When the hip-hop world first took notice of 50 Cent, he was sticking up music stars for all their riches. His 1999 single “How to Rob” fantasized about mugging everyone from Puff Daddy to Will Smith, quickly stirring up talk around the industry. Artists like Jay-Z and Big Pun quickly clapped back with their own namechecks. That early buzz fizzled out just as quickly, though, after the rapper was hit in a May 2000 shooting outside of his grandmother’s house in Queens due to a street-related beef. Fitty miraculously survived nine bullet wounds—a fact that fortified his unstoppable mythos—but he was dropped from his deal with Columbia and back at square one.

50 took his music career into his own hands and hit the mixtape market—hard. At the time, it was commonplace for rappers to record freestyles over beats by their contemporaries. 50 upped the ante by completely remaking popular tracks—complete with new hooks and his own gangsta twist—and servicing them to mixtape DJs like DJ Clue and DJ Whoo Kid, who’d feature them on their own mix CDs. Fans took to Fif’s defiant demeanor and unbreakable spirit in the wake of the shooting; demand quickly hit a fever pitch. To satisfy the frenzy, 50 independently released the comp Guess Who’s Back? The set gathered new material, freestyles and shelved tracks from his Columbia days. He followed that up with 50 Cent Is the Future, the first of a long series of self-released mixtapes that showcased the then-underdog alongside protégés Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo. These Whoo Kid-hosted tapes made 50 Cent the hottest, most sought-after unsigned artist in rap. He would soon ink with the biggest name in the game.

Looking to build up his own Shady Records imprint, Eminem was instantly drawn to 50 Cent’s music after getting a hold of Guess Who’s Back? He scooped up the free agent in a then-sizable $1 million deal, creating a ferocious triangle offense: Eminem, 50 Cent and Dr. Dre.

By February 2003, 50 Cent had dropped his debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which was instantly hailed as a classic. It combined pop-friendly hit records (“In Da Club,” “21 Questions”) with street anthems that were hard as concrete (“Many Men [Wish Death],” “What Up Gangsta”). Solo albums from every G-Unit member followed, from the laid-back Banks to the amped-up Yayo to Nashville native Young Buck to The Game, a Compton MC shoehorned in from Dre’s Aftermath roster. While Game’s 2005 debut album, The Documentary, moved more than 4 million units—outselling every album in the label’s history outside of 50 Cent and G-Unit’s collaborative album Beg For Mercy—his run with the crew came to an end after about a year, as clashing egos caused a rift that left Game a lone wolf.

But just as 50 Cent was becoming hip-hop’s alpha MC, a paradigm shift was under way in hip-hop. The aggressive, street-informed aesthetic that became 50 Cent’s calling card was quickly countered by a Chicago rapper who also faced a near-death experience, albeit an accidental one. Driving home from a late studio session in October 2002, producer Kanye West dozed off at the wheel of his rented Lexus, colliding with another car in a serious crash that resulted in a fractured jaw.

At that point, Ye’s rap career had yet to gain traction, but he’d gotten his foot in the door as an in-house producer for Roc-a-Fella Records, having laced tracks for Jay-Z, Trina, Scarface and many others. But the accident became the inspiration for “Through the Wire,” a track that reflects on the brush with death; Kanye rhymed with his jaw wired shut over a cleverly manipulated sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.” And even as that track got some momentum, no one could’ve predicted the heights to which he would take his career.

Ever the Gemini, Kanye showed a duality early in his career, nodding to both the socially conscious backpacker rhymes of buddies like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common (whom he’d later sign to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint) and the glitzy, materialistic enchantment of his labelmates at the Roc. That supposed paradox, expressed over his own beautifully sliced soul samples, was the key to Kanye Omari West’s appeal. He bridged the gap in a way that felt authentic, right from his groundbreaking 2004 debut album, The College Dropout. As the years flew by, Kanye continually pushed the sonic envelope—from the lush instrumentation of 2005’s Late Registration and electronic sounds of 2007’s Graduation to the sonically jarring, Travis Scott-influenced Yeezus in 2013 and the full-fledged gospel of 2019’s Jesus Is King.

Kanye’s sound and style were so diametrically opposed to that of 50 Cent that the two artists orchestrated a media-hyped album-sales showdown between their respective third solo albums, which were set for release on Sept. 11, 2007. Kanye’s Graduation prevailed in first-week sales over 50 Cent’s Curtis by more than 250k units. The contest crystallized the evolution of hip-hop’s dominant sound toward the end of the decade. Kanye’s early rise, however, also marked the end of another archetype: conscious rap. Artists like Lauryn Hill had successfully walked the line between conscious and commercially successful, but none did so in a nimble, seamless way; artists and fans typically felt they had to choose one or the other. This paved the way for thoughtful rappers like Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, who arrived later in the decade with compelling work that resisted categorization.

The South Got Something to Say, Part 1: The ATLien Invasion

André 3000 made himself perfectly clear. The year was 1995. New York City and California were in the midst of a heated, media-instigated rivalry dubbed the East Coast vs. West Coast beef, centered around The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. And on this particular night during The Source Awards at Madison Square Garden, the tension of that energy was as acute as a muscle cramp. Still, perhaps the most enduring message to come out of the historic event came on behalf of the Dirty South.

OutKast took the podium to claim their best new group of the year honors as boos rained down from the audience. With his partner-in-rhyme Big Boi by his side, André 3000 spoke defiantly to the detractors: “I’m tired of them closed-minded folks. It’s like we got a demo tape but don’t nobody want to hear it. But it’s like this: The South got something to say! That’s all I got to say.”

André’s words became a rallying cry for his Southern brethren, many of whom felt their artistry had been overlooked. The night certainly energized André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, a funky rap twosome from Atlanta whose sharp lyricism, experimental sonics and eccentric style lived up to their name. Their singular style fused the interstellar party manifestoes of P-Funk, Native Tongues’ bohemian storytelling and other vibey influences, even embracing the black roots of rock ’n’ roll. After their stellar 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, OutKast’s run spanned more than a decade and yielded some of hip-hop’s most pivotal works, including the diamond-certified double-disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and monster hits like the frenetic “Hey Ya,” the loping, infectious “Ms. Jackson,” the soul-infused romp “The Way You Move” and the rapid-fire, nonchalant “So Fresh, So Clean.” They also earned six Grammys, among the countless other trophies that shared the shelf with their lone Source Award.

OutKast wasn’t the first group to make a thud in the South—UGK, Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew preceded them—but in many ways they led the charge through the ’90s and early 2000s, pushing the artistic limits (along with Goodie Mob, who also repped the Dungeon Family collective). By the end of the ’90s, though, the South’s rap strength had proved unstoppable.

No Limit Records plowed onto the national hip-hop scene in the mid-’90s like the tank depicted on the label’s logo. New Orleans’ own Master P (born Percy Robert Miller) started the imprint, selling albums directly from the trunk of his car until he’d built an empire that boasted a stacked music roster (Snoop Dogg, Silkk the Shocker, Mystikal, Mia X, Soulja Slim and P’s son, Lil Romeo, among others) and theatrical films (I Got the Hook Up). Master P’s homegrown success inspired many of his peers, especially after his 1997 single “Make Em Say Uhh!” became one of the biggest songs of that year.

Around the same time, brothers and fellow Nawlins natives Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams began to see success with their own Cash Money Records, built around the talents of the Hot Boys, a formidable hip-hop foursome that featured Juvenile, B.G., Turk and Lil Wayne. Juve’s thick drawl powered classics like “Ha” and “Back That Azz Up.” B.G.’s “Bling Bling” birthed a new dictionary entry. And Lil Wayne grew into a rhyme goblin whose favorite vegetable was beats. His lyrical development from his teenage beginnings (“Tha Block Is Hot”) to full-grown man (“Go D.J.”) was astonishing to witness.

Back in Atlanta in 2000, another rap rookie with Midwestern roots—just like Nelly—was set to embark on a legendary career of his own. Born in Champaign, Illinois, Christopher Bridges, better known as Ludacris, spent his formative years in Atlanta, infiltrating the local industry mix as a radio DJ dubbed Chris Luva Luva. Yet outside of the booth, Luda was the truth. His rhymes were fun but far from a joke, helping Ludacris’ Def Jam debut, Back For the First Time, move 3 million copies—aided by smash cuts like “Southern Hospitality” and “What’s Your Fantasy?” It was the start of a sturdy career that eventually pivoted to Hollywood, as Luda became a key character in the Fast & Furious franchise. Yet while his music tends toward the lighthearted, a more straight-faced branch of ATL hip-hop began to grow in the midst of his emergence.

Read Future Shook in its entirety here.

John Kennedy is a writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years covering music, Hollywood and men’s lifestyle for print and online media. He’s penned cover stories on Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Drake, J. Cole and Ed Sheeran, and has written for publications like Genius, Vulture, Complex, Billboard and XXL. Queens made him, but he calls Brooklyn home. John currently serves as Senior Editor at LEVEL, a Medium-backed publication for black and brown men focused on race, culture, identity, sex and how to become the best version of oneself. Find him on all socials at @youngJFK.

Photo of OutKast at Area:One Festival in 2001 by Joe Goldberg


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