Righteous naysayers are on target when they complain about 50's sub-par rhymes and conventional thug persona -- not to mention his embrace of gangsta rap's casual brutalization of "niggas and bitches." But as fans and foes know, this former gangbanger has a history of taking direct hits and coming back stronger than ever. The mistake is in thinking that his bullet wounds -- or his association with Eminem and Dr. Dre -- are the only elements of his success. His massive debut, 2003's Get Rich or Die Tryin', may have been just a hits-plus-filler affair, but this year's equally massive follow-up, The Massacre, is the strongest mainstream rap album since Tupac's heyday. This is because 50 has honed his style to a simple formula, first developed by L.L. Cool J when he invented his moniker -- namely, Ladies Love Cool Jerks.
Like any unrepentant hustler in the pen, 50 plays up the self-pity, but he doesn't hinge his persona on a confused thug-martyr image the way Tupac did. Instead, he concentrates on the seduction of pure flow, mastering an indolent tone that ebbs and surges in intensity, but always slips back into a smoothly controlled cruise zone. What's more, 50 takes far more pleasure in that zone's potency than Dre and company ever did on The Chronic, because he actually likes to see his boo smile. Though he'd never admit it, his most pertinent comparison is to that other honey-toned rap sensation, Nelly, but this show should take pop hedonism deeper and dirtier than St. Louis' favorite son would ever dare. Boyz, take your girls, before 50 takes them for you.