The Genius of Beef

50 Cent stirs up trouble on The Massacre.

On March 9, a media throng converged on the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem to hear the rappers 50 Cent and The Game announce that they were “squashing their beef”—calling a truce to a feud that, a week earlier, had erupted in gunfire on a snowy street outside the Manhattan studios of Hot 97. It was a somewhat august setting for a gangsta rap beef-squashing, and the rappers did their best to play along, intoning apologies and pledging more than $250,000 to the Boys Choir of Harlem. The press, meanwhile, seemed to mistake the event for the Oslo Accords, with pundits scrambling to parse every word and handshake. “This is the first time we’ve seen 50 publicly take a step back,” the XXL Editor in Chief Elliot Wilson gravely told the Associated Press.

Some observers were more skeptical, grumbling that the 50 Cent-Game dispute was an elaborate publicity stunt, timed to coincide with the release of 50 Cent’s new album, The Massacre. Certainly, news of the beef didn’t hurt sales. In just four days, 50 Cent sold 1.14 million copies, more than any artist in a four-day period since the Beatles in 1964. This week, 50 Cent dominates the Billboard charts, with the No. 1 album and song (” Candy Shop“), and five additional singles in the Hot 100 (No. 3, 7, 11, 87, and 88). These astonishing figures have many hip-hop conspiracy theorists believing that 50 wagged the dog all the way to bank.

Their suspicions are understandable. 50 Cent is far from the world’s greatest rapper—he may not even be the best MC in Southside Jamaica, Queens, the ancestral ‘hood he ceaselessly invokes in his songs. But he is unquestionably hip-hop’s most calculating troublemaker: a pioneer of the hip-hop beef as postmodern marketing strategy. 50 Cent learned the value of a well-picked fight six years ago, when he released his debut single, ” How To Rob,” a hilarious song that depicted the upstart MC on a crime spree against a string of A-list rappers and R & B singers: “I’ll snatch Kim and tell Puff, ‘You wanna see her again?’/ ‘Get your ass down to the nearest ATM’… I caught Blackstreet on a back street in a black jeep/ One at a time, get out and take off your shine.” Several top MCs—Sticky Fingaz, Big Pun, Ghostface, and the King of New York himself, Jay-Z—rose to the bait, answering 50 Cent’s jokey insults. In a flash, the little-known rapper from Queens was on the map.

“How To Rob” introduced 50 Cent as a kind of trickster-insurgent, firing potshots at “industry niggas,” and established the principle that has guided him to this day: When in doubt, dis. On his 2003 debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (and on a series of much-hyped bootleg releases that preceded it), 50 Cent took aim at the pint-sized rapper Ja Rule. The target was well-chosen: Ja Rule was a hugely successful but patently weak MC with a gravelly voice that 50 Cent memorably compared to the Cookie Monster’s. Supposedly, the rappers’ beef had roots in a mugging back in Queens, but in songs like ” Back Down,” 50 Cent’s motives seemed careerist: He was clambering into the spotlight on the back of a high-profile rapper, casting himself as a hard-core alternative to Ja Rule’s bubblegum rap. (“You’s a pop tart sweetheart, you soft in the middle/ I eat ya for breakfast.”) By the end of 2003, 50 Cent was hip-hop’s newest multiplatinum superstar, Ja Rule a virtual laughingstock

The dirty little secret of rap fans is this: Beneath the Sean John hoodies and thuggish scowls, they’re more gossip-obsessed than Cindy Adams and a roomful of her girlfriends. (Don’t believe it? Surf on over to Allhiphop, Rapdirt, or any of dozens of other Web sites.) The rise of glossies like the Source and XXL, BET’s 106th and Park, and other hip-hop-centric media has created an echo chamber for rap rumors and fundamentally altered a rapper’s career calculus. More than ever, hip-hop is a political game, steeped in cults of personality. New stars may rise on the strength of beats and rhymes, but a rapper’s longevity depends upon his or her ability to adapt to fashion and keep themselves in the news. 50 Cent navigates this matrix better than anyone. Take his recent dust-up with The Game. Plenty of rappers dis their rivals, but who besides 50 would appear live on the radio to denounce a member of his own posse while two of their duets were perched in the top 10?

The irony of 50 Cent’s serial beefing is he doesn’t really have the skills to support the habit. The songs on The Massacre offer simple, visceral pleasures: catchy singsong choruses, minor-key synthesizer hooks, and 50 Cent’s trademark slurred voice, trailing languidly behind the beat. But 50 Cent has never had the lyrical depth of great MC’s like Jay-Z or Eminem, and on The Massacre, his rhymes have become brutally generic: ” Shorty’s hips is hypnotic She moves it so erotic/ But watch—I’m a watch her bounce that ass, girl.” Pumped up like Jose Canseco, drawling on about getting it crunk and making it thump, 50 cuts a lumbering, stolid figure. In his own way, he’s as much of a pop-rap caricature as Ja Rule ever was.

But you have to hand it to 50 Cent: The guy’s got chutzpah. Along with The Massacre’s thug anthems arrives the most audacious battle track of the rapper’s career, ” Piggy Bank.” Built around a goofy nursery rhyme boast about 50’s wealth—“Clickety-clank, clickety-clank/ The money goes into my piggy bank”—the song launches a series of breathtakingly ad hominem attacks at Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Mobb Deep, Shyne, Nas, and even Nas’ wife, the R&B singer Kelis.

The disses themselves are pretty witless—he mocks Jadakiss for being short, pokes fun at Nas for tattooing his wife’s picture on his arm, and calls Fat Joe, um, “fat,”—but the relish with which 50 Cent delivers them is impressive. (Just listen to the Dr. Evil-like cackles he unleashes while baiting his rivals over the songs’ fades: “Nigga, everybody listening! … Hahahaha, I know you ain’t gonna let 50 do you like that!”) Sure enough, the responses to “Piggy Bank” have already begun to arrive. Fat Joe answered, shrilly, with “Fuck 50,” but Jadakiss, one of hip-hop’s virtuoso rhymers, delivered a zinger-packed song, “Checkmate,” that’s currently in heavy rotation on hip-hop radio.

But 50 Cent is too cagey to get bogged down in a detailed tit-for-tat. He presents a moving target, breezing blithely past his own hypocrisies. He started off bragging about his gunshot wounds and dissing Ja Rule for singing love songs; now, he sings love songs and chides other rappers for not making as much money as he does. And by staying on the attack, he controls the discourse. Russell Simmons, Al Sharpton, Samuel L. Jackson, the New York Times op-ed page, even Tina Brown—they’re all talking about 50 Cent, and the more they talk, the more he sells. Several days back, a revved-up Jadakiss challenged 50 Cent to a live pay-per-view rhyme battle with a $1 million purse. You could picture 50 Cent grinning with delight when he heard the news. His rivals yell and fuss and taunt, but it’s all music to 50’s ears, a familiar sound: clickety-clank.