Shady business

Music - Ted Kessler on the rise of a new rap star who just can't stay out of trouble

A great deal is made of 50 Cent's lurid past when explaining the phenomenal impact of his debut album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. The New York rapper's been shot. He's been stabbed. He's at war with various other hip-hop stars. He only recently quit the trade in drugs that killed his mother. All these stories build great column inches, but they do not, in themselves, explain the kind of sales 50 Cent is currently enjoying.

Like the movie business, the hip-hop industry is forever in search of gangster gold. There are as many third-rate gangster rap records churned out each year as there are shoot-'em-up movies heading straight to video, proving that self-aggrandising machismo does not alone guarantee hit records. Fresh slants on street hustling are as rare an event in rap as a new Scorsese in Hollywood. But there is more to 50 Cent than gimmick. A record-breaking 1.5 million customers bought Get Rich Or Die Tryin' in less than 12 days in the US.

The secret to the 27-year-old Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's success is that he delivers something for everybody. His album is produced by the alchemic duo Dr Dre and Eminem, who provide a dense, clubby soundscape featuring enough moody pop bounce to keep him in the singles chart until Christmas. To this, 50 Cent adds a slurred, stoned vocal style that sounds as casual as if he's just ordering a pizza on the telephone.

But behind this casual style, there's a cold-blooded seriousness to his stories of street gangsterdom that sets him apart. When he bemoans how many would gladly see him dead on "Many Men (Wish Death)", it rings doomily true. His authenticity has been hard-earned. He was born to a single teenage mother in South Jamaica, Queens, who was dead by the time he was eight. At 12, he was caught dealing crack at school. His life seemed mapped out for him before he was even a teenager: drugs, violence, prison and probably an early grave.

Later in his teens, though, his hobby of rapping over mix tapes caught the attention of Run DMC's Jam Master Jay, who introduced him to the influential Trackmasters' production team. He was signed to Columbia Records in 1999 and looked set to leave his troubled youth behind. His breakthrough single hinted at a lingering penchant for trouble. Titled "How To Rob (An Industry Nigga)", it detailed how he would rob various black superstars, two of whom were so affronted that they cornered him in a nightclub - and robbed him.

But it was all pretty light-hearted stuff, until the night in May 2000 when 50 Cent was shot nine times in his car as he drove home from his grandmother's. He was hit all over his body, but astonishingly he drove himself to hospital. Many were keen to blame a disgruntled target of his record, but 50 Cent maintains it was a personal "street" matter. Either way, Columbia dropped him and he was soon back on his block, selling crack.

But he continued to record demos and eventually one of these found their way to Eminem. Eminem recognised rare quality in 50 Cent's slurred style and signed him for a reputed $1m to his Shady Records. "He's the biggest talent in the country," according to Eminem.

But 50 Cent just can't stay out of trouble. It's perhaps this that gives his music such an edge. When his mentor Jam Master Jay was inexplicably murdered in his studio last October, police initially thought the bullets were meant for 50 Cent and hauled him in. In January, a gunman burst into his management offices and sprayed the room with bullets. He was also recently arrested over loaded firearms found in the boot of his car.

And all the while the ghosts of rap wars past hover around him. The murderous feud that accounted for the two late rap legends, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, has found echoes in his feud with fellow New Yorker Ja Rule. Let's hope, for the sake of 50 Cent's second album, at least, that they sort out their differences.

Get Rich Or Die Tryin' is released by Shady/Aftermath/Interscope

Ted Kessler writes for NME