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Sound and fury

50 Cent's raging reputation is a double vision of rap's fierce competition and his own perfectionism.

September 08, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The rapper's rampage must have been a scary thing to behold: a destructive, reflexive reaction to bad news. But viewed another way, 50 Cent's meltdown here last month also exists as an extreme demonstration of his commitment to excellence.

On Aug. 9, 50, hip-hop's most combative, controversial superstar, was screaming down the phone at an executive from his label, Interscope Records, blind with rage that a video for one of the songs from his eagerly anticipated third album, "Curtis" (due Tuesday), had been leaked to the Internet.

Without warning, the multi-platinum-selling, muscular gangsta rapper (born Curtis Jackson III) ripped a 70-inch plasma TV off the wall of the executive suite at his G-Unit Records, smashing it to the floor. Then, for emphasis, he hurled the BlackBerry he had been talking into full force at the window, shattering the glass, sending shards onto Manhattan's 31st Street below.

To hear Jackson explain his actions, the outburst had nothing to do with the kind of channeled aggression that has defined his career; no "beef" was involved. Which is to say it wasn't in response to a rap rival, even though 50 has exchanged disses with the Game, Lil Wayne and Cam'ron, among many other comers, on the way to establishing himself as hip-hop's most vituperative -- and, arguably, most successful -- MC.

Turns out 50 went ballistic over a perceived betrayal by Interscope marketers who, he says, have continually undercut his efforts to put out his music his way. "I'm frustrated at this point," 50 Cent said, pacing like a caged panther across a black shag rug at the New York office of his streetwear company, G-Unit Clothing, last week. "I feel like it's impossible to deliver my record to the public the way I planned it. You don't get a second chance at a first impression. It's been destroyed already."

Interscope Records officials declined to comment for this story. The whole issue probably wouldn't matter as much if it weren't for the pressure-cooker situation 50 has put himself in with the release of "Curtis." Since selling 12 million copies of his 2003 debut album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," fan expectations have ratcheted up with each new release; many look to the rapper to set hip-hop's creative and commercial standards. Add to that his own sky-high standards: The rapper views his 2005 album, "The Massacre," as a disappointment for selling only 9.8 million.

"I know I can't win," he said. "I've experienced being the underdog in between every album. But it's tough when they put you in competition with yourself. If you put me in competition with any of these other guys, I find that a lot easier than attempting to beat myself."

Further, in a fractured hip-hop marketplace in which gimmicky Southern rap is the subgenre du jour and hard-core New York hip-hop has taken a back seat, the Queens, N.Y.-native faces questions about continuing relevance. "The way hip-hop is right now," said Vibe magazine Editor in Chief Danyel Smith, "it's more difficult to keep an audience than to get one." And as the last artist to sell more than 1 million units in his album's first week of release ("The Massacre" did 1.14 million in March 2005), 50 Cent has the added onus of being the person considered to have the strongest chance of doing so again -- the guy industry observers look to to prove that the era of the album hasn't, in fact, already drawn to a close. "The kids don't care about albums. They want singles," Smith said. "In these final days, 50's album could be the last hurrah."

As Chuck Creekmur, co-founder and chief executive of, sees it, 50's M.O. has always been to take the long odds. After all, the rapper survived life on the streets as a mid-level crack dealer, a stint in a correctional boot camp and getting shot nine times. "It's the select few hip-hop artists that have sold more than 10 million," Creekmur said. "Once you hit that point, not only are expectations sky high, there's only one way to go. But 50's not the type of artist to sit back and acknowledge that doing another 10 million is impossible. I believe 50 is the most ambitious artist we've ever seen."

Then there's the challenge 50 Cent has extended to Kanye West, whose third album, "Graduation," also goes on sale Tuesday, head to head with "Curtis." If West manages to outsell 50 in the first seven days, 50 has pledged to retire from recording as a solo artist. The two appear on the cover of Rolling Stone this month accompanied by the headline "Showdown! 50 Cent vs. Kanye West. Who Will Be the King of Hip-Hop?"

Although 50 remains resolute about his primacy and brushes aside questions about retirement -- he's already recorded another album set for release next year, titled "Before I Self Destruct," after all -- he admits the process of taking "Curtis" public has made him second guess his career goals.

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