The wildly off-mark first pitch thrown by 50 Cent at a New York Mets baseball game last week will live in hip-hop infamy as one of the great offstage stumbles of all time. It certainly was funny — in a mean-spirited way — to see such a colossal fail.
But for those as unskilled in sport and the ways of the ball as he seemed to be, the New York rapper's screw-up was, in a sense, inspirational.
To have a natural born killer like 50 Cent flub so fantastically felt like an affirmation for playground underdogs everywhere. America, after all, rewards young men with physical skills at the expense of those with wit who spend more time, in his immortal words, "in da club" (or with da books) than on da court. It's a comfort to know that you can still be a hustler even if you can't hit the broad side of Fat Joe.
"It slipped out of my hand," explained the artist born Curtis Jackson on "Good Morning America," laughing good-naturedly at his errant pitch. He might try using a similar excuse for much of "Animal Ambition," the multiplatinum artist's fifth album. The sonic equivalent of a blooper reel with a few solid highlights edited in to remind us of the player he once was, the 11-song album mostly rehashes ideas he's ruminated on with more focus and skill in earlier work.
Take "Winner's Circle," the most gratuitous stab at stadium and/or strip club ubiquity since Eminem's "Lose Yourself," but way more cloying. A song that celebrates the spoils of victory with as many cliches per minute as "The Essential R. Kelly" and a boom-bap beat with bland synthesized arrangements, it feels like a transparent grab at TV ad licenses. "Pilot" offers naïve, nursery-rhyme lines and metaphors that start off in the sky — "Me, I'm like a pilot" — before ending up in a strip club, where a lady's working the pole.
"I'm still a baller, I'm still balling," he raps to open "Chase the Paper," defensive from the start. The track, which features equally one-dimensional verses from Styles P, Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) and 50 Cent affiliate Kidd Kidd, marks everything wrong with the lyricist/entrepreneur's approach. He can't stop bragging about money despite himself, can't help but bring guns into tracks — only to forget about them. That's right: 50 repeatedly breaks Russian writer Anton Chekhov's rule of skilled storytelling by alluding to weapons without pulling the triggers.
That approach works to his advantage on "Irregular Heartbeat," a chilling snapshot of silence, fear, an enemy and the barrel of a gun. "We at the schoolyard waiting for you to get your kid," he raps while a quiet rhythm lurks below, more than willing, it seems, to expel blood on the playground.
"Hustler" is a wild mess with a strange, drunken beat and a line comparing himself to the late tyrant Moammar Kadafi. The phrase was seemingly written before the Libyan revolution exposed the dictator to be a mass murderer who ordered the bombardment and starvation of civilians before his death. Or maybe that's the kind of guy 50 runs with.
"When I come through you see me," raps 50 Cent, "In the Suburbans that's bulletproof, bomb proof, leather six, what else?" This is supposed to impress us? Better is "Twisted," which celebrates fortune with humble, if clumsily worded, enthusiasm: "This is perfect, this a moment to remember/As we proceed on our money-getting agenda."
"Don't Worry About It" has a notably magnetic future beat that suggests an artist willing to experiment a little, but falls short: It's hard to take his boastful lines seriously when 50 is rhyming about dealing bricks of cocaine and evading detection. We know full well he's too smart to dabble in illegalities when his stock portfolio earns him more than enough legal bank. More likely is he's running out of things to say.
The rapper could be forgiven if he offered even a hint of self-awareness of his patterns and ruts, but he seems to fully expect his listeners to not only be consumed by his good fortune but enjoy hearing about it. The man is pushing 40, and much of "Animal Ambition" is filled with info we have already digested in better form in albums prior.
In that sense, 50 faces the same dilemma — and hits a similar brick wall — as every started-from-the-bottom hustler turned multimillionaire, including Eminem, Jay Z and Dr. Dre (who co-produced "Smoke" here): how to honestly express the experience of newfound wealth and fame without rubbing it in our face. Boastful tropes about stacking cash and bedding women sound even more distasteful once the balance is large enough to never have to work again.
If indeed with age comes wisdom, he may want to expand his reading list, meditate and make some new friends. Earning money at the expense of love and family? That's sad. Rhyming "Alexander McQueen thing" with "this is a Queens thing" is uninspired at best. Still complaining about women who can't stay off of him, then labeling them whores after he's done with them? Yet another wild pitch.
2 stars (out of 4)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun