Power player: how 50 Cent went from rapper to unlikely TV kingpin

Once one of hip-hop’s biggest names, Curtis Jackson has bounced back from bankruptcy to create an expanded universe of glossy crime dramas. Just what is his secret?

If such a thing as a Lazarus-like figure exists in hip-hop, it’s Curtis James Jackson III – better known as 50 Cent. The 46-year-old Queens, New York native appeared poised to pull off a familiar progression from drug dealer to gangsta rapper after signing with Columbia Records in 2000. But just as his debut album was due to be released, Jackson was attacked outside his grandmother’s home and shot nine times at close range, the injuries to his face resulting in a swollen tongue and a slurred voice. Amazingly, Jackson walked out of hospital two weeks later, with a true sense of purpose and a mind set on packing muscle on to his 6ft frame – a physical transformation that laid a foundation for a machiavellian persona.

His immediate career prospects dipped after the shooting. Columbia dropped him, and other labels backed away, not wanting to entangle themselves with an artist whose lyrics rang so true. Undeterred, Jackson, a prolific writer and producer, gave his tracks away, inaugurating the era of the record industry-disrupting mixtape. The immensely popular giveaways caught the attention of Eminem, who introduced him to Dr Dre, who quickly signed him to his imprint, Interscope. In 2003, 50 Cent made his commercial debut with Get Rich or Die Tryin’; the lead single, In Da Club, smashed the Billboard record for the most listened-to radio song within a week.

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After that came 14 Grammy nominations and a 2010 win, a bespoke label, G-Unit, and more commercial prosperity. It seemed as if he might dominate radio for a decade. And he nearly did until he picked a sales fight with a college dropout with a backpack full of beats named Kanye, someone with his own creation myth – a car accident that broke his jaw. That seemed to hasten Jackson’s next pivot from gangsta rapper to business mogul. He published a book with The 48 Laws of Power author Robert Greene called The 50th Law. He made a fortune after being an early investor in Vitaminwater but in 2015 declared bankruptcy.

He dabbled in film-making, mostly producing work that either featured him in the cast or was explicitly about him. Television looked like the last place he would end up; the medium seems almost too tame for him. (It’s not as though Jackson, for all his action star ambitions, was known for having a softer side like Will Smith or LL Cool J.) Black crime dramas seemed better suited to the big screen, where “hood films” such as New Jack City (starring Wesley Snipes and Ice-T) and Belly (with Nas and DMX) achieved rarefied cult status.

The harder they come … Curtis Jackson as dangerous inmate Cassius Dawkins in For Life.
The harder they come … Curtis Jackson as dangerous inmate Cassius Dawkins in For Life. Photograph: Giovanni Rufino/ABC/Getty

Still, Jackson couldn’t shake the urge to develop a small-screen project that might serve as a vehicle for music too taboo for Apple Music and the like. But it wasn’t until he connected with The Good Wife writer Courtney A Kemp that the idea evolved into a pitch about a Michael Corleone type caught between two worlds. A green light from Starz, then a repeats-heavy channel that sat below HBO and Showtime in the prestige cable tier, didn’t exactly set up the series for an extended run. Nor did the pilot’s lack of household names besides Jackson, who was ultimately cast as a supporting character who doesn’t immediately appear – and even then only occasionally.

But when Power premiered in 2014 it quickly became a ratings hit. Black and Latinx viewers in particular bought subscriptions en masse to follow the exploits of James St Patrick (Omari Hardwick), AKA Ghost, a New York drug kingpin caught in a romantically complicated cat-and-mouse game with his high-school sweetheart, an assistant US attorney. By the time of its third season, the show was the second most watched on cable, behind only Game of Thrones. Impressively, that audience was achieved without much in the way of promotion or major acclaim for the series’ actors and writers.

The Lazarus effect … Curtis Jackson attends the Hamptons premiere of Power Book II: Ghost.
The Lazarus effect … Curtis Jackson attends the Hamptons premiere of Power Book II: Ghost. Photograph: Jamie McCarthy/Getty/Starz

That success didn’t only justify five more seasons, it spawned four more spin-off series (or “books”). Power Book II: Ghost explores the life of St Patrick’s son Tariq, Power Book III: Raising Kanan is a 90s-set prequel depicting the early years of Jackson’s character, while the recently released Power Book IV: Force follows St Patrick’s right-hand man Tommy Egan and the forthcoming Power Book V: Influence concerns a crooked councilman.

Increasingly, Jackson has become prominent on screen while maintaining a distinct presence behind the camera, not least as a music supervisor and performer on the franchise’s soundtracks. Power’s spin-off structure takes David Simon’s The Wire and stretches into a Marvel-like universe that now forms the cornerstone of Starz’s programming.

All the while Jackson has emerged as a super-producer in the style of Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, and Starz made their relationship with him official in 2018 with a four-year, $150m development deal. But, of course, 50 being 50, he won’t hesitate to hop on social media and needle his partners until he gets his way. But the public scrutiny cuts both ways. Fans revolted when Jackson remixed the title song he wrote and performed for the show, Big Rich Town, replacing the singer of the song’s hook Joe with Trey Songz. (He changed it back after one episode.) What’s more, Kemp has proved to be every bit as ruthless as Jackson in her role as Power’s showrunner, unafraid of killing off beloved characters. And why not? The bold moves defend the universe against critics who might feel inclined to write off some episodes as too soapy. It hasn’t cost the Power franchise its following. If anything, the bandwagon is getting bigger.

In addition to the two new Power books, Starz also picked up BMF (Black Mafia Family) – Jackson’s Detroit-based crime drama – for a second season, and greenlit another series, Queen Nzinga, about a Dora Milaje-esque warrior, that he likened to the movie 300. And all of that is besides two other series he’s developing, one around his rap feud with the Game, and the other about Snoop Dogg’s 1993 murder case (he was acquitted).

So far, the biggest setback he’s had on TV was the cancellation of his ABC series For Life (about a falsely incarcerated man who becomes an attorney behind bars), and even that earned two seasons. The success would be remarkable even if Jackson hadn’t nearly been left for dead two decades ago. It seems there’s no end to the 50 Cent extended universe.

Power Book IV: Force is available now on Starzplay


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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