The battle between 50 Cent and Kanye West could answer the question: Who is the King of hip-hop?
He has said that he will retire if Kanye West sells more records than him. He has also said that he would like to challenge West to a televised debate. And he has argued that nearly all of the current interest accorded West is entirely owed to him. He has a showman's flair in moments like this, Don King meets Muhammad Ali, selling a spectacle, drumming up business, popcorn, peanuts, cotton candy, come one, come all. His words will bring the masses. That's what hustlers do, and that's what hustlers know. And 50 Cent, above all else, is a hustler, one that mastered the fine art of speaking in intoxicating sound bites long before publicists were paid to be in the picture. Sometimes those bites feel scripted, other times they feel spontaneous. But they are seldom boring. Like when 50 Cent laughs and says of his rivalry with West, "I'm King Kong. Kanye is human. Humans run when they see King Kong, because they're scared." Though his face betrays no emotion, you can feel him thinking, "Are you entertained!!!"
That is one side of 50 Cent: combative, funny, brilliant. The artist whose career sparked with "How to Rob" – a single about redistributing the wealth of other rappers into his pockets – and continued to flame brightly after several street-beloved mix tapes and publicized battles with everyone from Ja Rule to Cam'ron. But there is another side of 50 Cent: the businessman. As the man born Curtis Jackson lounges on an oversize leather couch in his sparsely decorated Manhattan office, having already finished three meetings by midday, this is the side that emerges the more he talks about why he's so resolute, so unwaveringly convinced that his new album, Curtis, will move more copies than West's Graduation come September 11th, the day both are released.
"My first album was the highest-selling LP of 2003," he says, pointing to the fact that 2003's Get Rich or Die Tryin' moved more than 800,000 copies in the four days after it dropped. He goes on to note that his follow-up, The Massacre, was the second-highest-selling album of 2005. "That album sold something like 1.14 million in four days. Jay-Z's last album sold something like 1.6 total. Kanye works for Jay-Z. Kanye is a worker bee. He's never been able to generate a fraction of the interest that I have."
50 Cent loves numbers. And he should. Thus far, numbers have done very well by him. (Though he's not infallible: Jay-Z's last album sold closer to 2 million.) That he survived being shot nine – count 'em, nine – times has gone a long way toward establishing him as an international superstar. All told, he has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide, cementing his faith that numbers are the only true indicator of how listeners feel about his music. Other numbers work as well. The money he's made from his minority stake in VitaminWater when Coca-Cola purchased the company earlier this year for $4.1 billion are estimated to be in the $100 million to $400 million range. And that's just substantial icing on a multilayered cake of enterprises that include clothing, sneakers, real estate, films. His estimated 2006 income, according to Forbes, was $32 million. Naturally, more brand extensions are on the way: a fragrance, a deal with Pontiac, vitamin supplements and a book with Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power. "It's called the 50th Law," the rapper says, "and it's about the environment I grew up in and how it relates to corporate America."
Recently, however, some numbers haven't been adding up for 50. "Straight to the Bank" and "Amusement Park," the first two singles from his current project, were duds, a reality that was reflected in the songs' lackluster radio spins and repeated Internet lashings. The hours he has spent on YouTube, scrolling through viewers' comments about his singles, have proved to be both a combination of market research and personal obsession. "I sit there all day," he says. "And they put these fake names up there. I wish I could find these guys so I could kick their ass."
The underwhelming response he heard on air and read online forced him back into the studio to record eight new tracks for Curtis, which was originally slated for late June. For the first time in years, he appears vulnerable. "I've had so much success in such a short period that people don't realize I'm only on my third album," he says. "So while I still feel like I haven't peaked, other people may feel like I have and it's time for something new. There's a point when all artists meet with resistance, and you either meet that resistance back or you fade away."
The first track that breathed some much-needed life into Curtis was "I Get Money," where the two sides of 50 – the artist and the businessman – merged in boasts like "I took a quarter-water/Sold it in bottles for two bucks/Coca-Cola came and bought it for billions/What the fuck?" It was followed by the Timbaland-produced "AYO Technology," with Justin Timberlake singing the hook. 50 says simplicity was the key to the songs' successes. "At a time when records like 'This Is Why I'm Hot,' 'A Bay Bay,' 'Party Like a Rock Star' and 'Wipe Me Down' are hot, it indicates to me that people don't want to think. They want to hear records with really good production, with catchy content and not a lot of complexity."
It seems he has little problem compromising his creativity if it means that his music will sell. He is a businessman, and the numbers, 50 argues, rarely lie. "When artists say stuff like 'It doesn't matter if my album sells, I make music for me,' that's a total cop-out, that's nonsense, that's what an artist says when he feels himself close to failing and he knows the general public is not going to embrace the material. Have you ever heard me say something like that? 'I made it for me.'" He chuckles. "If you made it for you, then keep it for yourself to hear."
He says that in the past four years, he's been on vacation only once. "I went to Turks and Caicos," he says. "I just wanted to get away, have nobody bother me, but with all that quiet I started thinking of business ideas . . ." Two days later he was on a flight back to the States.
"I never got into it for the music," 50 told Forbes not long ago. "I got into it for the business." The VitaminWater deal has proved to be his biggest payoff yet – one that left even Kanye West envious. "When I say, 'Wait till I get my money right,'" West says, referring to a lyric from the first single from Graduation, "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "people might look at me like 'Yo, you already got your money right.' But when I see 50 do the VitaminWater, I knew I didn't have my money quite right enough."
Before the Coca-Cola deal, 50 was earning $7 million annually from his investment in VitaminWater. His manager, Chris Lighty, says that a more natural brand extension for him would have been liquor: "Everyone else was thinking about being the next Patrón." But 50 had little interest in helping market a premium brand. "He says he'd rather be a Volkswagen than a Bentley," Lighty says. "You know why? Because Volkswagen owns Bentley." Mass over flash.
Citing a nondisclosure agreement, 50 won't reveal how much he made from the deal. "Let's just say that it wouldn't be a tragedy if people didn't buy my record," he says. "I wouldn't faint on the floor and start kicking." He laughs long and hard. He likes to laugh and he smiles easily, surprising given that in photos he almost always looks menacing. In real life he is anything but. He greets women with hugs and men with friendly pounds. When he is in a pleasant mood, the jokes runneth over. According to those who know him best, you get out of 50 what you give him. "You give him shade," says Lighty, "he'll give you shade. You give him the hand, he'll give you a hand, invite you to the party, tell jokes and be very endearing."
Still, the teddy bear can turn grizzly if provoked. He recently trashed his office after discovering that his upcoming single "Follow My Lead" was leaked to the Internet. "Yeah, I ripped the plasma off the wall," he says, "and broke that window. I have had a lot of miscommunication with the mother company lately." He is referring to his label, Interscope, and blames it for Curtis' wobbly start.
50 radiates confidence, but he is conscious of his stature in the hip-hop world and the way the singles from Curtis were criticized. "You care how people receive you," he says, "but you've got to say it doesn't matter in order to function." Still, he's smarting over a recent MTV Top Ten list, which ranked him as the eighth-hottest MC in the game. His former protége, the Game, is at number three. "I wrote three of the hit songs on the album that he's being recognized for," he says. "That doesn't make any sense to me."
That Lil Wayne holds the number-one spot also perplexes him: "That has to be based on his performance on other people's records, because his own records don't generate enough interest to put him at number one." That he could be rekindling a beef with the Game and starting another with Lil Wayne means, well, lil' to him. He's at his best when he has an adversary. "I create more when I'm angry," he says.
He saves the worst labs for West. "Kanye receives trophies because he's safe," 50 says, punctuating the word "safe" with a lisp and a limp wrist. "He's more acceptable to conservative Americans like Oprah Winfrey, who will have him on her show because he's not a threat to her audience."
Oprah is the epitome of a multimedia mogul, the billionaire 50 someday hopes to be, and like a schoolboy nursing an unrequited crush he has a habit of picking on her. She's lost touch with the black community, he says: "She's catering to the old white American demographic. Her views are similar to Bill O'Reilly's. She doesn't like hip-hop, and I don't like people who don't like hip-hop."
50 doesn't have Oprah cash just yet, but he is a long way from Jamaica, Queens, the working-class New York neighborhood that birthed, raised and nearly killed him. He now lives in Farmington, Connecticut, in a mansion that once belonged to Mike Tyson. Though his surroundings have changed and he's traveled the world (Beirut, Stuttgart, Lagos, Dubai, to name a few of the stamps in his passport), he insists that fame hasn't changed him. "When I was in the streets hustling," he says, "I had the same ambition that they praise me for now. It was just the wrong direction."
Now that it's focused in the right direction, 50 shows no signs of slowing down. Another 50 video game will hit next year. His cologne, Power by 50 Cent, will also be in stores by 2008. He considered naming the fragrance Relentless, "but that word doesn't translate worldwide," he says. "I want this to be an international brand, and Power translates in every language. In some countries the word 'less' in 'relentless' actually means 'less.'"
He shakes his head and shrugs.
In 50's world, less will never mean more.
This story is from the September 20th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.