50 Cent doesn't mind being known as the world's most bullet-ridden rapper, so long as he's known. "It's cool if people laugh," says 50, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, who has nine bullet wounds. "I mean, it's not funny when you're actually getting shot, but afterwards, yeah, it's funny. People ask me questions about it all the time." Like where does it hurt the most? "The hip. When I got shot in the hip it cracked bone and when I got out of the hospital they didn't give me medication, so that really hurt."
50 has done his share of shooting back, though he won't say if he's hit anyone. He has also been stabbed, done time and sold crack. It's no wonder his debut album, Get Rich or Die Trying, out last week, is expected to sell 500,000 copies and enter the Billboard Top 200 at No. 1 in its first five days of release. A decade after Snoop Dogg put out an album while prepping for a murder trial, blending gunplay and wordplay remains rap's most potent marketing strategy. But what makes 50 rap's hottest act (he has two songs in the Top 20) is more than his resume. He happens to be very good, particularly at setting a mood with his rumbling baritone. (Eminem declared 50 his favorite rapper and made him the first signee to his Shady/Aftermath Records label.) Also, perhaps because he's escaped death more times than Rasputin, 50 is shockingly upbeat, both in conversation and, at times, in his music. "Why not?" he asks. "I'm finally getting to do exactly what I want."
Born in Queens, N.Y., 50 grew up never knowing his father, while his mother, a drug dealer, was murdered when he was 8. By age 12 he had escaped his grandmother's supervision and was selling crack. "I wrote rhymes too," he says. "I loved music, but I never saw a way to break into it." In 1996 he met neighborhood legend Jam Master Jay, the pioneering DJ from Run-D.M.C. From that point until his shooting death last year, Jay acted as 50's mentor and promoter, with an eye toward a future payday. "He was really patient with me," says 50, who was questioned by police following Jay's murder but is not a suspect. "I would come in with rhymes, almost free verse, and he explained that they had to fit 16 bars of music. Once he said it, I got it."
In 1999, 50 signed a deal with Columbia Records. (Jam Master Jay got a reported $50,000 of the $65,000 advance.) While Columbia spent the next two years figuring out how to market him, 50 marketed himself, releasing a bootleg single called How to Rob, in which he fantasized about ripping off every hip-hop star from Jay-Z to Mariah Carey. "Making that song was not a creative decision," he says. "People who sell a lot of records have a lot of diamonds and a lot of cars. I wanted those, but I also wanted to get those people's attention." It was an outsider's desperate attempt to be in.