50 Cent and the Game, Before the Fame
Stowed in a shoebox in the back of a closet; over the fireplace at their parents 'house; in the wallet of a loved one: the meanest, toughest, surliest person you know has baby pictures out there, somewhere in the world. In the rap game, there is nothing like a strong biography, and the smartest players are the ones who know how to finagle their old lives into much nicer new ones.
The Game often enjoys bragging that he arrived on MTV fully formed. He hit the mixtape circuit hard around 2003, seemingly out of nowhere, but with the blessing of Dr. Dre and a loose affiliation with G-Unit. Next thing you know, his debut album, The Documentary, is platinum, he's a pin-up idol and all of his songs are burning up the radio and clubs. But that's not quite what happened. (And we're not even going to get into that time during high school when he appeared on the cheesy TV dating show Change of Heart.) Before Dr. Dre anointed his young charge Compton's latest savior, the Game was just another struggling MC from Southern California. With the hip-hop establishment looking everywhere (East, South, Southwest, Midwest) but the West Coast, Game plied his craft along the I-5, catching on briefly with San Francisco's indie kingpin JT the Bigga Figga. Chopped and Screwed is a quickie release of his pre-G-Unit demo tracks, remixed in the cough syrupy "chopped and screwed" style so popular in the Dirty South. (It's unsanctioned by the Game himself, who calls JT "a swindler.")
Though they appear here in supremely pitched-down versions in the chopped-and-screwed style, you still get a good sense of the Game's baby-steps toward stardom. Before going global, the Game had to rule the neighborhood, and a preponderance of these tracks adhere to Bigga Figga's formula for hyper-regional success — "Who the best MC on the West?" he crows on "Street Kings," as if worldwide recognition is a secondary concern. "Compton 2 Fillmore" is an excellent Bay-to-LA anthem for 'hood solidarity featuring JT. (Before he inherited Dre's beef — cue "Hate It Or Love It" — he inherited JT's; "Bleek Is" targets Roc-A-Fella's Memphis Bleek, one of the most dissed rappers of our time. JT accused Bleek of stealing his Get Low crew name and Game, never one to shy from confrontation, dedicates about four minutes to tearing up his mentor's offender, limb-by-limb.)
The proud, laundry-list rap of "Cali Boys" sees fit to name-drop everyone from Kurupt and Defari to B-Legit and San Quinn; he even ends on a note of modest, Left Coast reverence: "If I left you out, holla at me — my bad." Other tracks hint at what he would become a few years later: a West Coast rapper with East Coast style ("Compton Compton," which borrows from Jay-Z's "Murder Marcyville"); a veteran of way too many drug wars ("I'm Looking," "Real Gangstaz"); and a faithful dad showing off his baby's pictures ("Don't Cry," parts of which are reprised for The Documentary's "Like Father, Like Son").
When 50 Cent's Guess Who's Back was released in 2002, it's safe to say that few people knew he was here in the first place. But back in 1999, 50 was a rising young hustler who sparked a minor rap war when he released "How to Rob," a witty tale of how he was going to rob every star out there dry. Before anyone could ask, "Who is 50 Cent?" he disappeared, the victim of a shooting that has today become a major part of his press packet. Upon recovery, a much angrier, feistier and hook-friendly 50 bubbled back on the mixtape circuit. Guess Who's Back is like a distillation of that era. Some of the tracks were taken from his unreleased debut Power of the Dollar, but most of them were raw, hissing, mixtape-style recordings rich with sick, demented lyrics, a lot of gunshots and little "21 Questions"-style fluff.
There are no cake-eating fat kids here; Guess… is a steady diet of thug life. The pro-villain "Rotten Apple," "Corner Bodega," "Be a Gentleman" and the imaginatively titled "Fuck You" preview the at-all-costs blueprint of his aboveground career, while the gnawing, Kanye West-produced "That's What's Up" still stands as one of the greatest G-Unit group cuts ever. The collection includes three radio freestyles that romanticize the price of coke before 9/11. He never quite sounds as jaunty or playful as on "We Don't Play That Pussy Shit" or "Killa Tape, Pt. 2," but both feature the sing-song choruses he would flex on later hits "P.I.M.P." and "In Da Club." The weirdest moments by far are the Queensbridge solidarity tracks featuring current enemy Nas — "Nastradamus predicted 50's the future," 50 blurts on "Too Hot," as Nas replies, "50 Cent was Braveheart-ed/ We ride 'til the grave depart us." Oh, for the halcyon days of three years ago.