But with his second album, The Massacre, we finally start getting some answers regarding 50's artistic cred (or lack thereof). In the time-honored tradition of sequels, the disc is one long business decision set to wax, a solid, workmanlike affair that's a virtual carbon copy of its predecessor, awash in gunplay and gratuitous nastiness. And 50's conservative choice to avoid straying from the Get Rich blueprint seems like a fait accompli when one hears his few failed attempts at growth: He repeats himself because he has nothing else to say.
No matter how much credit you extend him for the attempts at varying his flow and subject matter, a simple truth cannot be escaped: 50 is, at best, an average MC. More disappointingly, he -- like so many of his peers -- offers his rhymes to the world with almost no backstory, unless you count the generic references to drug dealing or the odd biographical detail ("My ma would turn in her grave if I ever married a white chick"). Remove the occasional G-Unit or Aftermath name-checks, and 95 percent of these rhymes could go into almost any MC's notebook. This impersonal approach ensures that 50 never transcends the cartoon-Rambo image he portrays on the disc's cover.
"I'm Supposed to Die Tonight," for example, taps into a classic theme -- the hunted hunter -- and promises some searching paranoia in the vein of the Ghetto Boys' classic "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" or the Notorious B.I.G.'s eerily prescient epitaph, Life After Death. In Fiddy's hands, however, there's no danger -- except to his adversary's girlfriend -- once 50 discovers where she "get her hair and nails done." And thus another gust of G-Unit bluster blows by harmlessly, like an Uzi spitting blanks.
It's not that 50 can't be effective on the mic; his underrated singing pulls tunes like the petulant "God Gave Me Style" above sea level, and the oft-quoted disses of "Piggy Bank" do find some deserving targets (even though 50 was far more effective years ago, when he tried the same trick on "How to Rob," a tune even funnier because of his audacity as a then-unknown). Plus, his calm voice in the midst of the violent excess he speaks of is strangely reassuring, to the point that small variations, such as the threateningly drawled choruses of "This Is 50," start to seem like a bigger deal than they are.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of 50's few flashes of ambition. Much will be made of "A Baltimore Love Thing," the track upon which the star himself has pinned his hopes for artistic redemption. But let's face facts: Personifying heroin in song is an idea much older than 50, and it isn't like this version breaks any ground Lou Reed didn't shatter almost 40 years ago with lines like "When we first met/I thought you'd never doubt me/Now you tryin' to leave me/You'll never live without me." That such a trifle will be offered as a sign of growth is proof that there isn't much happening here.
Of course, defenders of Dre and Eminem's lyrically challenged stable of MCs have gotten used to relying on a now-standard refrain: "Yeah, but check out the beats." It's a failsafe response, especially when you know there'll be some Dr. Dre productions that normally justify it. Except in this case, Dre's works really don't live up to expectations. There are only a couple of songs from him on the album, and while "Outta Control," in shuffling march time with a swirling organ hook, is a clear standout, there aren't many of those on The Massacre.
Instead, the disc plays out as a proficient, surprisingly coherent collection, given its dozen-odd producers (which include Hi-Tek, Scott Storch, and Buckwild). The only thoroughly weak spots come during Eminem's contributions, which are uncharacteristically lame: Almost all of them rely on the ominous, chromatic riffs he's been recycling for some time now, which are starting to fossilize. (His "Gatman and Robbin'," meanwhile, is the album's slightest track, an annoying throwaway that stretches its punch line and TV-theme hook out to painful proportions.) There are also a couple of showcases for Aftermath up-and-comer Olivia, who demonstrates on "Candy Shop" that she can work herself into the requisite lather on the mic, if nothing else. Yet this may be the first Aftermath release that comes without at least a couple of must-hear beats, an omission that may prove to be critical as this album attempts to extend 50's reign into the long, hot (and new-release-packed) summer.
What this album portends for the wider reign of Aftermath should be equally troubling. Dre and Eminem have assembled a stable of MCs devoid of strong personalities or outstanding mic skills (coincidence or not, the one great rapper they had in-house, the legendary Rakim, fled before finishing an album), and 50 confirms with this outing that he's among their number. This can't perpetuate success indefinitely for Dre and Co. All empires are built on sand -- hip-hop empires most notably. The Massacre will succeed in holding down the fort, but beneath its solid foundation, the ground is already shifting.