On a sunny Saturday morning, the buff-and-cut Curtis Jackson--you know him as 50 Cent--has finished his grueling workout in a Beverly Hills gym. Now he's sitting there by a small stereo, eyes closed, head bent, shoulders hunched, swaying back and forth. He likes grooving to music--particularly his own. "This one's the s--t," he says, and opens his eyes. It's a track called "Baltimore Love Thing," from his sophomore album, "The Massacre," which hits stores early next month. It sounds at first like that old-school LL Cool J joint "I Need Love"--until you realize it's not a boy-girl love story, but rather the bond between heroin and a suffering addict. "I'm always coming with something different," he says. "Something no one would ever suspect. Just because people know my story doesn't mean they know me.''
By now everybody knows the outlines of 50's do-rags-to-riches story: 28 years old, ex drug dealer from Queens, shot nine times, a debut rap album that was the runaway hit of 2002. His fights. His feud with fellow rapper Ja Rule (even Louis Farrakhan tried to make peace between them, but no luck). His onstage intrusion at last year's Grammys when Evanesence got the award he thought he'd deserved ("I was just a little heated"). And his brief romance with actress Vivica A. Fox, nearly 12 years his senior ("I like older women 'cause I don't want to have to teach nobody s--t"). "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " sold more than 11 million copies, becoming rap's best-selling debut album, thanks to its mix of head-banging anthems, sexy tracks for the ladies and, of course, the Dr. Dre-produced single "In Da Club." Last year the onetime street-corner kid took home an estimated $50 million--after taxes, according to sources.
"The Massacre'' follows the blueprint of "Get Rich." More tales of inner-city lust, violence and revenge--"When the Guns Come Out," "Somebody's Going to Die Tonight"--in 50's trademark East Coast flow, a dry, understated singsong. "You know, that's the first thing they want to say about a rapper when he makes a lot of paper,'' 50 says. " 'He's rich now--what's he going to talk about?' Well, I was poor for much longer than I been rich, so what you think I'm going still talk about? The two years I had money or the twentysomething years I didn't?" The money has dulled neither 50's hungry perfectionism--he scrapped the first version of "The Massacre'' last year and started over--nor his street sensibility. But even at his hardest, there's a somber resignation and self-consciousness about 50 Cent that lends intelligence, even a spiritual maturity, to the usual gangsta pose. "Many men wish death on me," he rapped on his debut album, "Lawd, I don't cry no more/don't look to the sky no more/have mercy on me, have mercy on my soul/somewhere my heart turned cold.''
And anyone who listened closely could hear another story between the lines: "I'm into havin' sex, ain't into makin' love," he rapped in "In Da Club," "so come give me a hug." A hug? On that first album, he betrayed this sheepishly innocent, even kidlike, side of himself most clearly in "21 Questions"--a song Dre didn't want on the record. "I love you like a fat kid loves cake/ To make you happy I'll do whatever it takes.'' "Dre was, like, 'How you goin' to be gangsta this and that and then put this sappy love song on?' " 50 recalls. "But I told him, 'I'm two people. I've always had to be two people since I was a kid, to get by. To me that's not diversity, it's necessity'.'' If you want to get to know 50 Cent--both 50 Cents--his childhood is the place to start.
He doesn't remember much about his mother. She was one of the few female drug dealers in Jamaica, Queens--back then, at least--she died at 23, in a mysterious fire, and his grandparents took in the 8-year-old Curtis. "I just remember things were better financially when my mom was alive," says 50, "and sometimes thinking if she was here things would be different. She wasn't home much. I guess what I really remember is that she was very aggressive, you know? She had to be to play in a man's world.'' Curtis's grandmother understandably doted on him. "You know, my grandmother had nine kids," he says, "and my mother is the only one dead.''
He picked up both his mother's expensive tastes and her street smarts. "I had gotten used to a certain style of living with Mom hustling," he recalls. "I got everything I wanted. I knew my grandmother couldn't afford to buy me Air Jordans, and I didn't want to even bother her with that. So I started hustling to buy things. I'd tell her whatever I had new was my friend's stuff across the street. That's how I became two people--one was the hard-core drug dealer in the day and the other was my grandmother's baby by night.'' He was soon a neighborhood legend. "Yeah, if you lived around our way you'd heard of 50,'' rapper and protege Lloyd Banks recalls. "I was in the street a lot, and we would always hook up. He had a lot of knowledge about things and wouldn't mind sharing with you--just like now. He always handled his business and came out on top.''
He also acquired a pretty long rap sheet. Between stints in jail, he finished his GED, had a son and began to focus on moving into rap. As a kid, he'd been impressed by the witty political rhymes of KRS-ONE, and a chance meeting with the late Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC helped him learn to count bars and structure songs. Soon the producing duo Trackmasters heard the buzz on the young rapper from Queens; in 1999, they got him a deal at Columbia Records. In just two weeks, he'd written 36 songs, including the underground biting classic "How to Rob.'' But before an album could be released, 50's day job came back to haunt him. "I was sitting in the car in front of my grandmother's house," he remembers, "and the shots just rang out. My grandmother was outside in the front yard, my son was in the house. It was nuts. Let's just say my grandmother figured it all out right then.''
Those were the now famous nine shots: a 9mm bullet to his face, another in his hand, others in his legs. People at Columbia thought that even if he lived, he'd be too handicapped or disfigured to perform, and they dropped him from the label. But after months in the hospital, 50 began recording songs for mix tapes that circulated in the New York underground--and one found its way to Eminem, who'd recently formed Aftermath/Shady Records with Dre. A bidding war broke out, and 50 decided to sign with the two people he thought were the best in the game. "It didn't take a genius to know that 50 was going to be big,'' Dre says now. "He had the style, the flow and the attitude--and he wanted it badly.''
And he got it. "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " exceeded even 50's own immodest expectations. "I remember thinking that I knew I was going to sell 5 million copies, and I said that on the promotional DVD.'' He laughs. "But then I tried to clean it up by saying, 'If not this album, some other album would sell 5 million.' 'Cause I was, like, 'Don't play yourself and look stupid.' Eleven million wasn't even in my mind frame." He also got schooled in the ways of celebrity. After he and Fox attended the 2003 MTV Awards together, the headlines wouldn't stop. "At a certain point it really seemed like she was using me to get attention,'' he says now. (Fox declined to comment.) "I'm not sure it was intentional, but we'd go out and all of a sudden there would be photographers there, like on cue. I regret not communicating the problem to her, but I sorta felt like if we talked about it, she'd try to fix it. I didn't want her to fix it. I just wanted to be out.''
With that distraction out of the way, 50 got back to business. In partnership with Dre and Eminem, he formed G-Unit Records and released an album with longtime buddies Lloyd Banks, Young Buck and Tony Yayo; it sold 2 million copies. "We knew that the moment he made it that we'd made it," says Banks, "because he was always the older brother. He's still constantly telling us how to do this or that in case he's not around." Why would he not be around? "Well," Banks says, "we've all been shot. It's easy not to be around." Last year the G-Unit sneakers he designed for Reebok brought in an estimated $20 million; his clothing line made an additional $50 million. He also bought a stake in Glaceau vitamin-water after turning down several liquor-company deals. "I don't drink," he says. "I grew up around alcoholics. Why would I drink?''
Interscope Records president Jimmy Iovine calls 50 "one of the best business-men I've ever worked with. He's got a game plan for whatever happens. But more important, he's a true artist, like Marvin Gaye or the Rolling Stones. Like them, he can make truly edgy records that appeal to the mainstream, and that's a gift. He's an amazing writer, with a hell of a lot of charm that I think most people miss when they hear his story.'' Later this year 50 will put that charm to the test in an Iovine-produced film called "Hustler's Ambition,'' a fictionalized version of his own life, with a screenplay by "Sopranos'' writer Terrace Winter and directed by Jim Sheridan ("In America"). Samuel L. Jackson reportedly turned down a role because of 50's inexperience, but Sheridan thinks the rap-per is a natural. "He has no vanity," says Sheridan. "I love that, because vanity finds the camera and what it captures isn't pretty. He's had some acting coaching, but I really don't want him to have too much--his raw appeal is so powerful. He absorbs anything and everything so quickly, and that can't be taught.''
In other words, he's a chameleon: from drug dealer to rapper, record mogul, clothing designer, maybe movie star. And at the same time, always a grandson. Just last year he finally managed to get his grandparents out of their house in the rough side of Queens. "She keeps saying she doesn't want me to spend all my money on her," 50 says, "but I think she really doesn't know how much money I have." (She may be getting the idea. Recently she visited the house in Connecticut he bought from Mike Tyson's ex-wife: 18 bedrooms, 25 bathrooms and a dance club.) And she still keeps a wary eye on his friends. "She's quick to say, 'That boy ain't good for you to be around.' She ain't playin'." Neither is he. Or he always is. 50 will never be easy to know. But he would never reveal himself so nakedly in his music, as both the gangsta and the grandson, if he didn't want you to try.