Curtis Jackson, better known as the rapper 50 Cent, is a man of many talents. He came to prominence in the early 2000s as a corner kid turned rap artist, climbing an uncertain path to success perhaps best encapsulated by the title of his breakout album, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” “In Da Club” and “P.I.M.P.” are club bangers that define the first few years of the 21st century, making lines like “we’re going to party like / it’s your birthday” into standard-issue bro refrains. His skill at writing rhymes brought him to the limelight; his astonishing success has kept him there.
As the title of that 2003 album suggests, the tension between success and survival is a potent one for 50 Cent. In 2000, the fledgling rapper was shot nine times at close range—a remnant of his past as a criminal rearing its head as he attempted to make a living on the right side of the law. Other rappers with similar life experiences have shed their hood trappings with gusto; Jay Z, for example, once a street drug dealer, is now every inch the well-heeled, white-shoe businessman. 50 Cent is somewhere between getting rich and dying trying. He’s got the success and the fame, but his creative instincts seem to return, again and again, to the person he didn’t end up becoming—a career criminal that died at the wrong end of a gun.
Perhaps as a result of that obsession, 50 Cent has turned away from music. His fifth studio album, “Animal Ambition,” failed to make a dent with either critics or listeners, and the long-awaited “Street King Immortal” has been delayed for four years. Instead, he’s turned to film and television. He starred in a roman à clef about his own life, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” in 2005. And last year, Starz debuted “Power,” an original TV series from the network that features Jackson as an executive producer and recurring cast member. The show’s main creative force is Courtney Kemp Agboh, who worked, most notably, on “The Good Wife.” 50 Cent brings the star power. In Season 1, his character, Kanan, played a restless, imprisoned drug kingpin, threatening the happiness of Ghost (Omari Hardwick). In Season 2, debuting June 6, Kanan’s finally out of prison. I caught up with the rapper to talk about the transition from rap to cable TV, what appeals to him about telling this particular story, and the “Empire” business model.
One of the things that interested me about the story of “Power” is that you’re playing someone who has been a prison inmate. That’s a story about this criminal sort of life that seems like the “die trying” part of “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” not the “get rich” part. Is that one of the reasons this appealed to you?
The story itself was created by communication between myself and Courtney Kemp [Agboh]. So a lot of the characters in the story are portions or behaviors from real people that I’ve come across in my life. Courtney, it wouldn’t be what it is without Courtney. Because she designed it, and even the pace of the first season is her creative choice. That allowed you to focus on other areas outside of what the person’s life choices were—career-wise, or for financial situations. They allowed you to be more invested in Ghost’s struggle, about if he’s done things the right way. It offers compassion, because people see him not wanting to be a part of a lifestyle that he’s chosen.
He’s really trying to break out of it.
Yeah. Overall, I think that it’s impossible for you to create these things and have people identify with it without having some sort of insight. Courtney is able to take the pieces that matter out of the conversation and put them in the right places. It’s been so exciting to do it, because—everything resonates differently to me, because I know where the pieces came from. We’ll be having a conversation and she’ll go, “Wait, say that again?” And then it ends up somewhere in the series. She just likes different parts. Even portions of things that some of them say—literally, they came out of my mouth before they ended up in different characters' mouths.
When I was first hearing about the show, I was thinking that the character of Ghost actually sounded a little bit like your narrative.
She created Ghost based on my journey, and her father’s. The whole energy of coming from not having very much and making it to that point, she had those references prior, from talking with her dad. That wit, the instincts that you get—you can’t get it out of a book, the experience of being around people and watching them, how they maneuver or do things. She was able to give Ghost a real identity like that.
Right, this survival instinct, I think, that I think he shares with Kanan, which I think is one of the things they have in common.
Ghost is a little more complex. Kanan is manipulative, but it’s from being around the lifestyle so often. There’s points where he needs to get it done, versus him doing it. He’s the kind of guy, he’s out on the street, it’s “Get it done,” and it’s, “All right, I’ll do it myself. It’s not a big deal. Plus, I wasn’t sure if that guy would have told on me, but I’m sure I won’t tell on him.” [Laughs.]
Sounds like you relate to that a little bit.
Yeah, it’s real life at that point. People are willing to do things—like the way I grew up and the things that I’ve come across—when there’s not a lot of finances around. It seems like the answers to all your problems. Relating any actions or activities to the right amount of money, it can happen in that environment. It makes it authentic to that. From the first season, I was going, Where is this going to go? It’s great, but it feels like someone’s going to get caught. They’re already figuring it out—she knows that Tommy’s looking at him like he’s Ghost—but it’s close enough for a case to start to happen, once you’ve got facial recognition. Going into Season 2, the intensity of the finale is carried all the way across the 10 episodes. It doesn’t die down. I know people are going to be at the edge of their seats going, “Yo!” The first season was, like I said, her pace was slow enough for you to identify with who everybody is and what their aim is. Now all the action from Pink Sneakers [a mysterious assassin in the first season] is directly translated over to Kanan.
Right, because your character’s out of prison. Is it fun to be acting outside of the prison space?
Oh yeah. It’s a lot more work because I’ve been in eight of the 10 episodes this season, versus the last one, I was in four. I’m really proud of this show. I feel like the things they make comparisons to, like the “Empire” show—it’s really different.
“Empire’s" got that musical thing going on.
Yeah, and it’s become something completely different. It’s almost like they cast people who were musically talented, who they could turn into stars in the process—and also create another revenue space for the television show, to profit on the sales of the actual records that they sell. They’re doing a push like that. Like at the Billboard Awards they had that guy [Jussie Smollett] perform. That’s what I identify with, him actually being a vocalist, because he was good. Then you go: OK, that casting was, “Can you sing? OK. Now, can you act?”
I know that “Power” must be getting a lot of comparisons to “Empire.” For you, in the creative process of making music to making a TV show, how does that connect?
The process is a lot longer. It’s a lot different, and you need the chance to make changes. With music, when you condition for it, sometimes it takes me 30 or 45 minutes—and simplicity is a part of the recipe for big hit records. Like, “Go shorty / it’s your birthday”: Doesn’t take a long period of time for you to come up with that one. It’s just one of those things that comes out, organically; it’s the right time for you to make the statement, and it becomes hits that don’t go away, for quite some time. People enjoy it. The writing process for film and television is a lot more leeway, a lot more time for you to: “look, wait, let me, nah that’s not it, let me change it.”
Has the process with you and Courtney been that you guys have conversations? Were those conversations mostly before Season 1? Or are they happening before each episode?
They happened before Season 2 also. I go to the writers' room, because I like the process. To see where the creative energy is at the table, when they’re talking about what happens over the season. They plan the entire season and then go episode by episode to build it. It’s like, wow, I’m looking at—because I have the executive producer hat on the project at the same time—I’ll see the season. I’ll have the scripts prior to the rest of the acting talent, and then I’ll have the ability to look at things that they aren’t seeing, their own creative choices, because I’ll be able to see the dailies. I’ll watch scenes before it’s even cut.
This project—there was a point where I was so invested in it that I was Ghost. Then Courtney snapped me out of it [laughs.] She said, “Do you know what it’s going to require for you to do this?” It was like, “OK, I’ll do something else. But I want to do something else, I want to be in it.” And then she created Kanan for me.
I know you have a lot of different interests, not just music but also business. What made TV alive for you?
It was natural for me. When you condition for music—I’ve been writing music since 1997. When I hear things from other artists, I go, “That was an interesting choice.” An actor that’s been acting for that long, that has the ability, that has all kind of range, they’ll watch the creative choices of their peers and go, “That was good, that was interesting.” It’s the same thing for music, but I look at it and go—if you gave me the same production and said, “The song is about this,” I would have gave you a different hit record. It’s the same content. I go, “That was interesting, cool.” That’s why I have favorite moments from artists, and I don’t have a favorite artist. I’ve been involved with it, and I understand the process so well that when I look at it, I know the producer, I know who played the keys, I know who did what. I could put that song together myself, if it was different.
When you watch the film and television projects, you have a different respect for it when you’re not involved, because the process is completely different. You go, “How do they remember so much of the dialogue?” But it just gets conditioned over time, it gets easier and easier to do it. I know that because it’s very easy for me now. I wasn’t taking into account that I perform for two hours without dropping a line. It’s a challenge, creatively, to be a part of an area in entertainment that you haven’t been completely a part of the entire time. Moving into a different area is like, I protect myself.
What do you mean?
I surround myself with great people.
Then you look better by comparison?
Not even that. My passion project, “Freelancers,” [a 2012 film] that I did was myself, [Robert] De Niro, and Forest Whitaker. That project required me making phone calls personally to get the talent involved in it. I knew that they would say, “50’s not good.” But how you going to say that when you got Robert De Niro and Forest Whitaker surrounding it? Their portfolios are so great that I don’t think you should even say that out loud. But people love tragedy. They would say, “Robert De Niro and Forest Whitaker fell off,” instead of saying, “50 Cent did.”