The 50th Law
50 Cent and Robert Greene
If you want to read a great book about hip-hop, I recommend Jeff Chang's Can't Stop,Won't Stop. If you want to read a self-help manual based on a central philosophy of dog-eat-dog and the survival of the sharpest with little regard for the morals of their fellow human beings, read The 50th Law.
I have never read a self-help manual before, as I've always been put off by generalisations and cod-philosophical maxims that pretend to scream out a formula for success but actually leave you with the feeling of having eaten too much ice-cream, filling yourself up without the benefit of real nutrition.
This book is sold to us as the life story of one Curtis James Jackson III, alias 50 Cent. In fact, we learn little about the nature of the real person. The school of hard knocks that Curtis endures on his route to becoming a hip-hop star and business entrepreneur supreme is sketched out. He undoubtedly had to endure a brutal baptism, and the progress he makes is a testament to his will and dedication to the tasks at hand. But this is not Pilgrim's Progress, and all the scenes of street hustling and gang mentality are told as though the central character were a cipher of a human being. Nowhere do we get a sense of what Curtis felt or experienced; we just hear a whole lot of cliches about the street life.
His co-author Robert Greene, a pop psychologist, provides the context for Curtis's rise to power with a running series of examples of the deeds of some of the greatest men in history, and he quotes from great men. So we hear about Socrates and Isaac Newton, and can read some of the wit and wisdom of Nietzsche and Machiavelli. Actually, we get a framework of anecdotes that are interesting in themselves: tales of individuals overcoming personal limitation to transform themselves into world leaders or, at the least, geniuses in their field. I don't think we get one example of a woman following this route from poverty and deprivation to triumph and fame.
The larger problem is that conflating the transformation of Curtis James Jackson III into the character known as 50 Cent with the deeds of Roosevelt, Michelangelo or Mao stretches credulity. Two books masquerade as one here. One is a self-help manual, illustrated with lots of historical anecdotes and philosophical quotes. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but, pasted together with Curtis's exploits, it becomes risible.
Some of the philosophy recommended here is disturbingly selfish, verging on the hysterical. I don't see every interaction with another human as as a power game to be won or lost. The authors would argue that this is because I live without the everyday threat of life and death that Curtis had to endure. But they'd be wrong.
Where is the humanity in describing a partnership as a 'momentary entanglement that you will move beyond as soon as you can'? Clearly, 50 Cent's manager Chris Lighty needs to watch his back. The mangement organisation, by the way, is called Violator. How much fun they must have with these wonderfully descriptive names, showing how macho and venal their sense of humour is.
The other big problem is just how little the co-authors seem to know about music and even the music business. They appear sure that their understanding of what is 'really real' has enabled them to outwit their adversaries. The street smarts that Curtis had to learn has led him to see record company executives as no better than drug dealers trying to control and own his music. I wonder how Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the co-founders of Def Jam, would feel about such a ludicrous mindset.
We hear about 50 Cent's brilliantly inventive marketing campaign through the use of mix tapes and the internet. Yet for all the historical illustrations throughout the book, they seem to forget that this strategy was simply copied from their peers. Whenever we hear about some musically related topic, it just seems to be wrong. Dan we seriously believe their claim that 'Miles Davis was always being pushed into making his sound fit the rage of the time'? Could anything be more incorrect?
Such nonsense undermines any credibility the book claims. However the biscuit is taken by this statement: 'Everyone in the world is governed by self-interest.' This makes me shudder and despair of all the cod philosophical claptrap that masquerades in these pages as a guide to self-improvement.
Good luck, Curtis and Robert. You don't need my help.
Geoff Travis is founder and MD of Rough Trade Records