NEW YORK—The most menacing man in hip hop has the eyes of a lamb. In striking contrast to his linebacker’s frame and sinister backstory, 50 Cent goes out of his way to project an image of warmth and comfort in person.
As the rapper sits for an interview in the headquarters of his G Unit clothing line, he talks eagerly and politely, maintains caring eye contact, and grins sweetly and often. He does all this partially because he has nothing to prove in the realm of hardness (it’s amazing what getting shot nine times does for that), and partly because he has never been engaged in a louder, or more risky, game of “use the press.”
As every sentient being knows, 50 announced weeks ago that he’ll quit the rap game if his third album, “Curtis,” out Tuesday, fails to sell more than the latest from Kanye West. It’s a con, of course, but a charming one, not to mention one that has gotten him exactly what he needs—reams of press. Rap sales have plunged 30 percent in the last year, and if it takes a little grandstanding to bring it back, 50 seems more than up for the task. He even makes sure to give the New York Daily News its own faux controversial scoop.
When the specter is raised of another artist—Kenny Chesney—coming in and stealing the thunder from both he and Kanye with his own Sept. 11 release, 50 leans into the tape recorder and brays: “You want some controversy from 50? Tell `em I’m going to shoot Kenny Chesney.”
A big giggle follows that, not to mention a quick admission that this whole “retirement” shtick means essentially nothing. “I was just raising the stakes,” says 50. “When they hear, `He’s going to retire,’ it draws attention.”
On the other hand, this whole 50-vs.-Kanye routine has a serious side. To the rapper, it marks a new era of hip-hop peace. “People expect a competition in hip hop to be dangerous,” 50 says. “This one isn’t. Kanye didn’t say anything disrespectful, so I don’t actually have a beef with him. It’s just the competitive nature of the art form.”
Besides, 50 has far more real foes these days, like radio and his own audience, some of whom may have moved on in the three years since the rapper last released an official CD. His first two singles released from the new CD bombed, though naturally, 50 has a spin for this.
“(On) those two records,” he says, “I was trying to see how low I could go and still get over the hump before I went out with records that I felt are no-brainers.”
One of those, the third single, “AYO Technology,” has done far better on radio. But it needed the presence of guest Justin Timberlake to do it.
In fact, 50’s album is rife with pop-friendly guest R&B singers, from Mary J. Blige to Robin Thicke. While that would seem to suggest some anxiety about retaining the mass audience, 50 says that can be deceiving. “With all those R&B artists, you start to assume that the record isn’t going to have any aggressive content on it,” 50 says. “But I got them to come to me (with their sound).”
Fifty insists the album doesn’t skimp on the kind of stuff guaranteed to anger those African-American politicians who’ve been upping their condemnation of his brand of gangsta rap in the post-Don Imus age. Fifty believes those people “don’t speak for all black people.” He also argues that he needs alarming language.
“I’ve been successful based on me not compromising myself,” he says. “The language is necessary to paint an accurate picture of what’s going on in the environment. If you take away the specifics of your picture, it’s a blur.”
Besides, 50 doesn’t see what’s so wrong with what Imus said to begin with. “I believe the comments he made were entertainment,” he says.
More, he sees no connection between his brand of fantasy gangsta and actual bloodshed. “If hip hop (makes such an impression) on people, why when it’s down 30 percent is violence (also) not down 30 percent?” he argues.
Not that 50 spends a lot of time thinking about those kinds of figures. He’s far more focused on the ones with dollar signs in front of them. Interviewing the star can seem as much like a math class as a celebrity plug-a-thon. He’s constantly throwing out numbers, most of which underscore his own success. Several times he alludes to the massive sales of his first two CDs: 7.7 million and 5.1 million, respectively.
“`Massacre’ was the largest debuting album by an artist in history,” he says. “I’m so proud of that.”
He’s less thrilled with those folks who tally up artistic, as opposed to financial, success. He remarks, with some frustration, that he’s never won a Grammy. The only award he’s ever gotten (from ASCAP) measures hard radio play, not creative achievement. Which just gives 50 another excuse to razz West.
“Kayne can have the awards,” he says. “I’ve got the sales.”
He intends on getting far more of them, if not in music than in everything from vitamin water to a new car endorsement. Over the last few years, 50 has put his name on every product short of whoopee cushions, which he sees as the future of all musicians.
“They’ll be like NASCARs,” he says, “covered with stickers.”
Given his own considerable haul, 50 could certainly afford to chuck it all now if he really did want to. While that’s hugely unlikely, he insists the end will come sooner than later.
“I’m like a fighter,” he says. “I don’t want to stay past my prime.”