Two sides of the coin: 50 Cent live in Calgary
Before the one-stop shop of streaming services and algorithmically calculated playlists, a fresh new artist debuted in your life in a limited number of ways. Maybe they caught your ear on a compilation CD (in Canada that meant Big Shiny Tunes, or Much Dance). Or maybe you were one of those kids who parked themselves in front of a regionalized music channel (MuchMusic, VH1, MTV) to take in hours upon hours of big-budget music videos. I first heard 50 Cent’s breakthrough single “In Da Club” on the school bus ride home from elementary school. The track’s thumping bass rattling through fuzzy radio speakers turned way up to drown out the chaos of 30-odd teenagers on sugar highs.
50 Cent (born Curtis Jackson) was the perfect schoolyard caricature for the times. As the hits rolled out from his debut album Get Rich or Die Trying, his legend only grew: did you hear he was shot 9 times? I heard he was a drug dealer. 50 Cent was actually shot AT LEAST 15 times. Jackson then became a movie star, a vitamin water mogul, and the star of his own video game series. He effortlessly bridged the gap between schoolyard legend to a real life one. In the world of pre-teen white suburbia, 50 Cent was perceived as an “authentic” criminal making club bangers for your big brother’s booming car stereo.
For myself and my peers growing up, the themes that permeated gangster rap represented a struggle that was far removed from our white privilege. The stories and life experiences of Jackson were as unrelatable as possible to us, yet white industry executives had long been cornering our demographic and reaping huge rewards. As privilege often goes, we were conveniently oblivious to this marketing ploy and its harms, pushing problematic black stereotypes to a white male audience. The power fantasy that 50 Cent represented was especially appealing considering our teenage distrust of authority figures and our increasing vulnerability to the vapid materialism and relentless misogyny that permeated the airwaves.
But 50 Cent offered something different to the familiar gangster-turned-rapper formula. In contrast to his hard image, the lyrics of his biggest hits often focused on exploring a more deftly subdued sensitivity. This dichotomy was central to the two sides of the 50 Cent coin. The same artist best known for a song about being in the club with a bottle of champagne is also quoted as saying “I don’t drink, I grew up around alcoholics. Why would I drink?”. And for all the certifiable hood chops, many of Jackson’s chart toppers were directed at a specific audience: women. Sure, 50 Cent was revered as a gun-toting, bullet-scarred rap version of The Terminator, but he also represented a protective and sensitive boyfriend who could ask you 21 questions about love. In all the ways that 50 Cent existed as a typical male power fantasy, his focus on women’s pleasure made him a main character in femme fantasy as well. Why else would he be doing all those pushups?
On the eve of The Final Lap Tour in Calgary, Canada on September 10, the enduring dichotomy that is 50 Cent was on full display. Nearly 10 years removed from his most-recent LP, 50 Cent could still pack a 20,000 seater stadium with an audience ranging in age from those who grew up with his music to those who weren’t even born when Get Rich or Die Trying debuted in 2003.
There’s no doubt that The Final Lap Tour is packed with rap legacy talent. Backed by living legend Busta Rhymes and R&B impresario Jeremih, 50’s elected MC’s were more than capable of holding an audience for the near four-hour runtime. The show began with a DJ hype-man (notably absent was Canadian rapper Pressa who had legal troubles to tend to), rattling off some of the club bangers of the era, getting the biggest reactions from two Kanye tracks, a calculated choice considering the manufactured “feud” between the two superstars in the mid-aughts.
Jeremih took the stage flanked by two exotic dancers, performing an understated set featuring hits from his 2015 breakthrough album Late Nights: The Album. His catalog is significantly more decorated than memory serves, and Jeremih understands his role on the tour well. Playing to the ladies in the audience, the show’s dial slid firmly towards horny.
Busta needed no introduction, but being seated on a throne for an extended instrumental introduction while the crowd goes bananas is appropriate for one of hip-hop’s most dynamic and electric performers. Joined by ace hype-man Spliff Starr, the 51 year-old legend rolled through mega-hits, turning the clock back 30 years with classics like “Break Your Neck” and “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” Showing no signs of age, Busta effortlessly cruised through his expansive catalog without so much as a breather. With coordinated choreography and more than a few hilarious anecdotes “I got a crib up here in Calgary… ya’ll don’t know! I be living here.” Busta was every bit the maniacal hurricane that landed him a lifetime BET achievement award a few months prior.
The energy had reached a fever pitch just in time for 50 to explode onto the stage. Surrounded by pyro, Jackson emerged mic-in-hand rattling off “The Invitation” with unstoppable energy before dipping into the swaggy “What up Gangsta”. 50’s performance chops were immediately clear: rapping without a backing track and flanked by two hype men of his own, he bounded across the stage as dancers weaved in and out. “Laaaaadies!” the crew shouted to a resounding wave of screams ahead of “21 Questions”.
The stage itself was something to behold. Four monolith tower screens rose to the sky and set the scene, from the dark and dingy streets of New York to the glamorous downtown lights of the strip. The towers then split halfway to the sky, exposing the expansive house band. A guitarist hopped down the staircase and ripped a solo next to 50. Tasteful interludes cut time for outfit changes. Frank Sinatra’s booming “New York” swam over the now Gatsby-esque scene, the tower screens displaying a marquee of films 50 starred in.
Jeremih reemerged from the shadows playing a baby grand piano, teasing the first few notes of his mega-hit “Birthday Sex”. A dancer joined him on top of the piano doing a strip routine, garnering an audible collective scream from the ladies in the audience. 20,000 strong were standing, singing, dancing, and filming for Instagram. The show was, in a word, a spectacle.
50 Cent may play into a male power fantasy, but his performance was undoubtedly catered to the women in the audience. “Have a baby by me, baby, be a millionaire” sang 50, the standout track from his 2009 release Before I Self-Destruct. It’s a convincing routine, and another entry in 50’s consensual sex appeal. On “Baby By Me” he continues “You could feel every inch of it when we intimate, I use my tongue, baby, a little sprung maybe”. Soon after, a raucous rendition of “In Da Club” sees 50 once again asking for permission “Look, mami, I got the X, if you into takin’ drugs, I’m into havin’ sex I, ain’t into makin’ love. So come give me a hug, if you into getting rubbed”. The theme continues with “Just a ‘Lil Bit”, as 50 once again shows his sensitive side “We can head to the crib in a lil’ bit, I can show you how I live in a lil’ bit, I wanna unbutton your pants just a lil’ bit, take ’em off and pull ’em down just a lil’ bit”. In retrospect, this connection to his female fans seems almost obvious, perhaps masked by testosterone-tinged hyperbole that was 50 himself. It’s this lyrical shift that set him apart from his predecessors, inviting women into his fantasy and centering their pleasure and consent in the process.
The Final Lap Tour was a smash, and a triumphant victory lap solidifying the legacy of one of rap’s biggest names. With 50 Cent every bit at the top of his game and anchoring a show bursting with bangers, complex choreography and outfit changes, and tasteful pyrotechnics. With a star-powered supporting cast and a catalog as deep as any, The Final Lap tour offers something for everyone spanning three decades of hip-hop hitmakers. It’s a nostalgia tour with merits beyond simple nostalgia itself: the now gilded memories of youth coming flooding back with newfound clarity, and the beats hit just as hard as they did on the school bus ride home.
50 Cent once asked “If I fell off tomorrow would you still love me?” The answer is a resounding yes, but the question, as it was 20 years ago, remains hypothetical.
Photos and words by Jarrett Edmund.
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