When 50 Cent came off his first major headline tour, he had 38 million dollars sitting in his bank account. At the time, his monthly bills came to $800, plus the cost of the Mercedes-Benz C220 he'd bought for his grandmother. Fiddy sensed the IRS hovering – there was only one thing to do with this newfound wealth. Spend it.
It was 2003, the year the artist born Curtis Jackson released his career-making, game-changing studio debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – a brisk, funk-inflected reflection on a life most violent. Just three years earlier, he'd cheated death after being shot nine times at close range outside his grandmother's house. His mum, a drug dealer, was murdered when he was eight – four years later he was on the streets himself, selling crack cocaine. Now he was a hip-hop kingpin, and the industry that had once blacklisted him was hammering on his front door.
Never one for subtlety, Jackson purchased his hero Mike Tyson’s sprawling, 50,000 sq ft estate in Connecticut for $4.1m (at the time a record for the area) to celebrate his success. Among its amenities were a private casino, swimming pool, basketball court, 21 bedrooms, a nightclub, a lake… and nine kitchens. Jackson finally sold it in 2019 after 12 years on the market; he now feels the place was far too big.
“In the beginning it’s OK, ’cos you wanna bring everybody over,” he tells me over video call. “But you’re only ever gonna sleep in one bed. After a while you’re like, what do I need this for?” He speaks softly; the vocal slur that changed his rapping style – caused by a bullet fragment embedded in his tongue during the 2000 shooting – is barely noticeable. Exuding calm, and dressed sombrely in a black jacket, trousers and white T-shirt, the 46-year-old is relaxing in his office, though the room is hidden by his Zoom backdrop: a brick wall and a car, like a classic Nineties scene from his native South Jamaica, Queens, New York. This happens to be the location of his new TV series, American crime drama Power Book III: Raising Kanan. It follows the younger version of Jackson’s Kanan Stark, a minor character from the original Power series about ruthless drug dealer James “Ghost” St Patrick (Omari Hardwick), which saw a sequel, Power Book II: Ghost, last year (available in the UK on STARZPLAY).
“I feel really good about it,” Jackson says. “We used New York as a character which is what allowed us to be so diverse – there’s a representation of everyone in New York.” As well as executive producing, he provides the adult voiceover for Kanan on the new drama (a move inspired by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas). On both series, he worked with writer and showrunner Sascha Penn, who incorporated pieces of Jackson’s own life into the script. As with Kanan, Jackson’s mother Sabrina was a feared drug dealer who was 15 when she had him, and 23 when she was murdered by an unknown killer in her home. It forced him to grow up quickly: “You have to,” he says. “You don’t have those people there to take that responsibility. You have to embrace it early.” By the time he was 12, Jackson was out on the streets dealing himself, at the height of New York’s crack epidemic.
“I sat with Sascha and told him about my experience, and he picked out things he felt would fit the project well,” he explains. It launches with a thrilling first episode, with a fast-paced script and well-drawn characters. There is violence, of course, and one particularly gruesome scene involving a microwave and a Pomeranian. But there’s also tenderness, and a nuanced portrayal of the tussle between Kanan (Mekai Curtis) and his drug queenpin mother (Patina Miller). “The biggest mistakes [they make] are with positive intentions for each other,” Jackson says. “The young boy wants to be treated as a man.”
Jackson believes Power Book III will reach an even bigger audience than the original series, which would be impressive, given the latter’s status as one of the highest-rated shows on the Starz network. But it’s easy to believe that Raising Kanan will appeal to audiences from all walks of life, because that’s the New York it depicts. Outside of Kanan’s immediate family, you meet a bratty publicist (90210's AnnaLynne McCord), a suave bartender (English actor, model and former British international sprinter Toby Sandeman), a troublesome cop (House star Omar Epps), and Kanan’s uncle, Marvin, played by hip-hop star Joey Bada$$. There’s also the teenage incarnation of Laverne “Jukebox” Ganner, Kanan’s cousin, who in the first episode is shown discovering her sexuality.
“Cos of my mom,” Jackson nods, when I ask if this was influenced by the fact that his own mother was gay. “She was like that. She had a girlfriend around. These are things that feel like they're going into the story organically, [so] it works.” No stranger to controversy, Jackson has been criticised in the past for his unsavoury habit of hurling homophobic slurs at fellow rappers – he cites this as a symptom of Nineties gangsta rap’s hypermasculine culture. He also notoriously said he wasn’t “into f****ts” in a 2004 Playboy interview. Yet he publicly supported gay marriage during Barack Obama’s presidency and backed fellow artist Frank Ocean when he came out in 2012. He was rapping about his mum being gay as early as 2005, on “Hate It or Love It” with The Game: “Coming up I was confused, my mommy kissing a girl/ Confusion occurs comin' up in the cold world”. The accusations of homophobia – “that stings,” he says, particularly because of his mother. He seems to suggest people ignored that fact even as he divulged it in his early music: “[People] saw me being aggressive, they saw the stereotype.”
More than anything, Jackson comes across as a bit of a windup merchant, a prankster as well as a business mogul who’s more than happy to drop the PR spiel if he spies a chance to have some fun. He tells me I’m kidding myself when I claim to be happy with my humble one-bed flat (admittedly I’d just been poking fun at his “downsizing” to a four-storey New York apartment). Last month, he caught some heat from rapper Lil’ Kim after saying the white hood she wore to the BET Awards ceremony made her look like an owl (it did). He’s spent years trolling actor Taraji P Henson over her show Empire, which he claimed stole the model from Power. “If you don’t have an opinion, why would people ask you questions?” comes his response when I ask about said trolling, along with a sly grin. “Not everyone’s gonna be happy with your opinion... but being loved and hated is part of entertainment.”
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Compared to the glossy swag of his early videos for “In Da Club” and “Candy Shop”, his Instagram is a litter of grainy screenshots, viral internet videos and juvenile humour. What never changes is his brevity – the lyrical frankness that has peppered his last five studio albums. “When you say, ‘Go shawty, it’s your birthday…’ That’s not rocket science,” he shrugs, suggesting that lyrical simplicity is the key to commercial success. I can’t resist pointing out that it is actually my birthday in a few days. “See?” he says, satisfied. “Still relevant.” He has an ear for a great hook, whether that’s the menace of the sharp, violin-style synth on “In Da Club” or the theatrics of “Crack a Bottle” with Eminem and Dr Dre. It was Eminem who first spotted Jackson and signed him to his Slim Shady records, an imprint of Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope. “He’s still one of the best artists to me,” Jackson says. “He means more to the culture than a lot of other artists – a lot of people looked at him and saw themselves, and understood how they fit into hip-hop culture.”
The word on Jackson’s long-awaited album Street King Immortal, which was first reported over a decade ago? “That original version is not [being released], but I’m releasing new music in September.” Eminem will not feature on it. “I didn’t finish the tracks with him… I’m not gonna tell who’s on it because I’m the most exciting person [on the album].” He just announced a new celebrity hip-hop TV contest, Unrapped, and is also producing a family comedy for ABC with Mary J Blige. That’s on top of the new music, Power spin-offs, and multiple other business ventures including a publishing imprint, alcohol and soft drink brands, production companies, clothing and real estate. “I got into music to better my life,” he says. “That’s why you say ‘business’ after ‘music’. Music business.” He hopes his youngest son, Sire, nine, will take over many of his businesses when he’s older. His relationship with his eldest son, Marquise, 24, soured some time ago. Sire is already getting tall, he says proudly, and has good taste in music. “He’s big on Travis Scott,” he says. “Fortnite [the video game] is the way to get to the kids.” Another business venture idea.
Can one person have too much money, I ask? What about Amazon founder and multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos? “I don’t think there’s such a thing as too rich,” Jackson replies. He grins again but he’s being serious, too. “What level of accomplishment do we reach where we look at ourselves and say, ‘Enough’? There’s no such thing as enough.” He seems to reference Richard Branson’s ambition to commercialise space travel: “They’re going to the moon! They’re gonna build 18-bedroom houses on the moon.” I have no doubt 50 Cent will be first in line, ready with cash in hand.
‘Power Book III: Raising Kanan’ premieres on 18 July on Starzplay
This article was amended on 6 September 2021 to remove an inaccurate reference to samples from music by Kenny Greene, which should instead have referred to Keni Burke.
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