NEW YORK -- Sitting in a ritzy hotel and celebrating the record-breaking sales of his debut album - 872,000 copies in just four days - 50 Cent seems far removed from his dangerous past, when he hustled crack in the gritty Queens neighborhood where he grew up.
That is, until he lifts his orange basketball jersey and the platinum and diamond chains draped around his neck to reveal a bulletproof vest.
In 50 Cent's world, the threat of violence never seems far away. He has been shot nine times and stabbed. He's involved in a fierce rap rivalry with Ja Rule and his Murder Inc. crew, and police say he was threatened after the murder of mentor Jam Master Jay.
"That's always going to be a part of me. It's because of the way I come up," says the rapper.
It's partly because of that gangsta lifestyle that 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, has become the biggest sensation in rap since Eminem. In fact, his rise is due partly to Eminem, who signed him to his Shady/Aftermath label under Interscope Records and partnered him with producer Dr. Dre.
50 Cent draws on his past for the dark, sometimes humorous rhymes about street life on his album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." The disc's cover features him bare-chested behind bullet-shattered glass. On several songs, he seems to taunt his enemies, and he paints a vivid picture of the brutality of gangsta life.
The 26-year-old wears his wounds - one bullet knocked out a tooth - like a badge of honor. At one point in an interview, he wipes a reporter's finger with a wet towel and slides it over his bumpy tongue.
"That's a fragment," he explains.
His album was so hotly anticipated that the record company moved the street date up several days to blunt the impact of bootlegging. Even before its release, 50 Cent had three hit singles, including the song "Wanksta."
His reputation on the mix-tape circuit, the underground music market where many rap artists get their start, gave him early buzz. And the video for his latest hit, "In Da Club," was No. 1 on MTV's "TRL," a rarity for a rapper whose name is not Eminem. In a week and a half, it's sold 1.7 million copies.
"It has been a long time since there has been this immediate a reaction from the audience," says MTV's Amy Doyle.
"We are obviously blown away by how 50 has connected with listeners," says Interscope's Steve Berman. "He has built a reputation on the streets for the last three years that we came in and augmented."
Says 50 Cent: "I've had people say I've saved hip-hop. (But) I think it's a contribution to where we're going next. 'Cause to me, speaking exactly about my experience is going to encourage other artists to write their experiences."
His experiences are fast becoming rap folklore. Born to a teenage mother who dealt drugs and was killed when he was 8 (he never knew his father), he was raised by his grandparents in what he calls a deeply religious household. But before he was a teenager, he was selling drugs to support a lifestyle his grandmother couldn't provide.
"(Air) Jordans come out, they cost $100, I don't want to ask her for the $100, you know what I mean, so I'm gonna try and figure out a way that I can get it," he says in his slow drawl.
"My mother, what she did before me, is what kind of showed me that that was a possibility. And it kind of felt like the only option."
He says he had a Land Rover by age 19 and a Mercedes-Benz at 20. But he also paid the price, getting arrested and going to jail on a regular basis. After his son was born six years ago, he wanted a different life.
"I knew I couldn't provide for him and do the same things," he says.
Around that time, a friend introduced him to Jam Master Jay, the DJ for rap pioneers Run DMC. The DJ, whose real name was Jason Mizell, was talking about plans for a record company, and 50 Cent volunteered himself as a rapper - even though he hadn't really rapped before.
"I just went for it," he says. "In the music business, who you know will put you on, and what you know will determine how long you stay."
With Mizell's guidance, he honed his skills and started producing mix-tapes that caught the attention of Columbia Records, which negotiated his amicable release from Mizell. While working on the album, he says, he went back to selling crack to make money.
Believing that Columbia wasn't giving him the right street hype, he took matters into his own hands and recorded "How To Rob ...," a tongue-in-cheek song about stealing money from the likes of Jay-Z, Bobby Brown and others.
It became a radio hit in 1999, much to 50 Cent's surprise.
"I'm thinking, radio won't play it, because it's still robbery," he says. "But I was wrong."
Soon after that, he was shot nine times - an event he blames on his past, in which he admits he was sometimes "ruthless."
"I did some things that I'm not absolutely proud of. And I feel like it's karma," he says. The person who shot him, he says, was killed a few weeks later.
After the shooting, Columbia dropped him, and he kept putting out mix-tapes and trying to get deals. At one point, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs was interested, 50 Cent says, but Combs passed because he and his protege Shyne were on trial in a shooting that left three people injured. A representative for Combs did not return a call seeking comment.
Eminem, however, took the opportunity to sign 50 Cent last year in a bidding war that surpassed $1 million.
With Eminem promoting him, 50 Cent was bound to get hype. He got unwanted attention, however, when Mizell was murdered in October. New York police told 50 Cent there was a credible threat against his life, and persuaded him to cancel a performance the night of the killing. Now, authorities downplay his connection to the slaying, which remains unsolved.
Police have offered 50 Cent protection, but he's turned it down. They also tried to question him about the Mizell killing, and claim he was uncooperative.
50 Cent says police are still following him. Arrested on New Year's Eve for weapons possession, he says he's innocent of the charges and doesn't need police protection.
"I ain't never knew New York City, NYPD, any police department, to de-escalate a sitation," he says. "They're not there for me. They would prefer to lock (me) up than see me do well."
50 Cent says police are also watching him because of his feuds. The one with Ja Rule began, he says, when one of his friends robbed Ja Rule of his jewelry.
He never turns down an opportunity to insult Ja Rule and his label, Murder Inc.; during this interview, he calls him a punk and other names. The song "Wanksta" is a thinly veiled jab at the rapper. Ja Rule declined to comment for this article.
Then, there are feuds that go back to 50 Cent's street days and could still put him in danger, he says. (Nobody was injured in a shooting last month outside the offices of Violator, the company that manages him. It also manages Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes).
"Where I'm from, the price of life is cheap. For $5,000, you can get somebody killed, and you can choose who you feel like is going to get it done right," he says.
Which is one reason why 50 Cent still wears that bulletproof vest.
"There's a possibility that anything can happen," he says, adding with a sly grin: "I wear my seatbelt too."
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