He's been shot. He's been stabbed. He's been locked up - most recently on New Year's Eve.
For rap music fans, that only adds to the allure of 50 Cent. Popular on the club scene for years, the 26-year-old native of Queens, N.Y., is aiming for the big time with the release tomorrow of his first commercial album. Get Rich or Die Tryin' is one of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the year.
"He writes monster songs," said industry veteran Steve Stoute, who has run the black music divisions at several top labels. "He's got incredible flow. Everybody on the street knows his background."
And everybody who's anybody in the rap world knows 50 Cent's backer: Eminem.
The new album marks the latest transformation of Eminem from Detroit unknown to superstar rapper to movie star in the largely autobiographical 8 Mile, and now to music impresario. Eminem is co-producing Get Rich along with another of rap's biggest names, Dr. Dre.
"I can't rap forever," Eminem said in an interview. "The fact is I'm really not looking to be the frontman anymore. My game plan right now is to take a back seat."
The collaboration among Eminem, Dre and 50 Cent emphasizes rap's maturation as music acts cross racial and ethnic lines considered taboo just a short time ago. Witness the critical lashing Dre endured in 1999 after introducing Eminem to the insular world of hip-hop. Now, it is the white rap star who has introduced his black mentor to a black artist who many predict could become the next rap sensation.
"It's kind of funny how it works, isn't it?" said Eminem.
In an interview, 50 Cent, who was soft-spoken and polite, said he was raised without a father and orphaned at the age of 8 after his mother, a drug dealer, was killed on the street. His grandparents took him in, but by his early teens, 50 Cent was selling crack.
"I was stuck in that zone," he says. "When you're there, you think [selling drugs] is your only option."
After getting out of jail in 1995, 50 Cent, aka Curtis Jackson, started rapping and signed a deal with the tiny JMJ label owned by his mentor, Jam Master Jay - the Run DMC member who was shot and killed Oct. 30. He said Jam Master Jay taught him the rudiments of music theory in the same neighborhood where the rap pioneer was gunned down. (His killing remains unsolved.)
"I was in awe of him," 50 Cent said. "He taught me everything: counting beats, song structure, all of it."
By 1999, 50 Cent had cut a deal with Columbia Records and with the Trackmasters production team. Together, they recorded 36 tunes in less than three weeks. Columbia never released the sessions, even though they contained more than a dozen rap gems, including the droll, Randy Newmanesque "How to Rob" - a song in which 50 Cent fantasizes about robbing rich gangsta rappers:
Yo, the bottom line is
I'm a crook with a deal
If my record don't sell
I'm gonna rob and steal
The stick-up fantasy satirized dozens of wealthy entertainers, including P. Diddy, DMX and Big Pun and was released as part of an obscure soundtrack in 1999. It became a staple of the New York club scene and at rap radio stations, turning 50 Cent into an underground celebrity.
"You know how it is," 50 Cent said. "You see these stars on MTV driving big cars, sporting big diamonds. I think they forget what it's like when somebody's starving, how robbery isn't out of the question. ... It wasn't personal. It was comedy based on truth. That's what made it so funny."
Not everyone appreciated the joke. Several New York rappers responded in follow-up songs and interviews with taunts belittling 50 Cent. Then, in March 2000, the rapper was stabbed during a scuffle at a Manhattan recording studio - allegedly by an East Coast rival. No one was arrested.
Two months later, 50 Cent was shot nine times - once in the face - in front of his grandparents' house. Again, no one was arrested. While he says he knows who did it, 50 Cent won't name the person. ("He's dead already," giggles the rapper, denying that he had anything to do with the killing.)
After the shooting, Columbia Records put his album on ice, scrapped a scheduled music-video shoot and dropped him from its roster; 50 Cent says Columbia executives no longer wanted to work with him because of the violent attack. Columbia officials declined to comment, but sources at the label said there were other potential problems with the deal.
"When you get shot, where I'm from, if you can move your fingers and your toes afterward, you're all right," said 50 Cent. "In the 'hood, it ain't nothing shocking. You heal up. You get back to work. The truth is: Losing that record deal hurt me more than that shooting."
After being released from the hospital, 50 Cent holed up in a small studio and began recording new material with a friend. They laid down dozens of tracks with volatile lyrics exploring new subject matter, including his stabbing and shooting.
Failing to elicit any interest in his new material, 50 Cent decided to release the songs independently on mix tapes distributed by bootleggers in underground clubs.
"He had the best guerrilla promotion and marketing strategy going," says Bonsu Thompson, music editor of the rap magazine XXL. "When the industry turned its back on him, he found his own way back in."
A bootleg tape found its way last year into the hands of Eminem's manager, Paul Rosenberg. Eminem was impressed and in March began promoting 50 Cent as his favorite artist.
"When I first heard 50's tape, I was just listening like a fan - and loving it," said Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers. "I played his music for Dre, and he gave it the green light. So I called 50, I said, 'Man, if you are down with it, we would love it if you would come out here and work with us.'"
Soon afterward, 50 Cent signed a contract with Shady, Eminem's label; Aftermath, Dre's label; and Interscope, a West Coast arm of Vivendi Universal, the world's largest music corporation, which will oversee global distribution. He received a $1 million advance.
Get Rich or Die Tryin' will be the first solo release from an expanding roster of rap acts that Eminem intends to produce for his label. Shady already has released Eminem's last CD, a recording by D-12 and the soundtrack.
In November, 50 Cent's "Wanksta" (from the 8 Mile soundtrack) shot to No. 5 at the highest-rated radio station in Los Angeles. In early December, 50 Cent's "In Da Club," the first Dre-produced track from Get Rich, began receiving airplay at stations across the country.
Still, there's no denying that all the hype has as much to do with the danger surrounding him as the catchiness of his raps. But 50 Cent denies that he and Interscope are exploiting his history to sell a record.
"If I was a rapper who was pretending to be [tough], that would be exploiting it," he says. "But if your lifestyle is like that, it's just a fact."
As further evidence of his "lifestyle," he was arrested on New Year's Eve for gun possession. In addition, he and his posse, G Unit, never leave home without bulletproof vests. After Jam Master Jay's murder, the police told 50 Cent there were threats on his life.
The artist has refused their protection. "I'm not into the police," he says. "I've never known them to de-escalate a situation. They make it worse."
He's excited by the likely hit status of his coming album. But, he adds, "I'm not anticipating a beautiful life.
"Things are going to happen. That's been my life to this point. So I expect anything."
Chuck Philips writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service also contributed to this article.