50 Cent, along with his BFF-turned-enemy-turned-BFF-turned-enemy, Floyd Mayweather, has, over the years, developed a public persona that can be extremely polarising, caricature and one-dimensional.
But if you look beyond the surface, past the bravado and posturing, past 50 Cent the persona, and see Curtis Jackson the reality, you’ll an extremely nuanced, thoughtful and intelligent artist and businessman who has become a master at shaping perception.
By now, the notorious story of 50 Cent is widely known: a drug dealer-turned-rapper from Southside Queens, shot nine times in 2000 in an attempt on his life, signed with Eminem and Dr. Dre to become one of the biggest selling artists in rap history, business ventures, $100 million dollar deal from VitaminWater, various acting stints, and of course, co-creating the popular Starz show Power.
Over the years I’ve learnt many valuable lessons from 50 (many from his latest book Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter), including how to create your own momentum, the value of hard work, evolving your brand with the times, and becoming a learning machine.
I am extremely serious about the value of hard work. I believe it creates not only success but happiness, too. You can never feel satisfied if you’re not applying yourself to something you’re passionate about.
Lesson 1: You have to create your own momentum
When he first started his transition from drug dealing to rapping, 50 Cent found himself right back at square one. While relatively successful in the drug business, 50 was unknown in the music industry, so he had to find a way to generate buzz in the ultra-competitive rap game.
Cue up “How to Rob.” 50’s debut single, released in 1999, was a brazen diss on all the major artists at the time as he threatened to rob them. 50’s imaginary victims included: JAY Z, Will Smith, DMX, Slick Rick, Busta Rhymes, Puff Daddy, Brian McKnight and plenty more.
“How to Rob” achieved exactly what 50 wanted: he got their attention and generated buzz around his name. Suddenly he had all the biggest rappers in the world asking themselves “who the fuck is 50 Cent,” and most importantly, mentioning his name in their lyrics.
Even later on in his career, 50 Cent still had the need and urge to create his own momentum. In 2007, with the record industry was going downhill and 50’s music no longer the flavour of the month, his record label, Interscope began pulling back from him.
As a solution, 50 pitched Kanye, the hottest rapper at the time, to head-to-head on a first week sales battle, pitting Curtis against Graduation to drop one the same day. Kanye ended up winning – Curtis sold 691,000 units against Graduation‘s 957,000) but it was also a win for 50 who sold a lot more than he would have without the battle and garnered a lot of positive media attention along the way.
Our competition actually turned what would have been a tough first week for me into a very respectable one. If I had just left Interscope to their own devices, I might have only sold 400K that first week. Instead I managed to salvage a tough situation and create a historic moment.
Sometimes it’s easy to take the “build it and they will come” approach but 9 times out of 10, it never going to be enough. By staying proactive and generating his own momentum, 50 was able to leverage the attention into more lucrative business opportunities later down the line.
Lesson 2: Become a learning machine
When an artist signs to a major label, there’s a feeling of relief – “wow, we made it.” All those years of hard work have resulted in this moment and now it’s time to put their feet up and just focus on making music, while their label takes care of everything.
Not 50 Cent.
When he signed with Columbia Records, 50 could have easily sat back and let the professionals do the work while he worked on making music. But he became a learning machine.
Every morning he would take the subway from South Jamaica to Midtown Manhattan, walk into the Sony Building and visited every department, looking to soak up as much information about the music industry as possible. From radio promotion to publicity to artwork, 50 approached the record label with the mindset of a hungry intern, and in the process developed a strong understanding of the music business — no doubt a major advantage over his rap rivals.
While I’ll always draw from the lessons I learned on the streets, I’ve never been limited to them. Instead, I’m always looking to absorb new information from as many sources as possible. I don’t care where you come from or what you look like — if you’ve created success, I want to learn from you.
Lesson 3: Know your value, sacrifice the easy money for more money later on.
It’s easy to think that the writer of such songs like “I Get Money” and “Straight to the Bank” is all about the cash and fast money, but in reality, 50 Cent has a very longterm view on making deals, centred around equity and understanding his value.
One of the biggest examples of this is 50’s deal with Glacéau. Although the company initially reached out to him based on an endorsement deal, which would see the rapper receive a cheque for a sum of 5 or 6 figures, 50 negotiated an equity deal instead. A few years later, Coca-Cola bought Glacéau for $4.1 billion and 50 earned an estimated $100 million from his equity, according to Forbes.
“One of the cornerstones of my sustained success is that I don’t rush into deals. Even though I’ve become synonymous with ‘getting paid,’ I never chase money. I evaluate every new venture based on its long-term potential, not on what the first check I get is going to look like. The reason I do that is I have supreme confidence in my own value and ability. I’m secure that as long as I’m betting on myself, I’m always going to win.”
Lesson 4: Stay evolving with the times
It doesn’t matter who you — rapper, coder, marketer, engineer — if you get stuck in a certain mindset or timeframe, and don’t let yourself evolve with the times, you’re not going to stay successful.
When he exploded onto the music scene off the strength of his (now classic) mixtapes, “In Da Club” and Eminem’s co-sign, 50 was the biggest thing on Earth and was on top of the world. However, hip hop is a young man’s game and it wasn’t long until the consumers grew tired of the gangsta bravado and violent cliches: enter Kanye West, rap’s new hero.
50 also recognised hip-hop’s affinity for the latest and greatest, and the authenticity of someone of his age and wealth rapping about the usual topics just wouldn’t resonate with the audience. This is why he was quick to branch out into movies, video games, fashion, and TV shows.
More than 20 years after his debut as an artist, new audiences would be more likely to refer to him as 50 Cent the media mogul or television producer, before 50 Cent the rapper.
“If I’d been unwilling — or unable — to evolve as an individual, I’d be dead or in jail right now. One of the keys to my success is that at every stage of my life, I’ve been willing to assess any new situation I find myself in, and make the necessary adjustments.”
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