Photography by Clay Patrick McBride
50 Cent has just discovered his next big thing.
The multimillionaire MC/mogul is commanding attention inside Manhattan’s Drive-In studio, where he’s shooting cover images for XXL‘s double issue, gearing up for the release of his fourth album, Before I Self Destruct. At the moment, though, he’s more interested in the laptop on the table than any flashing lights. He’s just been put on to tinychat.com, a social-networking site composed of webcam-compatible chat rooms, and he’s enthralled. The computer screen resembles a modern-day spin on The Brady Bunch’s tic-tac-toe-box opening credits—but instead of Marcia, Peter, Cindy, et al., the heads of folks like Flipmode hype man Spliff Starr, former NFL heavyweight Warren Sapp and VH1 reality star “It” (of I Love New York 2 and I Love Money 2) talk back and forth in real time.
You can practically see the little lightbulb pop up over 50’s head. His own social-networking Web site, thisis50.com, needs to adopt TinyChat. “[What] if you could have several different rooms?” he says. “You could have a bunch of different rooms with 18 people, and the user could then switch rooms.”
Curtis Jackson, 2009: computer whiz. From the corner to the monitor. And who can blame him? The record industry that was once strong enough to push his 2003 debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, to seven million in nation-wide sales has succumbed to the Internet. Numbers like that simply don’t exist anymore. Ever the survivalist, Fif has made ThisIs50, which he launched two years ago, a major priority. The site has become the one-stop shop for all new G-Unit music, including mixtapes from the now Interscope-free Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, and, more notably, Fif’s own free, Web-only mixtapes Forever King and War Angel, which has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its June release. It also provides a handy platform for multimedia mockery of enemies like Rick Ross, Fat Joe and former G-Unit cronies Game and Young Buck. The most memorable example—a series of viral videos featuring a wig-wearing, activator-spraying 50 in character as the flamboyant Pimpin’ Curly. The vids climaxed on ThisIs50’s sister site boobootv.com, with Curly narrating a sex tape starring the mother of Rick Ross’s daughter. (Sun Tzu himself would have been left shaking his head in astonishment.) 50 says the site receives around 30 million unique views per month. (Official numbers for ThisIs50 are not available.) Even in this dismal economic climate, 50 is planning to expand the site’s current 10-person staff and increase original content, with the support of what he calls an “artificial economy—my pocket.”
The new direction makes sense. Along with the rest of the industry, 50’s brand has taken some big hits over the past two years. First there was the hugely hyped release-date sales-showdown defeat, when 50’s third album, Curtis, debuted behind Kanye’s Graduation on the Billboard charts. (Pushing 700,000 first-week units, of course, would be cause for major celebration for just about any other artist, but for a market-dominating bully like 50, it was a loss of face.) G-Unit soldiers Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks split ways with Interscope, and Young Buck was kicked out of the camp. Then came this past year’s worth of Before I Self Destruct delays. It was way back last October when Fif released the album’s first single, “Get Up,” along with a high-concept post-apocalyptic video. “In Da Club” it was not, unfortunately, peaking at No. 44 on the Billboard charts, before a quick disappearance. A follow-up, the Dr. Dre–produced “I Get It In,” didn’t fare much better. And when Interscope set a May street date for Eminem’s Relapse, 50 took a place on the back burner—a voluntary move, to his credit, but still one that kept fans waiting.
Most recently, 50 has learned that just as the Internet giveth, it taketh away. In late October (soon after the photo shoot with XXL), Before I Self Destruct surfaced online, a full month before its intended release. Reached by phone after the leak, 50 shrugs it off. “I’m fine with it, ’cause it leaked in its entirety, in sequence, and mixed and mastered. If they would’ve heard my record in pieces, I would’ve been disappointed.” He’s so sanguine, like it’s all par for the course. Gauging from his demeanor these days, his new album title seems about as over-the-top as another edition of Pimpin’ Curly—less an actual warning sign than a carefully thought-out strategy. In other words, even as the business changes, it’s business, big business as usual.
You’re keeping a prominent presence with ThisIs50 these days. In your eyes, how big of a priority is the Internet?
I think it’s cool. That’s where we’re headed. Instead of fighting it, I’m just embracing it.
Were you resistant at first?
Yeah. As far as the Internet is concerned, it’s so new that the younger kids can take better advantage. Soulja Boy is one of the guys that is more open-minded to the Web, and he’ll go there immediately. But it’s more natural for him, because he worked his way from there… I watched and learned from people like him.
What was the first thing that made you realize you had to get more in touch with the Internet?
From my perspective, what the mixtape circuit was is now a viral video… When I make material and I see it be viewed a million times, I know that I pleased a small demographic that watched it so often that there’s a million views. Or a broad demographic of people are drawn to it. I feel good either way… As [the Internet] changes and there’s new applications and new things involved with the site, I learn that right away. That makes me comfortable. I’m in a comfortable space.
I think the majority of us, well, the demographic that’s conditioned to go and do things the old-fashioned way. Like, I’m conditioned to go buy a record out the store. Even if it’s an option to buy it off the computer, I still buy it out the store, in the actual case. The kids, the new age group, the new kids are more perceptive of computers. They don’t have to have the experience of going to purchase your CD or going to see your movie.
CD sales figures certainly reflect that. What’s your barometer for success today?
I mean, it’s different. I won’t even gauge it like that. I’ll pay attention to the response of the public, how they feel about the actual record. You’ll know generally how they feel. I wanna hear it bumping out of the cars when they ride by. The magic of music is that everything feels right when it feels right, and you can tell that you’re in pocket when that happens. They were giving me resistance—they didn’t want me to win during the Curtis project, because of the success I had prior to that. But it’s interesting, because they made me successful. And when I say “they,” I mean the general public. It’s a cycle where you can’t control it. There’ll be a point when they decide that they don’t want you to be the center of attention anymore and they want somebody else to be there, even without you losing the ability to do what it is you’ve done to get there.
How do you see things moving in hip-hop musically? Do you sense a shift back toward the streets, with an artist like Gucci Mane breaking through?
We’re gonna get people from different walks of life, and that’s because the art form is expanding. Like, you got a Gucci Mane at the same time you’re getting a Drake. And he’s obviously a rich kid who ain’t been exposed to…what? That’s Drake’s part. And then you got Gucci Mane, who’s from the South, and he’s been exposed to it all. We have Little Jeezy… It’s cool to see people actually have their own identity. The same thing that they would be upset with me for is what they accept from Drake. The Kid Cudis, too. Wale. These people are necessary. They were there when I fell in love with hip-hop, but they were Q-Tip, they were Andre 3000.
You’ve been working on Before I Self Destruct for a long time. How has the tone of the album changed over the last year?
Well, the album is darker. It began darker, because I wrote the prequel to Get Rich or Die Tryin’. This album is the things that I missed that happened before. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is really me writing my environment and my experiences in a nutshell, and it was a shorter time period. On this one, I went further back. To give you an example: When I did “Hate It or Love It,” I said, “Coming up, I was confused, my mama kissin’ a girl/Confusion and cursed, coming up in the cold world.” And my mom passed when I was eight. So that’s me reflecting on myself when I was maybe seven years old. So, for that fact, to write those pieces of my actual life and the things that wouldn’t be the coolest thing to say from a rapper’s perspective… Rappers kind of create these superheroes. They create these guys who have all the finances and the beautiful women, the nicest cars, the best jewelry. And when the director says “cut,” they go home. You know? And that’s just the reality of it. But for me, I wrote imperfections on this album, because I’m in a secure enough space to do that.
Was that hard to do?
Well, you gotta make it to a certain point in your career. Some artists never choose to do it. They stay in the safe space because they feel like another artist may use it to be competitive at some point, try to use the personal things they put out. Mine’s will only give people reasoning for my behavior. They’ll listen to this record and start to understand more. —Interview Matt Barone
To read the rest of this 50 Cent article, make sure to pick up XXL’s December/January double issue on newsstands now.