The rapper Curtis James Jackson - better known as 50 Cent's - declaration of bankruptcy last week was as sneaky as National’s selloff of state housing. But we all heard about it. Largely through the inevitable cavalcade of cringe-worthy quips across the twitosphere which then ensued. “50 Cent’s value now literal”. “50 Cent says he’s outta change”. “50 Cent wishes he had 50 Cents”. And our favourite, the puntastic “50 Cent has filed for bankruptcy - that makes no cents”.
All through social media and the popular presses, people seemed to queue up in their thousands to make light of what’s ultimately a pretty sad situation.
In a musical genre which lauds the pursuit of fame and riches (the title of Cent’s first album – “Get Rich or Die Tryin” being the archetypal exhibit A), what is it about failure that appears to be so exceptionally appealing for ringside commentators to mock?
More worryingly, why is it that the harpies and harridans who’re hounding Cent through the hunnet stacks appear so singularly unconcerned about fiscal failure elsewhere in the business world – like investment banking, for instance? Or the personal (and political) life of Donald Trump.
What, in a nutshell (or, if you prefer, mixtape) does this tell us about our society? And should we even be concerned – either about Cent’s personal circumstances, or about the fact that we seem to be singling out failure and holding individuals profoundly responsible for their own biographies?
But before we leap into the deep sociological critiques & commentary, let’s wind the clock back and re-trace how we got here in the first place.
Our story begins in the early 2000s. People everywhere are answering phones with directives to find them In Da Club. A much younger version of one of us (we’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess whom) is enthralled by the idea of being taken by 50 to an entirely and un-abstractly literal Candy Shop, and is singing along accordingly. Cent himself was yet to Self Destruct himself down to being a mere Window Shopper and was in the phase of his career where Straight To The Bank was a hit single rather than something he had to do in order to refinance his debt obligations.
Instead, he’d navigated a meteoric path from bullet-ridden obscurity through to an enviable - if brief - position as arguably the world’s most popular rapper, selling somewhere in the region of ten million albums a year during the first phase of his career.
Success outside the musical realm soon followed too – making the transition from MTV-screen stardom to a semi-fledged (if small-scale) acting and television career.
But it was the rapper’s non-musical business dealings which propelled him towards true financial prosperity. First, by commodifying the G-Unit brand (replete with clothing lines, $2.99 ringtones, sneakers, and other accouterments) ... and then, much more bizarrely, by going into the vitamin water business. Hawking a product called Formula 50, and with a ten percent stake in beverage company Glaceau, 50 Cent hit the half-billion mark in terms of his personal wealth when Coca-Cola bought Glaceau for $4.1 billion dollars in early 2007.
Now, call us old-fashioned, but we can *vaguely* remember the days when rappers used to attempt to get rich via the more traditionally musical means of record sales and concert revenues – or, in past lives and sotto-voce, drug-dealing. The idea of men from underprivileged backgrounds first selling big and then selling out in pursuit of, as Kanye West puts it “hood dreams – big fame, big chains” is not especially controversial. And as applies moving from album-sales to selling hoodies and sneakers with one’s face on them ... well that’s arguably just musical promotion by an altogether other means.
But vitamin water? Stock trading?
That seems less deal-with-Ecko than outright Gordon Gecko.
And yet, for all that jarring quasi-cognitive dissonance between the way he got rich and his previous lifestyle of “die tryin’”, it wasn’t that which caused Cent’s career and personal finances to suffer.
Instead, this newly corporate savvy approach to securing wealth served to propel the last of his notable hits. On 2007’s “I Get Money”, he obliquely spells it out: “I took quarter water sold it in bottles for two bucks / Coca-cola came and bought it for billions – what the fuck”.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Gangsta rap about setting up a vitamin-water brand and selling stocks.
Truly an appropriate soundtrack for the health-conscious stock-market apocalypse of the late 2000s.
At first glance, this may reek of inauthenticity. Here, after all, is a man whose initial career was largely built upon an extensive and semi-stereotypical “street” resume: shot nine times, three convictions to his name, and with the only thing approaching ‘shrewd business competency’ being his adolescent experience as a drug dealer. And yet whose stretch through stardom seemed to have more to do with pursuing more conventional opportunities as a ‘legitimate businessperson’ rather than engaging in acts of crime.
Somehow, “Get Rich Or Go Bankrupt” doesn’t have *quite* the same ring to it.
Still, instead of looking at Cent as a sellout or a betrayer of the hallmarks of the musical form, we instead prefer to view him as what he actually was: a genre-defining artist.
While the intersection of money-making and rap music is not new (consider the Notorious B.I.G. “countin’ them benjamins” with the Bone Thugz – albeit in less salubrious surrounds than the “restaurants with mandolins and violins” which Cent now presumably frequents) ... the manner and enthusiasm with which Cent embraced clear and naked capitalism – even using it as a literal selling point – definitely was. Big L might have been “out buyin’ the finest shit money can buy [...] while y’all be on the corners bummy and high” ... but he certainly didn’t do it through investing in a high-end premium underwear venture. (Yes, 50 Cent’s *also* done that)
And, as the true mark of a genre-innovator, instead of it dying away, it’s become the new normal. Consider, for instance, Lil Wayne’s hit A Milli. Or, for that matter, the name of Weezy’s record label: Young Money. Hell, where did we think Chamillionaire got his name from? And for that matter, how much money has Dr Dre made off headphones recently.
With this in mind, rather than undermining it, 50 Cent in all his musical and business ventures has instead expanded the mass understanding of what it means to be a hip hop artist. And as a mark of empowerment, we have to admit (despite Curwen’s crypto-socialist distaste for the end result) the idea of a black man rising from poverty to not only entice the masses with his music but also carve a unique niche for himself in the fiscal/business world has a certain potency.
Critics love to tell us what “real” hip hop should be – that it should be stern, intelligent and political. Bandz Make Her Dance is no match for this criterion.
But political content and critical reflection has never been the exclusive preserve of the lyrics of a song themselves. In redefining what it means to be a successful rapper – as well as the public’s image thereof – Cent has left a large metaphorical footprint in the archives of hip hop history. We may not personally agree with the idea that becoming a successful businessperson represents the apex and apotheosis of what it means to live an influential and meaningful life ... but by successfully making the transition from street-corner to Wall Street, Cent has arguably helped to put a chink in the bullet-proof glass ceiling of aspiration for many subaltern listeners.
Whether you agree that capitalist aspirations – and, hell, the phenomenon of Capitalist Rap all up - is a desirable thing is, of course, another matter altogether.
Unfortunately for Cent’s financial status, however, along with his mainstream economic success he’d also kept one of the oldest traditions in hip-hop alive as part and parcel of his career and stardom.
The precise ins-and-outs of Fiddy’s feud with Rick Ross don’t need to be gone into here; except to note that it all escalated when Fiddy released a voiceover’d sextape of Ross’s ex-girlfriend, Lastonia Leviston.
This is what’s resulted in the bankruptcy filing, given the demonstrable shortfall between Cent’s $4.4 million dollar net worth and the $5 million dollars worth of damages he’s been ordered to pay to Leviston.
Wait ... what?
“I thought you said 50 Cent’s net worth was in the hundreds of millions?”
Yeah, we did. And so did Forbes magazine. They’d had his net worth pegged at around $155 million dollars earlier this year. A figure whose credibility was bolstered considerably by his ostentatious displays of wealth. We’ve all heard, for instance, about the $1.6 million dollar bet on Floyd Mayweather Cent allegedly made; and he’s often taken great pains to show off his car collection and taste in bling.
But it turns out that this has all been an illusion. The fancy cars were rented or traded in. The diamond-studded gold chains were “borrowed”. The lifestyle, in other words, was all an illusion – created, as 50 Cent told a packed courtroom recently, for “entertainment” purposes as part of his brand.
The pervasive impression we’re left with, then, is that of an inverse-Macklemore. Somebody who raps about wealth yet finds himself having to take his peacocking items back to the thrift shop.
This is probably the biggest reason people are queuing up to cast aspersions in Cent’s direction right about now. Nobody likes a failure – but when one’s image is based so excessively and overbearingly on financial success and wealth, the sudden revelation that it’s all been for show is especially jarring.
Worse, the idea that we’ve all been fooled about this for some time evaporates our sense of sympathy. Nobody likes feeling duped.
On top of this, there’s a certain sense of karmic justice about what’s just happened to 50 Cent. The lawsuit which brought him low financially was, after all, the act of a woman justifiably and deservedly seeking retribution and remuneration for the exceptionally ugly way in which Cent had dragged her – as an innocent bystander – into his feud with Ross.
We hardly need to state our revulsion and anger at 50’s indulgence in revenge porn to try and tangentially slur a rival.
And yet, that doesn’t seem to be *quite* what’s motivating many of the armchair-bound keyboard-manipulating LCD-tanned aspersion-casting commentators on this issue.
Instead, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in some quarters that a figure from outside the respectable trappings and upbringing of the financial elite has tried and failed at playing “their” game. Those former crack-dealers can’t be Armani-clad multi-millionaire shrewd investors, and that 50 Cent’s fall into (presumably temporary) financial ruin represents a “setting right” and reasserting of the natural order of things.
If you don’t think there’s a pervasive strain of racism, classism, or some other form of arbitrary discriminatory sentiment against an “other” inherent in this; ask yourself one very simple question:
Why did people react so differently when, say, Donald Trump filed for bankruptcy.
Possibly because Trump’s popular name doesn’t lend itself so readily to lampoonery; and maybe due to the fact Trump’s pop-culture presence and image was already so self-evidently ridiculous that nobody in or out of their right mind could take him seriously enough for there to be a noticeable transition in his social status on any of the four occasions he filed for bankruptcy.
Or, more likely, deep down we all implicitly recognized that bankruptcies are something that happen to modern businesspersons – and, more importantly, that they’re often only temporary setbacks which allow their sufferers a breathing space to re-organize their affairs and get back on their feet.
We’re not used to thinking that way about rap-stars.
On a certain level, we still seem to think the logical result of a flame-out in a rapper’s pursuit of fame and fortune is the “die tryin’” bit, rather than something that gets mediated by accountants.
Fortunately for Fiddy, however, (and we can’t believe we’re saying this) Trump’s example is instructive.
Trump himself has declared corporate bankruptcy no fewer than four times – and yet today sits on a personal fortune measured in the billions of dollars while leading the Republican pack as its most popular presidential candidate. (Not, of course, that that may be saying much)
Bankruptcy is merely a financial statement on a bit of paper. It’s not actually some woeful and deep piercing indictment of who or what you are. You don’t suddenly loose your creative attributes, your force of personality or your panache thanks to dire financial circumstances.
Now we’re not suggesting #FiddyForPrez as the right man to take on Trump by any stretch of the imagination. But here’s hoping Cent gets his life and career back on track as a result of this.
Only this time, without the fake lifestyle and revenge porn, please.
Curwen Ares Rolinson was recently shocked to find out that, due to his criminal record, he appears to have more actual-gangsta credibility than Rick "Prison Officer" Ross. Khyati Shah can be found reading Foucault and dancing to T-Pain. Occasionally, at the same time