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LOS ANGELES — All hail returning royalty. For the third time in the last four years, Jay-Z has been anointed hip-hop’s “Cash King” by Forbes; he is rap’s highest-earning star with a bullet, according to the magazine’s annual ranking.

Having taken in $63 million in the last 12 months, Hovi Baby easily bested a who’s who of hip-hop rainmakers that includes Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Timbaland and Dr. Dre — not to mention the only person to have financially outperformed Jay-Z in recent memory, 50 Cent, who took the Forbes list’s top spot in 2008 with a $150 million annual income. He was downgraded to No.14 this year, though, having checked in with a comparatively paltry $8 million.

And the list’s No. 2 wasn’t even close. Just $30 million, Sean “Diddy” Combs?

But if there is a takeaway from this year’s Cash King crop, it’s that business as usual in the rap world means leveraging one’s creativity into a mode of undisguised commerciality that’s created an abiding business model for the music industry.

Hip-hop’s heavy hitters seem to realize that to make it in today’s troubled economy — marked by a tumble in both the concert business and recorded music sales — brand-building is as important as mike control. The most notable among them — Jay-Z, you can raise your hand here — have parlayed their charisma and marketing ingenuity to become one-man conglomerates.

To wit: The biggest share of Jigga Man’s $63 million take is thanks in large part to his million-dollar-per-stage-show rate on his Blueprint 3 tour. But Jay-Z also sees healthy revenue from investments in the 40/40 nightclubs, the New Jersey Nets and the successful Broadway musical “Fela!”

Diddy, meanwhile, has taken to referring to himself as “Ciroc Obama” for his lucrative deal with Diageo, the company that owns Ciroc Vodka. The hip-hop impresario takes in considerably less money, however, from his musical endeavors (like his June CD, “Last Train to Paris”) than he does his Sean John clothing line, roles in such films as “Get Him to the Greek” and Diddybeats ear buds.

Hot-lanta rapper Ludacris (the No. 6 Cash King this year with $16 million) reaps income from his deals with Tag Body Spray and Trojan Magnum condoms as well as his partnership deal for Conjure Cognac.

Contrast that to No.14 on the list, Eminem. Forbes calls him “a relative pauper” because of his lack of outside business ventures and decision not to tour.

As Ice-T pointed out in 1987, rhyme pays. Turns out brand-building pays a whole lot more.

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