Overnight Cent-sation

How to become a rap megastar in three easy steps

As rapper Jay-Z prepares to disembark from Rock the Mic after its Atlanta stop on Tuesday, originally the last scheduled date for the tour, the message is clear: Right now, it's 50 Cent's world, and Jay-Z, like most other rappers, is just living in it.

Arguably the summer's highest-profile hip-hop package tour, Rock the Mic shoots far above the likes of Sprite's Liquid Mix Tour (which features N.E.R.D. and the Roots, among others) on the strength of its co-headlining dynamic duo: Jay-Z and Eminem protege 50 Cent. But with 50 Cent now scheduled to headline the extended tour for 13 more dates, Jay-Z, long ensconced in the upper reaches of the commercial hip-hop pantheon, appears to be stepping aside.

50 Cent's current popularity in no way suggests a radical changing of the guard: At bottom, there's not an Uzi clip's worth of difference between 50 Cent, Jay-Z and most other gangsta-rapping millionaires. But the rise of the man born Curtis Jackson does depart from the standard rap-to-riches template. Aspiring thug-lifers take note:

-- Embrace the cliche. Young black men growing up in extreme poverty have traditionally looked to either drug dealing, rapping or professional basketball as a means of escape, goes the truism. Not only is 50 Cent's career as a drug dealer well-documented, but he famously continued slinging crack after landing his first, abortive record deal. 50 is far from the first hip-hopper with a rap sheet, of course; Jay-Z, for one, comes from a similar background. But 50's "keepin' it real" authenticity suggests a new trend in horizontal violence: Make that drug addiction in the 'hood work for both you and your record company, and you're on your way to a successful career.

Find a famous white rapper to mentor you. Well, 50 Cent didn't find Eminem, so much as the latter won a bidding war for 50's services. No matter, 50's association with Mr. Slim Shady, the biggest rap star in the firmament, is alone sufficient to thrust him into the limelight. And don't worry about riding anybody's coattails. Would the publicity blitz 50's enjoyed have been the same had he emerged as a protege of, say, Jay-Z? Debatable. Has it benefited from the betting on whether 50 will wrest the crown from rap's current king? You bet.

Flood the market. Which brings us to the streets, where "bootleg" CDs of 50 Cent material — most of it original work not to be found on his major label debut Get Rich or Die Tryin' — have built a solid fan-base foundation that most artists have to spend years on the road to achieve. In these days of widespread resentment against the major labels, these contraband avenues have increased exponentially in terms of exposure. It was 50 Cent's notoriety at street level, long before Get Rich's "In da Club" hit the airwaves, that once prompted Jay-Z to proclaim, "I'm about a dollar/Who the fuck is 50 Cent?" No one's asking that question now.