Wednesday, June 4, 2014

album review: 'animal ambition: an untamed desire to win' by 50 cent

It's really mind-boggling to me that 50 Cent's biggest years were around a decade ago.

I mean, do people remember 2003, when 'In Da Club' was the biggest song of that year? Maybe it's just me, but to some extent, the gangsta rap scene has both evolved and yet stayed the same enough to be just as receptive to 50 Cent now as it was ten years ago. With the right singles and the right leverage, I could buy 50 Cent holding down gangsta rap in the same vein as Schoolboy Q or Pusha T.

But at the same time, the question remains that even though we're finally getting a new 50 Cent release five years after the last album, do we really need another 50 Cent album? Bursting onto the scene off of some well-received mixtapes and a pretty damn solid debut album, 50 Cent brought a certain visceral punch of brutish charisma and solid wordplay to his records, and became most notable in rap music for crushing rival Ja Rule's career. But as the decade wore on, the gangsta image 50 Cent put forward got shakier and shakier. He threatened to quit rap if his single 'Ayo-Technology' didn't outsell Kanye West's 'Stronger', and when he didn't do that and instead released a decent-at-best record in 2009, the question began to arise what intangible qualities he brought to the table outside of any other gangsta rapper. And when he didn't manage to end Rick Ross' career in the same way he crushed Ja Rule, proved to be one of the worst actors working in Hollywood, and lent his voice to two utterly masturbatory video games which basically served as terribly written action hero fantasies for our protagonist here, I started to wonder if 50 Cent's gangsta cred had been too tarnished to return to mainstream rap.

But regardless of whether he should have returned to hip-hop, 50 Cent is back with a new full-length album Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win, his first album in five years and his first release since a few solid mixtapes, the last being in 2012. Does this album solidify his return and prove that rap music needed 50 Cent?

Ugh... well, if it were a black-and-white answer, I'd be inclined to say 'no', but there is a little more to it than that. The frustrating thing is that while Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win is pretty damn mediocre, there are moments here that show fragments of what made 50 Cent compelling in the first place. Unfortunately, those moments don't do enough to cover up the mountain of bad contradictions and sloppiness that ultimately poison this record and make it really hard to recommend.

So let's start with 50 Cent himself - and let me stress I've always liked his delivery. In his prime, his brand of sneering asshole machismo was belied by some sharp delivery and while he was never quite an amazing spitter, his delivery toed the line between that of a smart thug and an arrogant businessman. So why the hell does he feel the need to adopt something of a singsong flow on this record that sounds utterly ridiculous? It's mocking in the laziest possible way, and it's barely tied to an interesting melody. In fact, laziness might be an apt term, because throughout most of this album, 50 Cent does not sound like he remotely cares about what's going on, and for a record that supposed to reflect an untamed desire to win, this record feels like the undeserved victory lap. 

And what has 50 Cent done to earn that victory lap? Well, very little if we're looking at these lyrics, which feel like a grabbag of gangsta cliches blended together with 50 Cent's status as a legitimate businessman, complete with the brand label porn that comes with it. And there are moments where some of the wordplay is a little creative - there are a few lines on 'Hustler' and 'Twisted' that aren't bad - but too much of it circles the central premise that 50 Cent is loaded as all hell and yet is still hustling, slinging coke, and killing people. Uh, why? It's the same problem I had with Rick Ross' last album and while I like 50 Cent's flow more than Ross, at least Rick Ross tried to ground his wallow in the glorification of wealth on a pseudo-philosophical level. The one thing I will give 50 Cent is that he does have some sense of populism, and on songs like 'Winner's Circle' and 'Twisted', he does imply that others can rise up and be like him, which earns some points with me, but yet those songs are backed by some seriously lazy rhymes. In fact, that's probably the first big disappointment of this album, because between the half-filled bars, the rhyming words with themselves, and the cliches rattled off with barely any originality, the rapping here is seriously lackluster. 50 Cent might brag at his slow flow being 'so ill', but normally what I expect when I see with slow-flow rappers is lyrical creativity or complex words and rhymes that demand more thought and a slower pace, which 50 Cent does not really deliver. Or let me put it this way: if you're using 'Ring Around The Rosie', a nursery rhyme, for your hook, you're doing something wrong here!

And his guest artists don't help much either. Yo Gotti sounds like Jeezy with less energy, Kidd Kidd has some of the silliest punchlines on his verses, Styles P's verse is decent but feels like an afterthought he cut from his own record, and Prodigy's rhymes aren't exactly flattering as he describes the girl clinging onto him as a 'little girl' and then as a 'pitbull in a skirt' - flattering. The one guest verse I really did like came on the album's unquestionably great song 'Irregular Heartbeat' from Jadakiss, as the song evokes the minimalist, creepy vibe of 50 Cent's whispered threats scaring the crap out of his target before he kills them - and you know, it works, it's effective, they sound intimidating as hell! It shows that 50 Cent could make a genuinely menacing gangsta rap album if he tried - and it makes this album all the more disappointing.

And the really exasperating part is that the beats are a real mixed bag too. Most of them are more minimalist than they should be, stripped back to a beat, bassline, and thin melody line, either courtesy of a weedy little guitar line or a barely audible high synth. And honestly, outside of the wobbling mid-range on 'Don't Worry Bout It', the clunky synth at the back of 'Everytime I Come Around', the overload of watery effects on 'Hustler', the spiky and incredibly grating high chiptune in the verse of 'Twisted', and the utterly flat synths at the back of 'Chase The Paper', most of the instrumentation is fine. I liked the snarling swell of the title track, I dug the piano lines on 'Twisted' and 'Winner's Circle', and the percussion tended to be pretty solid across the board - but the production completely cripples it. There's little-to-no grit or grime on this album, which would be a natural fit for 50 Cent's delivery, the guitar tones are weak and lifeless, the more opulent segments with strings and horns feel imported from a cheap preset, and the crescendos feel completely neutered and give 50 Cent nothing that can match his presence. There's very little here that feels dangerous or imposing, or on a different note, all that luxurious or classy. 

Look, in the end, there are moments here I like. 'Irregular Heartbeat' is the easy highlight for me, and 'Twisted' and 'Winner's Circle' are solid too, but even by the standards of shallow gangsta rap, 50 Cent brings very little to the table that we haven't seen done better this year, and what's worse is that 50 Cent is capable of so much better. But if you were looking for an album that made it clear that 50 Cent does not have to try to make music many people will brand as passable, Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win fits that unfortunate bill. But for me, it's a 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore fan of 50 Cent, and even by that standard it's far from his best. And in a world where I have Schoolboy Q, Freddie Gibbs, Styles P, and a whole slew other gangsta rappers who are significantly more interesting, it's a real disappointment to say that I don't think the rap game needs 50 Cent anymore, because he sure as hell didn't prove it here.

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