Wednesday, August 10, 2005

REV: Eminem and 50 Cent

A Hamlet of Hip-Hop and His Pal, Dance Man
By KELEFA SANNEH, August 10, 2005, The New York Times

About three years ago, Eminem and 50 Cent began their public partnership. Eminem was a chart-topping rapper looking for a streetwise new protégé, and 50 Cent was an underground star in need of some overground visibility. Back then, it was easy to see what the two had in common: tabloid lives, mischievous lyrics, disdain for the pop mainstream.

And yet on Monday night, when they arrived at Madison Square Garden with the Anger Management 3 tour, for the first of two sold-out performances, you could have wondered how two such dissimilar figures ever became partners in the first place. They are two of the best-selling artists in hip-hop, but not for the same reason. Listeners love Eminem's songs because they love him. But listeners love 50 Cent because they love his songs.

That means Eminem's cult is big enough and rabid enough to see him through a rather uninspired album like last year's "Encore" (Aftermath/Universal), which didn't yield many hits but sold like crazy, regardless. On the other hand, 50 Cent's following isn't a cult, it's a market, and a big one: he just has to keep making the product people want - addictive club tracks - and they will keep buying.

For 50 Cent Madison Square Garden was a big dance club, and he shook the rafters with lithe tracks like "P.I.M.P." and "Disco Inferno," which are engineered to be irresistible. The idea is to address the female market segment (asking, gallantly, "You gonna back that thing up or should I push up on it?"), but sometimes to do it rudely (commanding, rather less gallantly, "Bitch, hit that track, catch a date, and come and pay the kid"), so that the male market segment feels acknowledged, too. This may be a cynical approach, but it could be said that earlier versions of this formula, while more civil, were scarcely less cynical. In any case, consumer satisfaction seemed high on Monday night.

Although 50 Cent has been embroiled in controversy all year, he mainly played down his feuds. One enemy is the Game, his former protégé, who has been huffing and puffing about 50's alleged treachery. On Monday night, 50 Cent responded not like a cold-blooded killer but like a cold-blooded C.E.O.: anyone who sided with his former protégé, he said, should "buy Game's record and make me rich." 50 Cent was an executive producer of the Game's CD.

Since he released "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope), in early 2003, 50 Cent has assembled what must be the most efficient hit-making machine in the history of hip-hop. So a chunk of the set was given over to the core members of G-Unit, who are now stars in their own right: the witty charmer Lloyd Banks, the loudmouthed rookie Tony Yayo and the Southern roughneck Young Buck. (Buck deserves credit for a remarkable achievement: his solo set included appearances by Ma$e and Busta Rhymes but, somehow, no rapping whatsoever.) 50 Cent also delighted local fans by bringing out a couple of veteran New York groups newly aligned with G-Unit: the grim (but beloved) Queens duo Mobb Deep and the rowdy (but cheerful) Brooklyn duo M.O.P.

While 50 Cent (much like the opening act, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz) turned the Garden into a nightclub, Eminem turned it into a theater. (His performance was filmed and recorded for a special on the Showtime network. The New York Times declined to photograph the concert because its producers demanded that the pictures be submitted to Eminem and 50 Cent for approval.) In his songs, the dance floor is much less important than the stage. Maybe that's why his last two album covers have shown him on a proscenium, framed by a velvet curtain. And maybe that's why his set began with two gloomy but intricate tracks that could almost have been monologues: "Evil Deeds" and "Mosh," in which Eminem widens his list of targets to include President Bush. (In case the president is wondering, his companion targets on Monday night included Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Eminem's mother and - in the evening's biggest mismatch - Christopher Reeve.)

Ever since the runaway success of "The Marshall Mathers LP," in 2000, Eminem has been retreating from the same hip-hop turmoil on which 50 Cent thrives. In his lyrics, Eminem is always second-guessing his career, his celebrity, his persona; "Encore" is full of sighing complaints, as if he were feeling ready to quit. (Onstage, he lampooned the newspapers and magazines that have claimed he is planning to retire, but he also didn't promise to stick around.) Like 50 Cent, he de-emphasized his feuds with other rappers, but he found a different way to do it. In a bracing, clear-eyed song called "Like Toy Soldiers," he explained, "Even though the battle was won, I feel like we lost it/ I spent so much energy on it, honestly I'm exhausted."

That hint of exhaustion sometimes dragged down his show, and so did some of his protégés. With the notable exception of 50 Cent - and in stark contrast to him, too - Eminem has had trouble finding emerging rappers who can help expand his empire. And so despite delivering a few great verses alongside his not-exactly-great group D-12, Eminem was best when he was alone, almost oblivious to the tens of thousands of concertgoers screaming the words along with him.

Both rappers were introduced the same way: by short videos meant to get people excited. Inevitably, 50 Cent's brief biographical sketch reminded fans that he had been shot nine times, and also mentioned the shooting that accompanied his falling-out with the Game this spring. Eminem's video introductions also hinted at violence, but with a twist. You saw him in a room backstage, holding a pistol, trying to decide whether to kill himself. In Eminem's world, even gunplay is a solitary pursuit.