50 Cent, “War Games” (Originally Published December/January 2010)

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What is a hypercompetitive, notoriously aggressive, salesobsessed rap megastar supposed to do when the industry he once dominated withers around him? Will 50 CENT self-destruct? Or can he change with the times? This is him.

INTERVIEW MATT BARONE
IMAGES 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 this 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.