In February of this year, 50 Cent executed a label move that has seemed to be brewing for quite some time. Citing issues with Jimmy Iovine and with what he sees as Interscope’s move to becoming “Beats Records” (a reference to the recent focus of Iovine and Dre on the Beats Audio business), 50 signed a deal to move himself and his G-Unit imprint to the more independent arm under the UMG umbrella, Caroline Records (a division of Capitol), inking a deal similar to that of Cash Money Records. 50 has set himself (and G-Unit) up for a greater level of autonomy and in the wake of that move he’s created his best solo album in nearly a decade. Not without its faults, ‘Animal Ambition’ has a vintage 50 sound with enough bounce per ounce for loyalists and haters alike to take notice. I went into my first listen with a slight bias toward believing the album would disappoint. Like many, I imagine, expectations for a re-playable album from 50 faded somewhere in the wake of Curtis, and the bar for this album is set appropriately low. I was, instead, surprised and while AA isn’t an instant classic, it is definitely the best from 50 Cent in a while, finding an older, wiser, richer Fiddy making claims of his continuing street connections and actions. Although the natural hunger may have faded with his financial achievements, 50 attempts to awaken and dig into this lost hunger for justification of his nefarious activities. Whatever else critics may say, it is difficult to deny that 50 still wants this, an urge perhaps dimmed by his success but a strong urge nonetheless.
The first track centers on the prosperity that 50 has posited as the main concept of the album. In “Hold On” he talks about being rich and the different perspective that provides for someone still involved in the street life.
“I woke up this morning, this is insane
Rich as a motherfucker and ain’t much changed…”
The song kicks off the main concept in the very first line and in the first verse 50 cleverly plays on this contrast of identities. By the second verse, though, 50 has simply dipped back into ‘that gangsta shit’ and loses a bit of the track’s luster. The song ends on a sharply personal note, calling out by name (as he has done before) the beef with real-life mobster Jimmy Henchman and vowing to continue the war. The flossing continues as we roll into the bouncy, Charli Brown-produced “Don’t Worry ‘Bout It”, sonically reminiscent of 2003’s “Blood Hound”, before hitting with the song “Animal Ambition”. The title track is one of my favorites, sounding like vintage 50 without feeling rehashed. It is animated and even a bit comical and adds the biggest dose of character to the album. It is also on this track, though, that I hear the absence of a solid team around the lead emcee. AA is a solid solo effort and while I don’t want to imply that it is lacking due to Em or Dre’s absence, if 50 Cent were still on Aftermath “Animal Ambition” the song should and would have had Eminem on it, elevating it to a smash hit (think “Patiently Waiting 2”).
After the head-bobbing “Pilot” completes the “we got money” set, we pause for a sexy, high-energy “Smoke” break with Trey Songz, one of the album’s brightest spots. Produced by Dr. Dre, a hold-over it would seem from before his label switch in February, the song paints a picture of a woman being “just like smoke”, intoxicating and addicting before moving right back into gangsta mode with “Everytime I Come Around”.
The album hits what is perhaps its best chord with the minimalist “Irregular Heartbeat”, again featuring Kidd Kidd and, more importantly, fire from Jadakiss. For those that feel the song is familiar, “Psycho” off of 2009’s ‘Before I Self-Destruct’ starts with four bars that sound almost identical to “Irregular” ‘s hook (“I can feel your heartbeat, you’re scared”) with the concept carried on by the heart monitor beeping throughout the track. Instead of then switching to a bigger, quickened tone as “Psycho” does, “Irregular Heartbeat” keeps with the stripped-down feel allowing the verses to carry most of the weight.
We then ride into the victorious party feeling of the final third of the album, first getting “Hustler”, largely filled with hip-hop clichés about spending drug money on designer clothes. 50 is clever on a few lines (“Got a chip on my shoulder, a chip off the old block / I sell a chip off the whole rock, ten dollars a pop”) but on “Hustler” 50 hits the album’s least innovative point. This leads into the drinking, toasting, sexing, club track “Twisted” which brings the prosperity at the album’s core to front and center (“More than champagne, this more than just a glass / It’s a symbol of accomplishment we’ve rarely ever had”) before hitting the closer track “Winner’s Circle” and a coda of a track in “Chase the Paper”. For “Winner’s Circle” I dig the feeling and the low-key honest version of Fiddy, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something less cheesy that could have been written for the hook, maintaining the sense of victory but without the dangling metaphor of a “winner’s circle”. Nonetheless, we do get 50’s most honest two-line summation of the album and the status of his rap career:
“I’m trying to make it feel like the first time
Like a junkie I’m sort of chasing my first high…”
In a moment of uncharacteristic personal insight, 50 sees the inherent pitfalls in his creative endeavors- in some way he’ll always be chasing the success of ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ in the same way an addict is on some level always chasing the thrilling feeling of their first high. For ‘Animal Ambition’ he makes a return to vintage 50, “trying to make it feel like the first time” with a relatively high level of success but where he misses it isn’t vintage but old 50 telling more of the same gangster/P.I.M.P./hustler story.
There are few that will accuse 50 Cent of being a complicated wordsmith but it’s in his simplicity of flow that he finds his distinct identity. On “Chase the Paper”, the hook “You chase the hoes, I chase the paper” is about as simple as it can get but it provides an easy center for a dope crew track with guest appearances by Prodigy, Styles P and, once again, Kidd Kidd. It doesn’t exactly possess a quality of finality but it’s a good song that acts as a sort of addendum, telling us that he’s “still riding”, “still pass[ing] the steel”, and “still will kill”. It’s still the same old 50, he wants us to know, and the real question for the listener is, is the same old 50 good enough?
“The Funeral” is the best of the three bonus tracks, succinct in its vision as 50 enters a former mark’s funeral, dropping one long verse of exactly 50 bars. While it doesn’t quite flow with the character of the album, this song is one of the most interesting and should have found its way onto the beginning of ‘Animal Ambition’ instead of being a bonus addition.
Despite what may seem like a lack of variance in subject matter, 50 successfully keeps his focus on the flow of the album, maintaining balance and a proper ebb of energy and tone. What is clearest with this release is 50’s desire to keep making hit records, and a need to continue to do so in his own way. Beginning in February, the releases of singles began on a nearly weekly basis, eventually dropping most of the album by the June 3rd release date, each track with different but matching animal artwork and each one with a music video to boot. In February, he premiered the album’s first music video, “The Funeral”, in an interview with Forbes Magazine. This month, he began accepting the online currency Bitcoins as payment for the album, the first major artist to do so. As we look forward to the highly-touted ‘Street King Immortal’, supposedly coming in the latter half of 2014, and the recently confirmed G-Unit reunion album, we are presented with a version of 50 Cent that is not re-invented but rather renewed in its confidence, filthy rich but still a gangster, hustler and a hungry entrepreneur. I, for one, am eager to see what’s next.