50 Cent is the last of the millionaire rappers

Rapper 50 Cent is a member of a privileged club. In a music industry characterized by crumbling strongholds, he admits that he's "almost the last one over the wall" when it comes to major labels making artists into millionaire superstars. So it's with the confidence of entitlement that he says, "From a hip-hop perspective, I strongly doubt there will be another artist emerge with an album that sells 12 million records like I did with Get Rich or Die Tryin'. There will be artists that come out and impact hard, but I doubt they'll receive the financial reward for it."

He's right. But existence in this old boys' rap club of sorts isn't just about gargantuan bank balances. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Lil Wayne, and 50 all have roots in an era where classic rap albums were still capable of signifying watershed moments. Hearing Get Rich and its stream of singles takes you back to 2003; you probably remember where you were when you first heard the opening stabs of "In da Club." It pinpoints a time through music. The songs are cultural capital, still good to this day. It's doubtful many new rap artists have the potency to create the same credit.

Atlanta's B.o.B is being touted as a success story after his debut, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, sold just shy of 85,000 copies in its first week of release on Atlantic. You can argue whether that's a fair financial return on a lengthy, three-year-plus career development process. It's a surer bet, though, that The Adventures will be remembered simply as the rap record that tried to shoehorn Paramore's Hayley Williams and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo into its ambit. That's not to pick on B.o.B — he's just a topical example to compare to 50's 872,000 first-week debut album sales and accompanying epoch-defining impact.

It's cruel, but the industry has changed only to the advantage of already-familiar faces. As 50 observes, "I'm watching the major labels focus on selling established artists. I don't really see many new artists coming out." And there's another kicker: "What was the best scenario for me as an unsigned artist is now what works against them. When I was unsigned, the most exciting thing was having my material bootlegged everywhere. It created a notoriety for me before the majors decided to invest in me as an artist." Now, he argues, frequency of downloads is no guarantee that anyone is actually enjoying the record.

So, like Jay-Z ditching Def Jam to side with Live Nation, 50 is shifting with the times and maturing into the show circuit. This summer he's touring the U.S. instead of releasing a fifth studio album. It's a course that he — and those other collectively cocky rappers who made it over the wall — can easily slide into, thanks to a back catalogue of anthems and fans with ties to those songs.

He admits that sometimes playing the hits people pay to hear can be creatively frustrating. Asked if there are any songs he's sick of covering live, he laughs and says, "Yeah, some of them are really big hit records and I hate 'em!" He adds that he'd love to perform the Disco D–produced "Baltimore Love Thing," a track that anthropomorphizes heroin, more often. But he also recognizes that there's never been a better time for a big-name rapper to play in a pop realm. "I'm in a good place; I'm not working through language barriers," he explains. "I'm performing in places where people have no interest in most of hip-hop culture, but at the same time most people are hip-hop literate and understand what I'm doing. More than ever, I find they really enjoy the show I can give them." Chalk it up to another rich return on his generation's musical currency.

 
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