You don’t ever have to buy a 50 Cent album.1 I’m not being snarky – I love 50 Cent. But his best work is on mixtapes. The G-Unit Radio series with Whoo Kid aren’t just comps with freestyles and remixes, but fully crafted works of Art. 50 Cent’s best music is immediate, reactionary, careless of the consequences. The mixtapes are gonzo style collections of freestyles, full tracks, skits, beef, and general shit talking. His albums are less successful because they’re amalgamations of pop styles, trends, and the most mediocre music. Post Massacre2 50’s albums are forgettable. The mixtapes are where it’s at.3 50 and Whoo Kid were pioneers of the form.

2000’s pre-shooting Power Of The Dollar was 50’s entry to the music business and it failed more for his personal crises than the music itself. The sound is rooted in late-90s NY grime, produced largely by the Trackmasters. It reminds me of a post-Capone-n-Noreaga side project, in which 50’s raw talent has not yet coallesced into a marketable commodity. The sound is not all that different from Get Rich Or Die Tryin4 but the shooting invested his spirit with a careless vitality, that intangible quality that separates special artists from the pack. My favorite track is “Corner Bodega,” but it was the gosspy “Ghetto Qu’ran”5 and “How To Rob” that got the attention. “How To Rob” is a clever rundown of the rap industry, fearlessly clowning and naming names (“Caught Juvenille for his Cash Money piece/Told him I want it all he said, “Even my gold teeth?”).6 It’s a gimmick but it’s a well written song – that’s 50 Cent in a phrase.

Most fans – including Eminem – were introduced to 50 Cent through the early tapes like No Mercy No Fear. There’s some good material on those, but they haven’t aged well. Whoo Kid hasn’t asserted himself as a presence so the freestyles just roll by without the later focus. We have to start with Bulletproof, which doesn’t technically fall into the G-Unit Radio series.7 With Bulletproof, Whoo Kid defined his style – a few freestyles, some key new tracks, guest verses, lots of shit talking on the beef of the moment. The tape finds 50 at the cusp of fame, with Dr Dre and Eminem’s involvement, hosted by Dave Chappelle (“50 Cent, he’s coming up a quarter at a time”). In hindsight, the tape marks a cultural peak – Chappelle’s show and 50’s rise being crucial to the vibe. I love Bulletproof – I bought my version from a gas station in NJ and the song “Follow Me Gangsta” always skipped on my copy.8 We even get a rare Royce 5’9” penned Dr Dre freestyle. The only bit I don’t care for is a Ludacris guest verse. Ludacris stinks.9 If you weren’t banging Bulletproof while playing GTA III in 2003, you missed a Sgt Pepper epochal moment.10

The release of Get Rich Or Die Tryin was the biggest moment of his career. The buzz was heavy and the album lived up to the hype. Dr Dre and other producers laced the album, Eminem added some guest verses introducing 50 to the mainstream and the singles kept coming. 50’s flow is memorable and melodic, his hooks commercial enough for radio but his content gritty and dark as ever.11 It’s one of those albums that sound like a greatest hits collection. There’s an energy and veracity12 to his music that stood out. Still, I’d say his biggest impact was the mixtapes – every rapper who crafts and releases a mixtape for promotion owes a debt to 50.

The first few G-Unit Radio tapes (1-3) are promo heavy, with a few Get Rich tracks mixed with remixes and live bits. 50 notoriously jumped on any popular song with a guest verse,13 but it worked even better when he just took the beat and made a new song. The chemistry of G-Unit is key – Lloyd Banks14 was the punchline king in the era of punchline rappers, Tony Yayo an amoral braggart with a dark sense of humor, Young Buck a Tennessee rapper with a NY enough flow for NY hip hop snobs like myself. Whoo Kid is absolutely essential, punctuating the proceedings with gunshots, shoutouts, laughter, and the occasional rewound verse.15

All this comes together on G-Unit Radio Part 4: No Peace Talks. This is the height of the Ja Rule beef, which was unique to rap beef in the level of physical reality with confrontations and stabbings and whatnot. But it felt righteous because Ja Rule’s music was weak – a mix of club pop and an ill-advised wannabe 2Pac element. The tape is built around drops of Ja’s interview with Louis Farrakhan, which itself was evidence of how big this beef was culturally. “50, somebody intended to kill that brother,” says the minister. Let’s note that 50’s ideology comes from a different place than the militancy of Public Enemy, afrocentricity of the Native Tongues, kung fu/5% Wu Tangology, or the capitalism of Jay-Z. 50’s bible is Robert Greene’s 48 Laws Of Power. I like this – it’s different. It gives his work a passion and focus, which all artists should have.16 Regardless, No Peace Talks is a top 5 G-Unit radio tape, with 50’s “Lucifer” freestyle and the best tracks from the G-Unit album Beg For Mercy. I like how he starts up Ja Rule’s “Clap Back” beat only to reject it – “Wanna hear me rap on that? Nah, can’t do it for you.”

Part 5: All Eyes On Us is the best G-Unit Radio tape. It’s absolutely essential, coming as it did between label projects with tracks unavailable elsewhere. We get the proper introduction of The Game as G-Unit radio member. The Game is a competent but limited rapper – he mines the beef and gangsta talk for his rhymes, with lots of references to other rappers. He was perfectly suited in a group environment like G-Unit, as he can’t really carry full albums on his own.17 Musically the tape draws beats from Mobb Deep and The Alchemist, along with the 2Pac wave that was influencing the whole Shady camp around that time.18 We do get one of Pac’s best unreleased tracks “Soon As I Get Home,” which manages to fit perfectly with the G-Unit vibe. The beef with Ja Rule was also expanding to a Shady/Source battle so the tape includes Eminem’s freestyle response to the his old racist tapes that were released around this time. The track has a good urgency, unlike D12’s “Xplosive” – D12’s music stunk, Eminem included. There’s also a Tony Yayo freestyle that seems to be recorded in the car on his way home from prison. All Eyes On Us is emblematic of the G-Unit radio formula, capturing the moment in the world, for better or worse.19

Part 6 was concurrent with Lloyd Banks’ solo album. Much like The Game, Banks works best as part of group tracks while his solo stuff feels less essential. Part 7: King Of New York might be the most disappointing of the whole series. The title is epic and it opens a drop from the Christopher Walken classic film. But the material is not there. This is understandable – 50 had dropped a vast quantity of great music in a short time and there were promotions, tours, and videos happening all at once. Perhaps the tape would have worked better as a mix of his older classics rather than just the weak filler that we got.20

If Part 7 was one of the shortest and weakest, Part 8: The Fifth Element is packed with material, a total of 29 tracks including drops. This one focuses on The Game, so it’s basically G-Unit West Coast.21 50 Cent is all but absent save for a verse or two but it’s a good tape, even if it somewhat lacks that crucial energy of 50’s best work. It’s more of a Game/Black Wall Street/Whoo Kid collaboration, with some goofy Steve-O drops in there for fun. Plus “200 Bars” is an impressive gimmick with nine plus minutes of Game talking shit on the rap game over Dre’s “Deep Cover” beat. Part 9 is a Young Buck tape which I skip only because I don’t care for the South rap style and Buck isn’t impressive me enough as a lyricist to dig in to it. No offense just not my bag. Next.

We’re back in business with Part 10: Before The Massacre. 50’s back promoting his second album and the boys have learned a lesson in not giving way all the best tracks on mixtapes.22 But even these freestyles and relative throwaways are pretty good – “Gotta Get Mine” is one of my favorite 50 Cent looseys. Before The Massacre is a brief, no bullshit tape but it’s a good one.

Part 11 and Part 24 are Tony Yayo tapes and they’re both dope, even if a bit more limited in scope and audience. Yayo is a simple shit talking rapper – he just does what he does and gives no fucks. He’s not a commercial guy so he works best in this mixtape format, good street beats with reckless verses. Part 11 is the better of the two and probably Yayo’s finest work overall. “They Call It Murder,” “Feel It In The Air,” and “Real Talk Of NY” – this tape goes hard. Also, this was concurrent with the D-Block beef23 so we get 50 on “I Run NY” talking his shit to Jada and the guys.

Part 1324 The Rerturn of The Mixtape Millionare introduces a new era in G-Unit with the additions of Mobb Deep and Mase. I like this in theory because G-Unit needed some new blood but neither was successful. First, Mase. Let’s remember that 50 Cent is a shameless troll for attention.25 That’s what the Mase signing was about. Mase was a good flashy rapper who came up with Big L and the Children Of The Corn26 in the 90s. He attached himself to Puffy’s flashy wave then got caught up in some street beef and fled down South to become a preacher. That’s fine, it is what it is – Mase was a rapper not a gangster. But he was clearly the wrong fit for the G-Unit crew and the deal fell apart soon after. Mobb Deep is a different story. They’d always had a working relationship with 50 – see early classics like “Bump That” or “Clap Those Thangs.” Musically Mobb Deep changed over the years from the Havoc produced albums to the Alchemist stuff in later years but they work best on their own, against the industry and the world. I’m glad they got the Shady/Interscope money and promotion around this time but musically it did them no favors. More on this later.

Part 14 Back To Business and Part 15 Are You A Window Shopper are extensions of the same vibe, including tracks from 50’s Get Rich movie soundtrack album.27 Both tapes include key songs from that album, “Hustler’s Ambition” and “Window Shopper.” Still I can’t help but feel that the sound is getting stretched too thin around this time. There’s a quantity of good music but it’s not as distinctive. The introduction of Spider Loc doesn’t add much either, an average but forgettable voice. Part 16 is Mase’s tape and I don’t really fuck with that one at all.

Let’s get back to Mobb Deep. Part 17 Best In The Business is their tape to prepare for their album Blood Money. Whoo Kid had already worked with Mobb on 2004’s The New Mobb Deep, a classic that was better than their album that year. But Mobb Deep was sort of breaking up around this time. I don’t think it was acrimonious so much as just different artistic directions. Prodigy and The Alchemist were establishing an even more perfect musical chemistry that peaked on 2007’s Return Of The Mac and continues on through 2013’s Albert Einstein. But post 2007 Prodigy becomes a different rapper. He always had an honest, conversational flow of tough talking gangsta, but around this time he expanded his scope. His 2008 albums introduced more conspiracy stuff, with lots of illuminati and global political talk. A bit crazy, not totally grounded in facts, but it’s interesting. It’s a progression. Just this year he released The Hegelian Dialect, which continues what I hear as a search for truths beyond the matrix, for lack of a better word.28 Regardless, the gangsta and gun talk Prodigy engages in on these tracks feels a bit forced, not quite as true to his artistic direction. Part 20 is a second Mobb Deep tape. This one includes “Pearly Gates,” the vaguely blasphemous29 banger from Blood Money. But the best tracks like “Time To Kill” are Prodigy solo type stuff as opposed to G-Unit. I prefer this material in that context as opposed to a G-Unit mixtape. The traditional Mobb Deep sound, like G-Unit’s, was just spinning in place around this time.

Part 17 and especially Part 21 Hate It Or Love It address The Game beef. Game was going hard with his G-Unot stuff, including goofy stunts like filming around 50’s neighborhood. We do get “Make A Movie Out Em,” one of my favorite 50 diss tracks but overall I didn’t care much for this whole beef. Even if I prefer 50 as an artist, I’d say The Game had a fair grievance with the way he got cut from the crew. But his obsession and endless disses did him no favors.30

Part 22 Hip Hop Is Dead is a classic – the second best in the series after All Eyes. This one is loaded. The title is a reference to Nas’s album, opening with a fake preacher mourning the death of hip hop with some shots at 50’s rivals. The first freestyle over Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop” beat is 50 Cent inspired again, fueled by that same righteous anger and sense of disrespect as his best material.31 It sets the tone for the tape which includes classics like “Watch Your Back,” “Don’t Front,” and “Superstar.” There are a couple funny shots at Puffy, with back to back snippets that show an obvious bite of 50’s flow.32 Again 50 Cent is at his best when he goes in the studio with something to prove, not to make hits for pop charts but just to make that grimey 50 Cent music that only he can do. Part 22 is highly recommended.

Part 25 Sabrina’s Baby Boy wraps up the series as a victory lap. 50’s made up with Diddy and Jay-Z for the “I Get Money” remix and the tape includes drops from Chris Rock and an MSG concert. But I don’t care for it so much as an overall listen as the G-Unit Radio vibe is basically over. The tape tries to sound like a celebration but it’s bittersweet. Or more accurately – it’s bullshit. This was around the time as the Killa Cam beef33 and the head to head chart competition with Kanye West. In many ways, 50 lost both. Cam’s “Curtis” track was potent enough to cause 50 to rename his album, which itself paled in comparison to Kanye’s Graduation.34 So it was not a good look and arguably 50 Cent’s biggest loss in relevance in the industry.35

G-Unit returned with two tapes in 2008 Return Of The Body Snatchers and Elephant In The Sand.36 I love both tapes, as the sound goes back to the classic insular G-Unit vibe of the early days. Everybody plays their position – Yayo with his reckless shit talking, Banks37 with the slick punchlines, Whoo Kid keeping the act moving with gun shots etc. “Like A Dog,” “I’m A Mechanic,” “I’m Leavin,” “Hollow Thru Him,” “Red Light Green Light,” “Lifetime Achievement” – these tapes are loaded with tracks that stay right in that 50 Cent lane.

2009’s Before I Self Destruct was the next proper 50 Cent album and it’s not very good. He’s just playing that gangsta role here, the same old gun and drug talk. It’s too bad, because I can understand how listeners would write off 50 after hearing a few tracks like these. It sounds like the same old shit. He also dropped two mixtapes The War Angel and Forever King, which failed to generate much buzz. There’s about an EP of strong material between the two, including “Respect It Or Check It,”38 and “I’m Paranoid” over the “Heaterz” beat from Wu-Tang Forever.39 He also dropped Sincerely Yours Southside in 2008 which consisted of freestyles over full R&B and funk tracks. It sounds better in theory than execution.

This brings us to 2011’s Sleek Audio tape. I’m saying this with full confidence and no apology – Sleek Audio is my favorite 50 Cent album.40 This was released in conjunction with his deal for Sleek Audio headphones, which ultimately went left and descended into lawsuits. Who cares? This is great material, criminally ignored by fans. These aren’t just freestyles but full songs with original beats and hooks. “Boomerang,” “The Paper (I Get It),” “All About Dough,” “Run Up On Me,” “Old 2003 Ferrari,” “When I Come Back” – this tape goes on and goes hard all the way through. It includes a collab with Pusha T and a previously unreleased track with Eminem and Jay-Z.41

This was also around the time of the Rick Ross beef, which was highlighted by 50’s ill considered release of the sex tape with Ross’s ex wife. It was a classic trolling/beef maneuver42, with 50 hosting the tape as his alter ego Pimpin Curly. Of course it later cost him millions of dollars in court. 50’s antics during the beef were more entertaining than the music.43

Post 2011, 50’s music has lost some focus, mixtapes included. 5 Murder By Numbers included a few good tracks like “My Crown” but otherwise doesn’t amount to much, and the DJ Drama The Lost Tape didn’t work at all.44 Even as a big fan, I didn’t hear much of anything worth remembering on 2014’s Animal Ambition.45 G-Unit returned with two EPs in 2015 and a new member with Kidd Kidd. I don’t care much for him, nor for these tapes as a whole. I liked the single “Changes,” with the more grown up elegant sound a bit like Nas’s Life Is Good, but the best track from both projects is Banks’ “Doper Than My Last One,” which was essentially a solo track.

Even after all this there is more great 50 Cent music out there. 2002’s Guess Who’s Back collects some early mixtape tracks and freestyles, including a couple Nas collabs.46 That collection also has the response to Jay-Z’s subtle diss47 “Be A Gentleman” over “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” Christmas song sample. We haven’t even mentioned “Problem Child,”48 which was collected on the Return Of The Bad Guy mixtape. “Funeral Music,” his response to Killa Cam, is another stray track not collected in the proper discography. There were two “The Realest” tracks with Biggie and Pac that got some NY airplay during his initial buzz. “I Know You Don’t Love Me” with Tony Yayo and “Cake” with Lloyd Banks are key classics from their solo albums. I could go on.

The point is: 50 Cent has a catalog of material that has largely slipped under the radar. Perhaps he’s just more of a niche artist than his early successful run, so his later attempts at chasing the fame have failed. Notice how he’s made a habit of pushing back release dates, changing and rearranging albums.49 But this is the antithesis of his best music, which is immediate, careless, reckless, humorous. Lately his press has been more about his bankruptcy and lawsuits and vodka distribution and his Power tv show. I’m not worried about all that, I’m about the music.50 50 Cent held that hardcore NY hip hop for more than a decade. Salute.

1Assuming you already own Get Rich Or Die Tryin. Every American should be issued a copy of that album at birth. C’mon Trump, executive order, let’s make it happen.

2Except for maybe the Get Rich movie soundtrack but you can get “Hustler’s Ambition” and “Window Shopper” on the mixtapes. Just like you can find “Curtis 187” from Curtis on G-Unit 25.

32011’s Sleek Audio tape is actually 50 Cent’s best album, save for Get Rich.

4And POTD‘s “Life On The Line” slotted perfectly in as a bonus track

5That song allegedly led to him being dropped by his label around this time, which is analagous to Pac’s incarnceration around the time of his shooting – the darkest moment before the deepest inspiration.

6Wu Tang – among others – didn’t see the humor in the jokes and you can hear Raekwon’s low pitched response on Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele

7Bulletproof is technically G-Unit part 5, the pre G-Unit radio series. Just for further confusion there are other Bulletproofs, including a 2005 video game soundtrack and J-Love’s mixtape series.

8Every version I find online has the same skip. Is this on the official mix? It’s cool, I’m used to it by now.

9I hate the line “I’ll fuck with your mind like an algebra equation.” Get the fuck off my 50 Cent tape with that shit. I should go back in audacity and cut that verse out.

10“I fuck with your mind like an algebra equation.” Really?

11“Heat” is probably the catchiest murder threat song ever. “God’s on your side?/Shit, I’m alright with that/Cause we’re gonna reload these clips and come right back”

12Funny exception: “High All The Time.” 50 talks a lot about smoking weed but he’s always been a fairly sober guy as far as I know. His style is funky and inspired enough without the drink and the drugs etc but it’s all good regardless.

13Which reached an absurd extreme with Bulletproof‘s remix of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” with 50 laughing ad libs about Britney in the background.

14Banks being an interesting case because he’s not really a gangster: he’s a witty weed head and coozhound whose style added levity to the toughtalk threats of the others.

15Whoo Kid keeps the pace moving on these tapes, cutting out fades with gunshots and shit talking drops. The G-Unit tapes are lessons for artists, particularly relevant now with in this short attention span/social media world.

16I take Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for myself – i.e. Shem The Penman

17The split with 50 which came shortly after The Game’s The Documentary debut was not a good look for 50. That is, the album – with heavy Interscope promotion and production budget – blew up, particularly on the strength of “Hate It Or Love It.” 50 penned some of the hooks which in all honesty made the album, as The Game’s name-dropping rhymes are just meh. His explanation of the beef just sounded like he was salty that he didn’t enough credit. Too bad, 50 and The Game would have made better music together.

18Eminem’s Pac fixation was a bit much around this time, with a “Hail Mary” remake on own his mixtapes and his poorly produced Pac album Loyal To The Game.

19The G-Unit mixtapes are gonzo, as we’ve said. What does that mean? You have to put yourself and your world in the center of your art, give it that context. See Hunter S Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved.”

20The tape includes the lesser of two songs titled 50 Cent songs titled “South Side.” You can find the better version on J-Love’s Bulletproof Vol 4, again not to be confused with the Dave Chapelle Bulletproof or the video game soundtrack. This is important information, take notes if you have to.

21Although beatwise it’s dominated by The Alchemist. Cool with me – Alc is top 5 ALL TIME producers. Salute.

22i.e. no “Sky Mask Way” or “Baltimore Love Thing” or “In My Hood” i.e the best songs from the album. Still The Massacre is not anywhere near as focused as Get Rich, a foreshadowing of his later albums.

23Lyrically this was about even as Jadakiss, Syles, and Sheek are just at home with the rap beef. They put out more and maybe even better material, culiminating in “Miss Jackson” over the Outkast classic.

24I’m skipping Part 12 the R&B Olivia tape.

25Watch his purposely flubbed first pitch at a major league baseball game which goes further left than Bababooey’s. Epic.

26Which also included Killa Cam, top 5 MC of all time. No arguments, no questions.

27A better album than The Massacre and his second best overall proper album.

28“Everything not illuminati, everything not an evil plot, nah.” Seriously I can’t recommend that album enough, just as the majority of P’s post 2008 work. HNIC 2, Product Of The 80s, Albert Einstein – don’t sleep on this great music.

29Too blasphemous? 50 recently mentioned on Nore’s Drink Champs podcast that P’s reference to the antichrist was a bit much for him and the only time he wanted to censor a collaborator. Me? I love that blasphemy stuff and P’s anti-religion stuff in his later work. Regardless “Pearly Gates” is dope.

30Nor did the 14 minute “300 Bars” – we get it, Game you don’t like G-Unit

31“Who shot Biggie Smalls/If we don’t get that they’re gonna get us all”

32Not that Puffy writes his own stuff but he definitely jacked the flow from “If I Can’t”

33Some of the skits humorously address Cam’s disappearance to Florida around this time, popping up in an infamous backyard struggle video. Nonetheless, overall I’d say Cam is one of the few who got the best of 50 on wax.

34Curtis included an actual collaboration with Justin Timberlake. Enough said?

35The single “Candy Shop” didn’t help either, clearly recycling the hook from “Magic Stick.” That song vies with the later failed single “Amusement Park” as his nadir.

36With its so disrespectful cover of Fat Joe on the beach. Do yourself a favor – don’t google it.

37What’s up with Banks’ voice? It now has a weird, high pitched tone. Gotta watch the mota, kids.

38In my top 5 all time 50 Cent songs.

3950 Cent does not get enough credit for his beat selection. That’s been the downfall of great MCs like Ras Kass or even Nas to some degree, but 50 has a distinctive style of hard hitting soul sample beats and freestyles. In that sense his Dre collaborations like “In Da Club” are anomolies, as he works best on grimey NY stuff.

40Better than Get Rich? Yes, to some degree.

41On “Syllables” Jay and Em both go at the loss of lyricism in mainstream hip hop. The track was apparently recorded for an incarnation of Dr Dre’s perpetually unfinished Detox.

42I recall another video around this time posted on Thisis50 of someone visiting DJ Khaled’s mother’s workplace.

43And even though I’m not a big fan Ricky Ross, his “Mafia Music” was better and more crucial sounding than the stuff from the G-Unit camp.

44I like how “Murder One” (actually one of the best songs on the tape) says “feat Eminem” which is only a brief drop of his voice rather than a verse. Not a good look in terms of 50’s relevance in the rap game.

45Even collabs with Jadakiss and Kendrick Lamar were disappointing.

46The 50/Nas beef was a bit more low key, highlighted by Nas’s “Don’t Body Yaself” which sounds more like stern advice from an older brother than an all out diss: “If I’m a sucker for love then you’re a sucker for death.”

47“I’m about a dollar/What the fuck is 50 Cent?” was not really a dig but a more a show of competitive respect.

48Another top 5 all time 50 track

49Street King Immortal has been long promised, just like Before I Self Destruct, the original title of Curtis.

50Duh, right?