The rap blogs are abuzz today about rap superstar 50 Cent, but it's not because of a hot new song or a premature leak of his new record Terminate On Sight. No, if the blogs are in a frenzy it must mean only one thing: beef.
Beef (friction or hostility between two rappers or camps) fuels the hip-hop world, via DVDs, YouTube missives and almost instantaneous volleys issued via impromptu songs. What was once a carefully plotted war of words between two adversaries is now more akin to a slap fight, with artists utilizing Web 2.0 platforms such as social networking sites and video streaming to respond to any real (or perceived) threats or disrespectful diatribes mere hours after they've been issued.
50 is no stranger to the process, nor does he fare poorly when it comes to defending his hip-hop honor. A beef with multi-platinum artist Ja Rule in the early part of the decade effectively shut down the latter's career; since then the artist formerly known as Curtis Jackson has put many others in his sights, including longtime Bronx rapper Fat Joe and prodigal son The Game, who was kicked out of Jackson's G Unit stable of artists for perceived disloyalty. The Game responded with a torrent of responses to the taunts and put-downs of 50 but to no avail; in the eyes of rap fans he was marginalized to a caricature of the artist whose silver spoon has been snatched away.
In this most recent episode, another of G Unit's members has become the latest to feel the wrath of the millionaire rapper's disdain. Young Buck, a Nashville rapper known for his lackadaisical drawl and Deep South roots had complained in the past months to various media sources about the poor financial handling of his recording budget and publishing royalties. While no actual shots were fired in Jackson's direction, it was clear enough to most fans that Buck was unhappy with his mentor; this titillated fans -- even the most subtle of criticism could lead Jackson to the equivalent of the nuclear option, one of his trademark "diss" records, complete with a rambling rant against the offender over a menacing, looping beat.
Buck's displeasure with his boss eventually boiled over into his publicly denouncing Jackson and G-Unit on a video quickly and widely distributed throughout the web. Within hours, Jackson had retaliated, and what a retaliation it was: instead of heading to the studio to record a quick response via lyrics, Jackson (or a member of his entourage) released a recorded telephone conversation between himself and Buck where the latter is pleading for some sort of forgiveness and help with his financial situation. Eventually Buck breaks down and begins audibly sobbing as Jackson consoles and reassures him. The taped phone call spread like wildfire via popular hip-hop blogs.
The fans had a field day, of course. Many pointed out their pleasure in the hypocrisy of a rapper with a stone-cold, hyper-violent facade being exposed as a sort of sniveling supplicant. Others praised Jackson's business prowess and noted that he had supposedly given Buck the support for a lucrative career, having been forced to release the audio only after Buck bit at the hand that fed him. Many more, however, questioned the moral and ethical implications of the phone call's release. When does the fantasy world of rap music end and real life begin? Is it acceptable to bring a human being's obviously honest distress into a world of pseudo-tough-guy confrontation?
I remember in the 90s when Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were at the height of their beef, which eventually lead to an all-out East Coast versus West Coast rivalry. The tracks aimed at each opponent were invigorating and virtuoso in their barbed precision. But then I remember when the words actually lead to bullets, and I remember watching the news soberly after each of those rappers were brutally gunned down. It gave us all pause to wonder whether the lines had been blurred, whether life had somehow become too involved with the art that attempted to imitate it.
So this newest (and possibly most brutal) incident of beef worries me. This is certainly the stuff that destroys careers. But it's also the type of action that drives someone over the edge. What do you think? Is all fair in rap and war? Or has 50 Cent just taken rap music and its intrinsically divisive nature into a dangerous place?