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Marked for Def: 50 Cent's fans love him like a fat kid loves cake.

Mass Appeal

How 50 Cent and Jay-Z turned cons into icons

By Oliver Wang

THE 1986 Raising Hell Tour brought together the two biggest acts in hip-hop at that time: Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. When the tour sold out arena-size venues, some treated it as proof that hip-hop was the "new rock." In hindsight, we now know better; the Raising Hell Tour didn't announce hip-hop's ascendance into the rock world so much as it signaled the beginning of rap's complete takeover of pop.

Seventeen years later, with that conquest complete, another one of hip-hop's undisputed kings--Jay-Z--teams with another cocky upstart--50 Cent--to assemble the highest-profile tour in recent memory. Considering that the two artists aren't label mates and haven't collaborated on a song together, their Rock the Mic Tour is a promoter's dream. Only Eminem is missing from the hip-hop triumvirate.

In any previous year, Jay-Z would have been the bigger story. He's become an icon for hip-hop's changing and domineering relationship with American pop culture. He's the first rapper ever profiled on 60 Minutes. His designer Reebok sneaker, the S. Carter, became one of the fastest-selling shoes in history. Those Heineken ads and a rumored relationship with Beyoncé aren't hurting things. It's all in anticipation of his forthcoming and purportedly last CD, The Black Album.

Yet late in 2002, Jay-Z seemed vulnerable, having released a mediocre album in the self-indulgent Blueprint 2 along with the bewildering Blueprint 2.1. It took the release of his S. Carter Collection mixtape from earlier this year to bring Jay a degree of redemption, as he sounded hungry and cocksure again. It was an inspired effort but one that Jay tore from the pages of his younger peer. It was 50 Cent who released a series of mixtapes beginning in 2001 that helped jump-start a laggard career and has propelled him to one of the fastest-selling debuts in history: Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

50 Cent Is the Future, or so said his earlier mixtape, which means that now 50 Cent is the present--and who's to disagree? He's become the biggest personality in rap music since 2Pac--a wild but charismatic thug figure. Not just Jay-Z has followed his lead; so has Snoop Dogg, who appears on 50 Cent's chart-blasting "P.I.M.P." remix and has released his own mixtape, Welcome to the Chuuuch Vol. I.

50 Cent's spring hit "In Da Club" has achieved riddimlike status, having been covered by everyone from Mary J. Blige ("Hooked") to Bubba Sparxxx ("In Da Mud") to the parody artist 50 Pence from the U.K. ("In Da Pub") and Ugly Duckling's Sesame Street-worthy "In Da Tub."

Social commentators have a point in decrying 50's casual celebration of guns, sex and drugs, but that's been the case with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Ice T, Schoolly D, et al. 50 embraces his anti-hero status with brazen, outrageous songs like "Heat" and "Wanksta," but it should clear to the stuffiest pundit that he does so with a knowing sense of humor that takes itself as seriously as a summer blockbuster script. Though 50's not that profound or clever as a lyricist, his hooks are brilliant, and the sheer level of excitement he generates is a tangible asset in a time when rap, like the rest of the music industry, is slumping badly.

Fair or foul, hip-hop has always embraced the gangsta, the thug, the hustler and the player--from N.W.A. to 2Pac to Biggie to Jay-Z. 50 Cent has managed to roll all of these into one package--a modern-day Stagger Lee who's tossed the Stetson and rocks a do-rag instead. His reign may only last so long, but for now, he's been 2003's biggest music story. As such, 50 Cent might need the game, but it's most assured that the game needs him even more.

The Rock the Mic Tour with Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Blackalicious and Obie Trice plays Saturday (July 26) at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, 1 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View. Tickets are $30-$55. (408.998.TIXS).

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From the July 24-30, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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