
“Drake was saying recently that I had influenced him to start singing, which was the coolest s–t in the world for him to say, because I can’t sing as good as he sings,” he says. “I was always just trying to outline the melody. Because once you have a broad enough audience, you’re gonna have people who don’t speak English, so all they can follow is the melody. … And when you’re writing [lyrics], I mean: ‘Go shorty, it’s your birthday’ — that’s not rocket science. Every day is somebody’s birthday.”
Along with Eminem, Jay-Z and shortly later Kanye West, Jackson defined the sound and the look of postmillennial hip-hop, and he did as much as anyone to power its evolution from a massively popular, yet often marginalized, genre into the dominant sound of popular music. And more than anyone save perhaps Jay and Sean Combs, he established the model of modern hip-hop entrepreneurship: From his blockbuster Reebok partnership to an early equity investment in Vitamin Water that’s already being studied in college business classes, not to mention his headfirst dives into film, television, video games, book publishing, et al, there was hardly a nook or cranny of the business he didn’t try to enter.
Jackson nonetheless expresses some reservations about hip-hop’s full-fledged cooption by the mainstream, noting: “Steve Stoute wrote a book called ‘The Tanning of America,’ ” which argued that the rise of hip-hop wove black culture deeper into the fabric of American culture and commerce than ever before, “but my perspective is reversed. I look at it like we lost our color at that point, and hip-hop became broad enough for everybody to participate in. And this is when it grows faster, because people see themselves as being able to be a part of it, and not just spectate around it.
“Then you start to look at the charts and you see Post Malone and these guys — and look, he’s real talented. But I thought Post was a little confused when I met him for the first time: He had this ill mink coat on, but then he had cowboy boots. I didn’t know if he was a rapper or a country singer. I was like, ‘Yo, my man, just rap!’ ”
He’s also amused by the degree to which some of hip-hop’s more transgressive impulses have infiltrated other genres. “What happens is all the cultures merge: R&B used to be love music, it used to require buttons,” he says, indicating a suit jacket. “And now the R&B singers have all the tattoos, and that distortion of the lyrical content is now in the music. I did ‘Candy Shop,’ and that’s basically PG-13 compared to what R&B singers are saying these days.” Here he pauses for a few minutes to quote some of the dirtiest R&B lyrics he can think of, from Jhene Aiko to Rihanna and SZA. “I feel like I have to be a lot more aggressive with what I say [now], because those are not even hip-hop artists, those are R&B singers.”
Of course, most of these developments have occurred during an atypically quiet period for Jackson on the music side. It’s been six years since his last proper album, the lukewarmly received “Animal Ambition,” and he acknowledges that hip-hop isn’t always kind to its stars as they age.
“Youth culture is extremely passionate and will always be connected to hip-hop,” he says. “That’s what keeps it vibrant, keeps it current, keeps it changing. But because they’re involved, and they have a short attention span, they’ll always want something else from you, something new. And you’ve got to know when to deliver and when not to, because you can oversaturate it really fast. At certain points you have to know when to slow down.”
So when will it be time to deliver again? “Soon. You’ll see something from me in ‘For Life,’ the way I did the theme song for ‘Power.’ And then, I’ll say I’ve got some music that I’ve been working on quietly, ’cause I wanted to just put it out. I’ll probably release it quietly too, maybe in the middle of the night sometime.”
In the middle of the night, maybe. But quietly? That doesn’t seem like Jackson’s m.o. Indeed, as often as he might come across as a kinder, gentler version of the man who created constant waves and scandals in his earlier days, Jackson is hardly afraid to stir controversy, or to be on the opposite side of most modern sensibilities. Most recently, he criticized Oprah Winfrey for her interviews with Michael Jackson accusers, and for her (since withdrawn) executive producer credit on Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s Sundance documentary, “On the Record,” about the sexual-assault allegations against Russell Simmons. Jackson has no compunctions about discussing the topic — in fact, he brings it up — though it’s sometimes hard to get a bead on exactly what his objections are. More than anything, though, he seems constitutionally averse to the idea of dwelling on the irreconcilable traumas of the past, even when those traumas are as raw and as serious as in the case of “Leaving Neverland.”
“It did damage my perception of Michael Jackson,” he says of Winfrey’s interview with his accusers. “You see it and go, ‘damn ….’ But are we supposed to still dance when the music comes on, or are we supposed to think about the little boys? There’s no answer, so there’s nothing to resolve it. There’s no one who’s gonna come help you figure out what to think about that.”
Here he switches gears, and talks about the need to litigate past transgressions more generally: “You know, I saw Eddie Murphy apologized for ‘Raw,’ and I was like, ‘f–k is wrong with you?’ I don’t understand why you apologize for being a comedian, you’re supposed to have a warped perspective. Who is the apology for? And if we’re apologizing today for [things said] in the 1980s, then s–t, everybody’s f–king wrong.”
But apologies aside, has he ever said anything on a record that he regrets? “No, because at the point [I said it], I was thinking that,” he says. “I don’t ever apologize for that — everything you go through makes you who you are.”
And hate it or love it, 50 is still 50.
Eminem honors 50 Cent on the Walk of Fame: