Books

50 Cent and the Death of the Author

No, the erstwhile drug dealer turned middle-aged rapper didn’t kill a novelist. He became one.

Ski Mask Way 50 Cent cover

The provenance of 50 Cent’s 2007 novel, The Ski Mask Way, is a confusing tangle of publishing industry wheeling and dealing that leads from the mean streets of 21st century Queens to 1970s Michigan to finally crash-land in the rarefied halls of literary theory.

The Ski Mask Way was unleashed upon the public by G-Unit Books, a publishing imprint created by 50-Cent. G-Unit Books (not to be confused with the rapper’s G-Unit record label, initially a subsidiary of Universal Music Group’s Interscope Records, now an independent company) technically launched in 2006 with the paperback edition of Mr. Cent’s memoir, From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens, and wound down 12 books later in 2011 with Playground.

The G-Unit Books imprint is rather confusingly subsumed under another imprint, MTV Books, which is published by Pocket Books, a division of industry behemoth Simon & Schuster. 50 Cent’s relationship with MTV Books-Pocket Books-Simon & Schuster began in 2003, just months after his debut as a hip-hop performer. In February 2003, the New York City native released what was then the highest-selling debut album of all time and, just four months later in May, had two albums on Billboard’s Top Ten list. That’s when Simon & Schuster et al jumped at the chance to cash in. His memoir was scheduled to debut in hardcover with head-spinning speed in December 2003, but it didn’t actually make it into print until 2005.

Fast forward to 2007. The Ski Mask Way was one of a trio of books published at the same time to officially inaugurate the Simon & Schuster G-Unit Books sub-imprint, but it is usually treated as the first in a series of “hip-hop novellas,” a marketing vertical targeting a very specific demographic and purportedly inspired by 50 Cent’s life. Also, though 50 Cent is listed as the author of the G-Unit Books novellas, he may or may not have written them. But more on that later.

The clearest explanation of these publishing industry machinations comes from a 2007 Los Angeles Times article about The Ski Mask Way: “[50 Cent] is its publisher, under a deal with MTV and the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster that launched G-Unit Books late last year, making him hip-hop’s first book publishing magnate.”

To reiterate: This is the clearest explanation.

All that aside, The Ski Mask Way marked the hip-hop artist’s first foray into a new creative genre: literature. In a 2007 New York Post article charmingly titled “The Merchant of Menace,” Cent shed some light on the inspiration for the story. ‘“In ‘The Ski Mask Way’ particularly, there’s a character named Seven that’s based on me. And there’s a portion where he’s incarcerated and has to make decisions about his life and how things spin out of control. I’ve been in a similar space, but I was able to hold on and not spin out of control.”’

Now we must circle back to the caveat mentioned earlier: Although 50 Cent is listed as the author of The Ski Mask Way, he might not have written it. As with his memoir, Curtis James “50 Cent” Jackson III employed a co-author to bring forth his work of fiction. This fact, coupled with the ease with which one falls into the trap of trying to suss out the origins of The Ski Mask Way as a work of literature (see above), can lead a serious reader to desperately embrace the literary concept known as the Death of the Author.

The Death of the Author is a theory created by literary critic Roland Barthes. In 1967, Barthes proposed that when we consider a novel, poem, or other literary text, we should ignore the artistic intentions and personal background of the author. In other words, the author (or authors) of The Ski Mask Way and the reason it was written are unimportant; the quality of the text alone matters.

The fact that 50 Cent’s co-author, K. Elliott, grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the novel is set, dealt drugs as a young man like the main characters, and spent time in jail like the protagonist should not matter. Nor should 50 Cent’s assertion in the introduction to The Ski Mask Way, “The stories in the G-Unit series are the kinds of dramas me and my crew [of co-writers] have been dealing with our whole lives: death, deceit, double-crosses, ultimate loyalty, and total betrayal. It’s about our life on the streets, and no one knows it better than us.”

I’ve never been convinced that the Death of the Author theory has merit. Then I read The Ski Mask Way.  

I went in knowing nothing about the book, the G-Unit series, or even 50 Cent beyond the vague sense “He’s a rapper…right?” After making my way through all 179 of the book’s large-print pages (but before I began to research the author/s or the background of the book) I was firmly convinced that K. Elliott was a 30-something white woman hired by Simon & Schuster to ghostwrite the book with 50 Cent. I guessed that her method had consisted of letting 50 Cent freestyle the dialog, which she then directly transcribed and added, what I felt was, some rather prissy narrative action. An example from the first chapter:

“‘Now that’s where you’re wrong at. I made a lot of money. Ran with a fucking crew—and most of them niggas that I ran with are either dead or in jail.’

Butter rolled another blunt, lit it and inhaled, then blew another smoke ring before coughing loudly. ‘What the fuck were y’all doing?’

‘Coke, heroin, e-pills … all types of shit.’ …

Seven thought back. A few years ago he was driving Porsches, BMWs and shit with expensive rims. Ever since he’d been released from prison a year ago, it had only been a bus pass. He really wanted money, too, but he didn’t know anybody who would give him drugs.”

Assuming that Elliott was a contract ghostwriter who really wanted money and didn’t know anybody who would give her drugs, I dug into “her” writing background. After discovering that “she” was Kevin Elliott, a young African-American author of dubious publishing cred, I next wondered if The Ski Mask Way wasn’t in truth a work of fan fiction. This theory seemed credible due to 50 Cent’s remark to the New York Post, “I didn’t really read books for fun as a child.” However, he makes a point of noting in the introduction to The Ski Mask Way, when he finally did start reading author Donald Goines became his literary idol. “I can still remember the first time I read Donald Goines, the godfather of street lit. He was the first to write books about characters that I could identify with … I made a vow that if I wrote a book or got into the publishing game, I would try the same one-two punch—that of a Daddy Cool or Black Gangster.”

These are, in fact, the very first words of the introduction to his novel, filling a full third of the introduction proper. The paper-thin plot of The Ski Mask Way, the shaky writing style, and overall sense that the writer, while writing, was thinking, “I don’t need to explain or clearly describe anything—we both know what I’m talking about, right, reader?” reminded me of the texts that populate the popular fan fiction repository, FanFiction.net, where the readers already know that Spock’s ears are pointy and his hair is black and he is male and he’s not a human—leading the writers to believe that there’s no need to make any of these points clear in the text.

This is as good a point as any to actually take a look at The Ski Mask Way as a work of fiction.

The book is simple in plot, characters, and style. In Charlotte, North Carolina, which is not really described as a place, a young black man named Seven is facing a difficult re-entry into society after a stint in prison. Seven, like Charlotte, North Carolina, is only hazily envisioned. He is neither hero nor anti-hero—his personality is too vaguely defined for such labels. The world of The Ski Mask Way is filled with violent action and call-outs to familiar brands that are named (Louis Vuitton luggage, Rolex watch, Dayton rims) but not depicted.

In cahoots with his new pal, Butter, Seven falls back into a life of crime to make money for his son’s medical expenses. In a book constructed from ambiguities, the Dickensian child’s malady is peculiarly specific: He suffers from Blount’s disease, which causes his legs to bowl severely and will require both surgery and costly braces if he ever wants to walk. Beyond the son of Seven’s ailment—which I had never heard of and assume had some relevance to 50 Cent or K. Elliott since it was so pointedly mentioned—there is little in the way of conflict in the book. Seven gamely re-acclimatizes himself to the criminal lifestyle that he calls “the ski mask way,” robbing underworld players and treating his girlfriend badly. In one of the book’s more puzzling plot choices, Seven and Butter viciously rob the same drug dealer on three separate occasions. The drug dealer in question always seems quite surprised that he is again being brutalized, a fact that could be played for laughs in an early Quentin Tarantino movie, but comes across simply as careless writing in The Ski Mask Way.

Somehow, an interesting theme crept into The Ski Mask Way, but I doubt either of the authors was aware of it: hunger. The only recurring trope that appears again and again, even at the most inappropriate moments, is food and eating. Seven’s girlfriend is shown erotically consuming an ice cream cone to entice a cocaine kingpin; a drug dealer tucks into collard greens and ribs during an important meet-up; when asked why he steals, Butter responds, “I’m hungry,” and “I need to eat.” Teeth are described as “eggshell white,” a car is “fruit-punch red,” even Seven’s buddy’s name, Butter, is a reference to food.

Was The Ski Mask Way, I wondered, a piece of Donald Goines fan fiction? I wasn’t familiar with the work of the late urban fiction pioneer, so I decided to read one of the books that 50 Cent/K. Elliott name-checked, Daddy Cool.

Donald Goines books

Daddy Cool is an excellent work of street lit. Goines book, set in his native Michigan in the 1970s, is so intriguing, in fact, that it deserves a post of its own. But as source material for The Ski Mask Way, it didn’t offer much in the way of illumination.

Finally, in frustration, I turned to 50 Cent’s primary art form, music. In 2005, he released his second album, “The Massacre.” On it, ever so coincidentally, there is a song entitled “The Ski Mask Way.” Perhaps the video would shed some light on the book.

I found myself enjoying the song immensely and wishing the book’s plot had been as lucid, the characters as sympathetic, and the action as exciting as that of the brief video.

At this point, I decided that I was getting way too invested in figuring out “what’s the deal with The Ski Mask Way?” and embraced the concept of the Death of the Author.

It doesn’t matter why the book was written, or by whom. The Ski Mask Way is a thin, trifling work of fiction.

But then again, maybe the Death of the Author is garbage.

In 2014, Forbes reported that 50 Cent was one of the five richest hip-hop acts in the world. However, “much of his estimated $125 million net worth comes from non-musical ventures.” And back in 2007, 50 Cent told the New York Post exactly why he wrote The Ski Mask Way.

“He acknowledges that his books are motivating kids to read—the same kids who buy his G-Unit brand clothes, sip his grape-flavored Vitamin Water, watch his movie ‘Get Rich or Die Trying,’ play his video game and listen to 12 million copies of his first album.” He also stated that his next marketing scheme would be condoms.

Most tellingly, 50 Cent himself appears in The Ski Mask Way. In the book, our author/real-life-person is all about the marketing schemes.

“They can hate if they want, but he has an empire—clothes, music, video games, Vitamin Water …”

I feel like maybe we’ve all been played.

the delve

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