Ever since he rode to fame on the epochal party groove of "In Da Club" two years ago, 50 Cent has been living a double life. On the one hand, he's the former crack dealer who, as he claims on his new album, has your mama hogtied in the other room. At the same time, he is — as Beyoncé put it in one of the many versions of "In Da Club" that followed 50's smash — a "sexy little thug."
It helps that 50 Cent is the most likable rapper ever to need a bulletproof vest. Like his Kevlar-wearing predecessor and idol, Tupac Shakur, 50 has charisma up the muzzle-hole. But where Tupac could be manic and unpredictable, 50 is cool and easy to be around — you get the sense that if he weren't so busy getting shot, stabbed and selling millions of albums, he would be an enormously successful fraternity president or restaurateur.
50's bullet-riddled resume provides cover for the fact that he's a major piece of hip-hop beefcake. He works that angle more than ever on The Massacre, the follow-up to 2003's Get Rich or Die Tryin'. The new album's first two singles — the lascivious, midtempo grinder "Candy Shop" and speaker-shaking party track "Disco Inferno" — are mostly for the ladies. The tracks display how 50 has it both ways: Only a rapper who's been shot nine times can get away with describing the dance floor as "hot as a tea kettle." That's not G Unit, it's G-rated. The next single, "Out of Control," produced by Dr. Dre, is the best of the party tracks: As 50 chants the hook of the Eighties electro-funk classic "Set It Off," Dre pumps up the tension — like "In Da Club," it's the kind of track that seems to bear down on you while you listen.
Not all of Massacre is as immediately catchy as Get Rich, but it's close. 50 is so entertaining that you don't mind hearing him wallow in Fat City (usually the very place where these kinds of megahit follow-ups hit the shoals). On "Piggy Bank," he gloats hilariously about how well he's doing, thanks to his G Unit soldiers Lloyd Banks, Young Buck and the Game: "Banks' shit sells/Buck's shit sells/Game's shit sells/I'm rich as — hell." The gun-waving and menacing talk haven't gone away, but 50 appears to have mellowed a little; you can hear more enthusiasm in his West Coast-style chill-out track "Ryder Music" than in the standard-issue homicide homily "I'm Supposed to Die Tonight."
50 almost never lets you see him sweat — he wants you to believe that he could be doing something else, like being a drug kingpin; rhyming is just something he happens to be good at. Don't believe him: He works to vary his flow on Massacre, faking a muddy Southern drawl on "This Is 50," assuming a soft, confidential tone on "Ryder Music," going for a dry bark on "I Don't Need 'Em." For someone as prolific as 50 — he shares Tupac's work habits, recording more than sixty tracks for this album — he's also very efficient. Tracks like "Gunz Come Out" don't have sky-high ambitions, but there are no wasted words on them.
As always, 50's secret weapon is his singing voice — the deceptively amateur-sounding tenor croon that he deploys on almost every chorus here. 50 knows perfectly the limitations of his voice — he stays within his register and more than makes up in personality what he lacks in technique. Unlike many rappers who sing off-key with perverse joy, 50 shows a jazzy touch when he sings the title hook to "God Gave Me Style."
50 doesn't muck up his albums with too many guest spots; even his squad of G Unit platinum earners appear on only one track here, a remix of Game's "Hate It or Love It." So it's a surprise that Eminem's cameo, on "Gatman and Robbin'," is one of the few flat tracks here; the song, also produced by Eminem, uses a variation of the Batman TV show theme (get it?) and just feels shticky. Jamie Foxx turns up singing the hook on "Build You Up," further paving the way for his inevitable debut album of hot-tub classics.
You are required to forgive 50's shortcomings — namely his egomania and apparent lack of a conscience. Most rappers (like, say, Jay-Z) hold out the illusion that, underneath all the tough talk, they're basically good guys; with 50, you're not so sure. Whenever he bemoans the violence of the streets, it's never because he hates what crime and poverty have done to his friends, the kids, his city or his people — it's because he's worried about his own skin. Or maybe, on a very empathetic day, his grandmother.
The most empathetic track on The Massacre, "A Baltimore Love Thing," is also its most ambitious. Over slow-grooving, flute-driven funk, the supposed former drug dealer assumes the voice of heroin itself, speaking directly to a female addict. "We have a bond that cannot be broken," he says. "Promise me you'll come and see me/Even if it means you'll have to sell your momma's TV." But it isn't just a drug metaphor; it covers the relationship a lot of fans have with 50 himself. Yes, I'm a bad habit, he's saying, but try and stop listening. Why can't you? "God gave me style," he says later. "It ain't my fault."