He may have been shot nine times, feuded with infamous gangsters, and dealt drugs from the age of 12, but 50 Cent has never come off as very scary. Introduced to the world via the gently effervescent “In Da Club,” he’s had one foot in cuddly ever since, trading on his violent past for cred while being marketed as a wholesome bad boy, complete with a thousand-watt smile and action-figure abs. This presentation made him rich but also increasingly difficult to take seriously, as South Jamaica gave way to a Connecticut gated community and ill-fitting love songs like the hapless “Amusement Park.”
Before I Self Destruct plays as a prudent step back. It’s not that 50 has suddenly become terrifying, but the album possesses a sense of latent menace that’s been left unexplored since his early mixtapes. Opener “The Invitation” is a dazzling minor-chord attack, with 50’s vocal creakiness exaggerated and the beat vacillating in sinister waves. It signals an album that’s more honest to the rapper’s strengths, and though his problems (the mush-mouthed flow and lack of real presence) are still here, they’re easier to accept when he’s not forced to play nice.
Jay-Z’s recent midlife crisis gave us The Blueprint 3, proving that great art can be fueled by insecurity. That album was a suspicious power maneuver, one that showed a man at the top obsessively flicking at invisible fleas. 50 Cent was near the top once, but after the confidence blow he was dealt after his sales war with Kanye West, he’s dangerously close to insignificance; Curtis still opened huge, but was his most out-of-touch work to date, pushing him dangerously far into the fickle pop market. Rather than carry on as a Ja Rule-like caricature, cloyingly gooey inside with a cracker-thin ghetto shell, he’s strapped on his armor, making Destruct feel like an attempt to repair his reputation.
This gives us something like “So Disrespectful,” which returns to the career-launching insolence of “How to Rob,” cleaning out a closet full of old quarrels and setting the contents on fire. He’s free with his hate and hurtfully direct, taking on former associates the Game and Young Buck, calling out enough rappers to stock the next Def Jam game. Whether his mockery of the Game’s childhood sexual abuse is out of bounds is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that such visceral attacks register at a time when most beefs play out like toothless marketing schemes.
Eminem, who’s been on a far more protracted downslide, shows up on the predictable “Psycho,” where he plays up the boring “I’m crazy” aspect of his persona on a verse that nevertheless feels spry and virile, yielding choice lines like “Beat the Octomom to death with a Cabbage Patch Kid.”
As with all their collaborations, the appearance of Eminem mostly serves to highlight how clumsy a rapper 50 Cent is. He struggles to keep up here, tripping over the rhyme pattern set by his mentor.
There are, of course, some feeble commercial attempts, most notably lead single “Baby by Me,” with its ebullient beat and Ne-Yo hook. Even with a “Have a baby by me, baby/Be a millionaire” refrain and the ballsy move of sampling himself, it strays close to the kind of lovey-dovey garbage that, in the past, has threatened to leave his music neutered. Yet despite these problems, Destruct is easily identifiable as a return to form: less commercial than it could be and better than it should.