Thirty-odd years from its modest, casual beginnings, hip-hop has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry, one that doubles as a grinding, relentless machine, marked by high turnover and few long-lasting careers. Sourced from some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, many of its stars start off young, raw, and inexperienced, pulled up by an ability to shape rough experiences into interesting narratives. Many later exit this turbulent genre in equally bad shape, unceremoniously dropped from labels or phased out by age or public perception, often deeply in debt or left with money they’re not capable of managing. There are, of course, exceptions, and for these success stories the post-peak model has been set by Jay-Z, one of the genre’s reigning impresarios, and the only one who’s managed to juggle burgeoning business interests with a successful career behind the mic. This seems like the goal for 50 Cent, an over-the-hill rapper who’s sustained his material wealth through lucrative endorsements and smart business deals, but remains unwilling to give up the limelight, driven by the sort of ambition he only indirectly touches on here.
50 is now 38, four years off his last album, and seven off his last significant hit. For athletes, this would likely mean retirement, but rap’s upper age limits are still hazy, with chameleons like Snoop Dogg cheating creative death again and again. 50’s personality is far more basic and immutable than Snoop’s, so it’s not too surprising that Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire to Win finds him in Charles Foster Kane mode, looking back fondly on the days of his youth. Imagining an alternate universe in which he still has some physical connection to the streets, the album traffics in the usual tropes (drug dealing, gun handling, and sex), burnishing the tough-guy status that he sought to reestablish on 2009’s gritty Before I Self Destruct. But under this lies an air of desperation, that of a man once defined by his roughneck reputation struggling to retain some connection to that image.
Like Ja Rule, another ostensible tough guy with teddy-bear qualities, 50 has always vacillated between hard and soft, torn between poppy club fare and the New York underground. That struggle continues here, though the few entreaties made toward the mainstream are balanced out by a general push toward traditionalism, with a roster of guests carefully selected from the ’90s NYC canon. “Hold On” imagines him in a criminal situation which mirrors his professional one, now fabulously wealthy, but unable to rest easy, still sleeping with a gun under his pillow. He ends the track by exclaiming that he doesn’t “give a fuck about that old-school shit,” but that’s exactly what he’s pursuing here, with a cooing soul sound reminiscent of classic Ghostface Killah. Other songs sound more modern, but still not terribly original; most egregious is “Pilot,” which feels like a direct Jay-Z impersonation, its “better back up, bitch, watch me ball” refrain looped under a sheen of smooth, glistening strings.
The main issue is that, despite any noble intentions of getting back to his roots, 50 doesn’t have much craft to fall back on. He’s still a clumsy rapper, slow and not very creative, maintaining a willingness to jump on trends and borrowed styles. He plays up that slowness here, under the pretext of a reigning boss making his own time, but the only real benefit of his residual status is the album’s uniformly strong production. This doesn’t always come from expected places. “Smoke” is produced immaculately, if more than a bit soullessly, by a team led by Dr. Dre, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the Swift D-produced title track, marked by a bouncy jungle beat and animal growls, or the electric organ-anchored “Chase the Paper,” a collaboration with Prodigy and Styles P that’s the epitome of the album’s trite subject matter, but also a satisfying old-fashioned crew track, matching up a variety of contrasting voices. It’s unfortunate that 50 Cent can’t offer more, tackling his anxieties head-on rather than burying them under the guise of shopworn gangster narratives, but while simple pleasures are about all Animal Ambition can offer, it at least presents them with listenable panache.