2003: 50 Cent
Credentials: Get Rich or Die Tryin', back to back No. 1 hits with "In Da Club" and "21 Questions," guest spots on "Magic Stick," "We All Die One Day," and "The Realest Killaz," and the merciless destruction of Ja Rule's career.
Only one year prior to the release of Get Rich or Die Trying, no one could have predicted 50's rise. Roc-A-Fella was on top; Cam'ron was rapidly becoming one of the biggest rappers in New York, ready to succeed Jay-Z on the back of massive singles "Oh Boy" and "Hey Ma." Jay-Z was coming off the most celebrated release of his career, and was about to release an ambitious double album. And 50's fellow Queens-repping street rapper Ja Rule was dominating the charts with a series of hip-hop ballads.
50's career, meanwhile, was in stasis; labels wouldn't touch him, and thought he was a danger to himself, and more importantly to their bottom line. Columbia was wary before the shooting; songs like "Ghetto Qu'ran," which controversially detailed the history of Queens gangsters ("Don't be surprised/How freely I throw out names of guys who dealt with pies,") and "How to Rob," a song-length threat to jack every rapper in the game, had already stirred up controversy. In 2000, 50 was stabbed in a conflict with rapper Ja Rule's entourage. He was shot and survived an infamous attempt on his life that same year. Who knew what other kinds of trouble he could get into? Columbia promptly dropped him, and his debut record, Power of the Dollar, was shelved.
But the labels missed out on what made those songs resonate. As a rapper, 50 was ruthless and fearless. And more importantly, he was both of those things more convincingly than Jay-Z, who had begun to make moves towards critical respectability and retirement.
And then 50 Cent began releasing mixtapes. At the beginning of June 2002 came 50 Cent Is the Future; the title was prophetic, and buzz built quickly. It became readily apparent that not only did 50 Cent have a brash street-friendly presence, but he had an ear for melodic hooks. His tapes reinvented pop music for a street audience. Meanwhile, his slurred rap style had a national appeal, which enabled his verses to fit in well with the drawled Southern rappers who had begun to break out in Houston and Atlanta.
Around the same time, a copy of 50's Guess Who's Back? CD—a compilation of tracks recording during the sessions for the unreleased Power of a Dollar LP for Columbia—found its way into Eminem's hands. Rumors that summer spread; 50 Cent was signed to Interscope for a reported $1 million. Dr. Dre would helm the project. 50 released another mixtape, No Mercy, No Fear, the title of which advertised his selling points. Here was a rapper who seemed part artist, part action hero.
Coming on a wave of hype, Get Rich or Die Trying was the most anticipated rap debut since Doggystyle. Released in February of 2003, the album dominated the year, becoming one of hip-hop's best selling albums. By the end of that year, it had gone six times platinum. It reoriented the entire genre towards street rap's hard edge, spawned a pair of No. 1 singles ("In Da Club" and "21 Questions"), and a third that could "only" manage No. 3 ("P.I.M.P."). It also launched the careers of his entire crew, was Grammy-nominated, and became a full-on pop culture phenomenon.
Meanwhile, his long-simmering beef with Ja Rule and Murda Inc. boiled over with the release of 50's "Realest Killas," which explicitly accused Ja Rule of biting 2Pac. Ja had commercial success on his side prior to '03, but at that moment, 50 successfully got under his skin. Ja Rule released a slew of diss tracks in response, culminating in 2003's diss album Blood in My Eye. The album was a commercial flop, relative to his previous releases; 50 Cent's debut, meanwhile, continued to spiral upward, ultimately selling more than eight million copies.
Honorable Mentions: Jay-Z, Eminem, T.I.
Jay-Z's retirement record The Black Album puts him at No. 2 on the list. He boasted that he was the "best rapper alive" at this point, and it was arguable in 2003; but his has always been a long-term consistency, and in spite of the top ten success of single "Change Clothes" and standout guest verses on "Beware of the Boys," "Crazy in Love" and "Frontin," it wasn't enough to compete with the 50 Cent juggernaut.
Eminem, always in contention in this era, released three singles from the previous year's The Eminem Show, two of which charted in the top 20 on Billboard. He also had high-profile collaborations on albums by 50 Cent and Obie Trice, including the incredible posse cut "We All Die One Day."
Finally, T.I. recovered from his debut's flop, built buzz in the streets of Atlanta through a series of mixtapes and the smash underground single "24s." His scene-stealing guest verse on "Never Scared" grabbed the nation's attention, and his comeback LP, Trap Muzik, was released. It sold modestly at first, but in time has become recognized as a southern hip-hop classic. — David Drake (@somanyshrimp)