50 to Infinity
“There are no limitations to what you can create,” says Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, whose many media worlds include music, film and television, where he flexes his muscles on Starz’s Power and the new Crackle series The Oath.
Steve Dietl/Sony Pictures Television
Curtis, "50 Cent" Jackson would like you to call him "50," but it's pronounced "fitty."
He says this with a smile, immediately putting you at ease. That's saying something, because he cuts an intimidating figure.
He's 42 years old and built like a freight train. He's tall and muscular, busting out of a form-fitting sweatshirt that shows off biceps and triceps and delts and pecs, but his warm smile belies the menace he often portrays on screen. It's the same menace that led Jimmy Kimmel to ask him on air which hurt more: being shot or being stabbed. (Jackson says he's been shot nine times but being stabbed is much, much worse.)
But if you think that's the extent of this man — a renowned rapper who rose from a criminal past on the streets to build fame, fortune and a sterling reputation as a creator of quality television — you're missing the point. The hard shell of menace that Jackson defuses with his blinding smile and contagious laugh is just that: a shell.
Underneath is the cunning mind of an artist who knows just who he is, what he wants and how to get it. He also knows that his deep understanding of how language and entertainment go hand in hand help him do that.
"I've been writing music since 1997, and because of that, I can hear things that maybe others can't," he says, speaking at the midtown Manhattan offices of his G-Unit Film & Television. "I've conditioned myself to do that, and I have an appreciation for movies and television because I understand music so well. There is a rhythm to it all." G-Unit has an exclusive output deal with Starz.
The instinctive feel that led to his enormous musical success has made him a natural both in front of the camera — in movies like Den of Thieves and on the Starz show he executive-produces, Power — and behind it, as an EP on Crackle's The Oath, which premiered March 8.
He's also long on charm and eager to talk about the intricacies of creativity. He's the embodiment of the American Dream, and he knows it. "People think of me as a workaholic, but it's only because of what I'm involved in, and it never stops. I love it too much to stop," he says, flashing that enormous smile.
In addition to his TV and film work, Jackson has reportedly sold more than 30 million records. But he diversified beyond entertainment years ago: following his multimillion-dollar payday on an investment in Vitaminwater, he made millions again by accepting Bitcoin for his 2014 album Animal Ambition (and then letting the cryptocurrency appreciate).
The list of his successful ventures goes on and on, from clothing and shoes to books, video games and more. "There are no limitations to what you can create, so to me, it's the Whistle While You Work concept," Jackson says. "Because I enjoy it, I don't have to slow down or stop. I can switch from one to the other, to have fun and shake things up.
"If I'm tired from being on the road and performing, then I can come home and be able to create like this. It's like a vacation."
It's that type of thinking, the desire to be a part of the storytelling process, that led him to act and get involved behind the camera, where he could shepherd projects with longer, drawn-out arcs. His music career led to being cast in action fare like Home of the Brave, Righteous Kill and Escape Plan, which led him to work with producer Mark Canton.
A longtime film fixture, Canton teamed with Jackson to look for a TV project that would be a good fit.
Enter writer-producer Courtney Kemp (The Good Wife), who met with the pair in Los Angeles and went on to develop Power. The urban drama is about a drug kingpin who, while trying to go straight, crosses paths with his long-lost first love, who's now a U.S. attorney. This encounter sets off a chain of events that almost costs him his family, his livelihood and his freedom.
Starz was interested in the show but wouldn't commit until Jackson agreed to play the main character. When he consented, Starz signed on, but Jackson soon realized he'd taken on more than he wanted.
"Once Starz picked up the show, Courtney called me and told me what she needed from me, and I was like, 'Oh, shit,'" he recalls, somewhat sheepishly. It was clear that he couldn't commit the time to be the lead in an hour- long drama, so the pair conceived the role of evil drug dealer Kanan for him. That allows him to come and go while maintaining a heavy presence on a show that uses his name to appeal to its audience.
"It speaks to the most aggressive content that I've created," Jackson says of the role. "There's parallels. I told Courtney that people would watch it and not talk about my performance, but rather [say], 'He is Kanan.'"
That's the whole point. It allowed his audience to see him the way they wanted to see him, while allowing him the freedom to try other things — like playing a comedic version of himself in the 2015 Melissa McCarthy comedy feature Spy.
He also executive-produces the late-night BET comedy series 50 Central, in which a cast of up-and-coming comedians performs stand-up routines, written sketches, hidden-camera pranks and more.
One of the show's funniest bits involves a man-on-the-street sketch in Harlem, where women are asked to play a game called Smash, Marry, Kill, choosing among Jackson, actor Lance Gross and a random third person like Justin Timberlake, Drake or Sean Combs. As they do so, Gross and Jackson listen in from a car down the street.
Of the four contestants, all choose to "kill" Jackson, unaware that he is just a few yards away and can hear every word. It's hilarious, especially when he playfully confronts the women after they make their choices.
"I was getting killed all the time because of that Kanan character," he says, laughing. One of the women singled out his Power character. "They were upset with me and didn't even know why. I hadn't experienced anything like that. I realized, people don't like me too much right now."
The success of Power, which recently completed shooting its fifth season, led Starz to sign him to the larger deal. It also led Crackle to reach out to him with The Oath.
"Curtis and his G-Unit Film & Television team have been the perfect collaborators for The Oath," says Eric Berger, general manager of Crackle and chief digital officer of Sony Pictures Television Networks. "He has championed the series from the moment we shared Joe Halpin's compelling narrative, and we are very appreciative of his unwavering support of our network, our cast and our commitment to powerful storytelling."
While Jackson doesn't appear in the show, he works behind the scenes to support creator–executive producer Halpin, who, in another life, worked undercover for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for a dozen years. The Oath is about cops who form their own gangs within the department and play both sides of the law.
This idea of being in between is what appealed to Jackson and led him to sign on. "The Oath highlighted the gray area for me," he explains. "Where law enforcement becomes criminal to combat criminal behavior because of how advanced the criminals become, y'know? They have to do it to create some level of order. It's scary, and there are portions of it that you see in our day to day.
"When it comes to risk versus reward, I don't think it evens out. I think the risks of law enforcement are far more extreme than the reward, and there has to be some sort of balance, some sort of leeway, for a person to do the job. That's what I liked about this, how it explores this idea."
That might be surprising coming from someone with a criminal past. But with age comes wisdom, and with success and experience often come understanding.
While Jackson insists he has no interest in just putting his name on a project and walking away, he isn't comfortable giving story notes to Halpin — that the ex-deputy created a fictional world akin to the real one he inhabited for years means something to Jackson, who would rather give him freedom than put his own stamp on it.
Of the studio execs who offer notes on a project even when they aren't needed, he asks rhetorically: "Are they giving these notes to be helpful? Or are they doing it to justify their jobs?"
Halpin appreciates this awareness and discretion. "50 was collaborative when asked, but he told me he was a firm believer in everyone staying in their lane," he says. "He was very respectful of the creative process and at times weighed in on the larger story aspects — but made it apparent he didn't want to stifle my voice as the creator. To have that kind of support from your executive producer is invaluable."
While The Oath doesn't have much in common with Power thematically, there is a rawness to the world and the storytelling that is very much of a piece with the Starz drama. That's no accident.
"I do like that kind of thing," Jackson acknowledges, while differentiating between the two shows. "There was a real credibility to Joe and what he brought to [The Oath] that I really liked, though it's different from Power. Still, my personal preference in watching things is very much that: elements that aren't necessarily political, but are happening today, are current — with that grit. Real elements — raw life experience — is what's appealing to me."
The Oath is not short on grit, that's for sure. Nor is Power, and that's why Jackson prefers premium cable and streaming over broadcast. Neither show would likely work on Fox, even though it's the home of Empire, a series that Jackson brings up when talking about the kinds of stories that various shows can or cannot tell.
He also cops to having invented a rivalry between Empire and Power to attract viewers . The plan was always to piggyback on Fox's huge marketing budget for Empire.
"Publicly, I didn't miss the opportunity to create the energy behind Power versus Empire," he says, that smile spreading across his face. "From an executive standpoint, they were getting accolades that we weren't receiving at that stage, so you have to look at the difference in marketing dollars, and then create the argument so that the public can make note of it.
"I create a controversy that ties me to Fox's marketing dollars, and then people say, 'Is 50 in Empire? No, he's in the other one,' and they go check that out instead. When they see the quality, they stick around, and now" — the smile becomes a laugh — "I don't hear those comparisons anymore. They stick with Power."
He's sticking with Power, too. The fifth season premieres later this year, and Starz has already ordered a sixth. That might be the last, if creator–executive producer Kemp has her way, though Jackson is hoping for a seventh and is working to convince her to extend her story for one more season.
On top of that, he has a new album dropping this year, and at least two more shows are in the pipeline at Starz. There are also more movies, all of which credit him as Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson.
That evolving credit is reminiscent of another successful actor-producer who got an unconventional start. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson first earned fame with his WWE wrestler alias and eventually transitioned out of it. That sounds good to Jackson, who "absolutely" wants to play some good guys and sees himself accomplishing the same kinds of things Johnson has.
"All three of those guys — The Rock, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Dwayne Johnson — were successful," he says, "but over time the perception of him has changed. And it's cool being able to transition and do things in a different way that people won't expect."
That's all true, but the trick is not to lose oneself in the process, as can happen in this business. Spend even a little time with Jackson, however, and it becomes clear that won't be an issue.
"Y'know," he observes, "I've seen actors, really good actors, who are conditioned to acting, and they love it because they can immerse themselves in it. But when it comes to being themselves, they can't quite figure it out. They can figure out the character — but not themselves."
He stands up and points to his heart. "For me, that's the easy part."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2018