50 Cent

Perhaps you've noticed the billboards advertising 50 Cent's new semi-automatic . . . er, semi-autobiographical film, "Get Rich or Die Tryin' "? The one with Fitty holding the mike in one hand and the gun in the other? Look quickly before Viacom rips them down, intimidated by the guardians of ghetto propriety. The image represents an age-old debate on empowerment, mutated for the Age of Bling:

The Box Office or the Bullet?

50 Cent, predictably, chooses both. It's been the key to his incredible pop triumph as a gangster/rapper -- Fitty's greatest billboard has always been his body, which bears the scars of several gunshots. It's also been the secret recipe that fills the molds out of which 50's G-Unit proteges are manufactured, like so many versions of GI Joe: Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, Young Buck are all basically the same dude, just with a change of weapons and camouflage.

The new movie and soundtrack are the culmination of that juggernaut's trajectory, delivering 50 Cent to the Everyman status once held by Tupac, with all of the dead rapper's ambivalence but none of his political pedigree and pathos. It's why 50's work -- though brilliantly conceived and executed -- hits with a hollow thud upon the cranium. It is music without hope.

50 Cent's success has been in his sameness. So it's surprising that the album -- a compilation of tracks from the usual cast, plus a few notable new signings like Mobb Deep and Mase -- takes a few chances. In fact, 50 has taken a musical left turn, rhyming over brittle loops and subtle soul sounds that have more in common with Common's last album than the hugeness of "In Da Club." When it works, as it does on "What If," "We Both Think Alike" and the joyous "Best Friend," you can glimpse a bit of his genius.

Fleeting, though. In 50 Cent's world, beauty always comes second to bluster.

-- Dan Charnas