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Short Cuts

50 Cent ups the ante on hip-hop's reality game.

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Get Rich or Die Tryin'

50 Cent

(Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

One of the most memorable hip-hop moments of the past year came in the opening credits of 8 Mile, when Eminem's B. Rabbit prepped for an upcoming MC battle by spitting lyrics in front of a bathroom mirror, the song playing through his headphones Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones Pt. 2." The song rocketed the viewer back to the film's 1995 setting, capturing the moment as few other songs could. "I'm only 19 but my mind is old/And when things get for real my warm heart turns cold," one half of the duo rapped on the song, offering a depiction of their native Queensbridge housing projects as hell on earth. Over the course of one great sophomore album (The Infamous) and its one classic single, the duo's fixation on violent street life didn't seem exploitative but rather cinematic, unnerving, impossible to turn away from. It didn't last. What had come across as a warning shot from America's urban underside quickly devolved into self-parody, a tired for-addicts-only style dubbed Murda Muzik on a later album.

Listening to the latest rapper to up the ante on hip-hop's dubious "reality" principle, Eminem protégé and current Billboard kingpin 50 Cent, I can't help wondering if he'll meet the same artistic fate. "Many Men (Wish Death)," the best track on 50 Cent's fast-selling debut Get Rich or Die Tryin', is a worthy inheritor of "Shook Ones Pt. 2," witheringly honest and matter-of-fact about its protagonist's outlaw lifestyle but without an ounce of regret. With its dead-eyed, sing-songy chorus ("Have mercy on my soul/Somewhere my heart turned cold") and rising organ hook (lifted from Tavares), the mood is muted, somber. It takes you there.

It also unabashedly plays off a biography that 50 Cent has exploited more assiduously than perhaps any rapper ever: The song, indeed the entire album, is informed by his much-discussed past as drug dealer and triggerman (he admits to having shot people in the past), by the nine bullet wounds and one stabbing that scar his body, by his arrest on gun charges just a couple months before the album's release. You don't think he's playing this past for every Sound Scan number it's worth? This is a guy who thanks his parole officer ("Miss Donna Harris") in the liner notes to his debut album, just above a photo of him and two associates at a table surrounded by guns, liquor, and stacks of cash.

50 Cent isn't the only current hip-hop act to play off the is-it-a-myth-or-reality that music isn't a necessity because the drug money's so good. But where the Clipse's recent also-bad-for-you Lord Willin' repays close and repeated listens (given the Neptunes' fascinating, ear-popping production and unexpected bursts of lyrical wit, as on the sexually mischievous "Ma, I Don't Love Her"), the album's not inconsiderable pleasures are all surface: Executive-produced by Dr. Dre and Eminem, the music is more durable and sure-footed than ecstatic, 50 Cent's smooth, articulate flow more conducive to casual head-bobbing than headphone scrutiny. The deep, strong meditation of "Many Men (Wish Death)" and the engaging playfulness of the deserving smash single "In Da Club" aside, this is hip- hop as ace background music: Its relentless, single-minded, tough-guy attitude gets tiresome the closer you get to it. --Chris Herrington

Grade: B+

Scandinavian Leather

Turbonegro

(Epitaph)

Denim rock is back! Hot on the heels of their northern compatriots the Hives and the Hellacopters, Turbonegro -- Norway's tongue-in-cheek answer to death metal -- reformed just in time to capitalize on the Scandinavian rock revolution. It's been five years since the group released the raucous Apocalypse Dudes (they disbanded shortly after), but as of right now, Hank von Helvete and the rest of the boys are back -- harder, heavier, and more fun than ever.

Think eighth grade when you put this album on the stereo -- masking hickeys and zits with caked-on concealer, circling the opposite sex around the school cafeteria, bragging to your friends about what you would (or would not) do, drinking stolen beer in the convenience-store parking lot, smoking your older brother's pot, huffing the glue that came in that model airplane kit. You made do with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden then but rest assured: Had Scandinavian Leather been available then, it would have been the soundtrack to those blurry years.

"Wipe It Til It Bleeds" combines the sonic assault of Euroboy's electric guitar (think Randy Rhodes) with a catchy sing-along chorus, while "Turbonegro Must Be Destroyed" brings to mind Henry Rollins-era Black Flag. Verboten lyrics on "Sell Your Body (To the Night)" add fuel to the "homo or not" argument that's followed Turbonegro throughout their career, while the darkly humorous "Fuck the World" rivals black-metal kings Mayhem for head-banging anthem of the decade. "Drenched In Blood (D.I.B.)" takes the party to an even higher level as von Helvete evokes the late Joey Ramone on the syrupy-sweet chorus. Ironic rock-and-roll? That's for you to decide. Chances are, you'll down a shot of whiskey, crank the volume up to 10, and pogo along to the beat. -- Andria Lisle

Grade: A

Turbonegro will be performing at the New Daisy Theatre on Saturday, March 15th, with The Queens Of The Stone Age.

Toward the Sun

Jeffrey Gaines

(Artemis Records)

A decade after his eponymous major-label debut, Jeffrey Gaines has broken out of his comfort zone as an established soul-folk artist to record the emotional Toward the Sun. Thanks to co-producer Mitchell Froom, Gaines' sexy growl has an underlying edge to it on these 11 tracks, making for a far more memorable album than anything in his late-'90s oeuvre.

A full band accompanies Gaines' gentle acoustic guitarwork, while Froom rounds out the mix with a range of piano, moog, and Hammond B-3 riffs. The group melds on tracks like "Our Lie," a modern-day breakup song tailor-made for Adult Contemporary audiences, and on the brooding "Beyond the Beginning." Gaines really grooves on "In This Lifetime," a gritty call to seize the day. Not surprisingly, the song's dynamics evoke the shimmering pop rock of his 1998 hit "Belle de Jour" with its soaring radio-friendly riffs.

More palatable than the overly sentimental Duncan Sheik and more grounded than the wildly eccentric Terence Trent D'Arby, Jeffrey Gaines has neatly expanded his soul-folk niche with Toward the Sun. With any luck, its heartfelt lyrics and unpretentious folky-yet-soulful rock instrumentation will inspire Gaines to put his heart on the line and push the envelope even further. n -- AL

Grade: B+

Jeffrey Gaines will be performing at the Gibson Lounge on Saturday, March 15th.

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