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Success allows Fat Joe to just ‘Lean Back’

Rotund rapper wants to make records, not battle 50 Cent
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two years ago, Fat Joe was talking retirement.

His album “Loyalty” was selling poorly in comparison to his 2001 platinum breakthrough “Jealous Ones Still Envy”; he also was lacking the kind of smash hits had he had charted in recent years, including “What’s Luv,” a huge success with Ashanti, and “We Thuggin”’ with R. Kelly.

So, perhaps feeling a bit underappreciated and a little frustrated, the then 32-year-old described the rap world as a young kid’s game.

“It’s time to move to Miami and chill with my kids,” he told The Associated Press in 2003.

Fat Joe has moved his brood down to Miami, splitting his time between the city’s sunny beaches and his native New York. But at 34, Fat Joe is not relinquishing the game to the kids at all — he’s taken control and may be more popular than he’s ever been in his 12-year career.

He’s still riding high off the monster success of last year’s “Lean Back,” the song with his Terror Squad clique that became 2004’s national anthem; his upcoming album, “All Or Nothing,” is among the spring’s more anticipated albums, with collaborations with R. Kelly, Timbaland and Nelly and his hot single, “So Much More”; he’s also embarking on a tour with Nelly and the self-proclaimed southern rap king T.I., which kicks off Friday in Norfolk, Va.

And he may have received the ultimate compliment when rap’s true king, 50 Cent, deemed him worthy of a rap battle, targeting him along with several others on his new album.

While the new feud has gotten Fat Joe plenty of attention as he promotes his new album and tour, it’s the kind of spotlight he’d rather shine somewhere else.

“What’s so weird is I finally got to the point that I want to be in and I’m in the middle of a rap beef. This (expletive) is the worst! This is my moment!” a frustrated Fat Joe exclaims.

“This is my walk into the ring. I worked hard to have my moment in the sun, and it seems like a black cloud is trying to cover it. (But) the sun will shine through, baby.”

‘It's not about the money for me’
Things are already shining pretty brightly for Joseph Cartagena, aka Fat Joe, aka Joey Crack — the rotund rapper from the Bronx who has always been on rap’s superstar bubble of success.

As one of rap’s first successful Latino rappers (he’s of Puerto Rican descent), he’s had many of the components of success — a club smash here, a platinum album there — but never put together all the components that would put him squarely among rap’s elite. For a while, his own career was overshadowed by his protege, Big Pun, who became the first Latin rapper to own a platinum record. After he died in 2000, some doubted whether Fat Joe could succeed without him — and Fat Joe doubted whether he even wanted to.

“I was going to retire then,” says Joe, dressed casually while sitting at his record label, with a diamond-studded large chain dangling from his neck, drinking a diet Sprite (no junk food since diet and exercise have shaved a significant amount off of his still hefty frame).

“But at the same time, it’s not about the money for me, it’s not about the fame for me; it’s about my peers respecting my contributions to hip-hop, 30 years from now, looking back at hip-hop and saying, ‘You know what? This dude was really amazing.’ Even though I could have left when Pun died. But I had so much to prove, and thank God I stood around, because I’ve had some of the greatest songs and moments of my life after that.”

Among them: his success with “What’s Luv,” which not only gave him a huge crossover hit but helped put Ashanti on the map. But Joe always found detractors ready to take away from his achievements.

“It feels as if I never get my just due,” he says. “Whenever I come out with a hit record they’ll say, ‘Ah, that’s because of R. Kelly. Oh, it’s because of Ashanti. Oh, he’s lucky.”’

The ‘Lean Back’ phenomenonThat’s part of the reason the success of “Lean Back” — a stirring song with a catchy hook that refused to be ignored — meant so much to Fat Joe. The first single from an album by his rap crew, Terror Squad, it quickly jumped from the streets to the suburbs to just about anywhere a radio was playing.

Even Fat Joe was stunned by the record’s popularity.

“Yesterday, I was in my lawyer’s office signing off on people who licensed ‘Lean Back.’ We got everybody from ‘Ellen DeGeneres’ to ‘The Apprentice,’ to ‘Girlfriends. ... Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving! I’m like, wow, everybody’s leaning back.”

Damon Dash, whose Dash Films is producing a new movie featuring Fat Joe, says of the rapper: “He knows how to make a record and he knows how to put it out. He’s very strategic about it. But also on another level, he just doesn’t just make a record and wait around for a couple of years and wait for things to happen — he stays prevalent in the market place. He keeps making music and doing things that keeps him relevant.”

Part of what has kept him relevant is his collaborations. So when he joined old friend Ja Rule, along with Jadakiss on the street hit “New York,” he didn’t think much of the consequences.

Except that Ja Rule is a hated nemesis of 50 Cent — and 50 Cent didn’t appreciate other rappers attempting to boost the rapper whom he helped torpedo with blistering rap attacks. So he launched a new one on Fat Joe, along with Jadakiss and others.

While some rappers relish diving into a rap battle to showcase their skills and hype themselves, Fat Joe was more annoyed than anything. He didn’t even want to respond — he had to be persuaded to address the topic on the airwaves by his family and friends.

“I could battle rap forever, but it’s a joke to me. I make hit records. I make hit records to motivate the people,” he says.

You wouldn’t know it from the blistering attack he delivers on 50 Cent on the track getting radio airplay now; on it, he ridicules the gangsta rapper’s street cred and dismisses him as a punk.

Joe says it’s what the fans wanted, even if he would have rather addressed the issue man-to-man instead of record-to-record.

“I didn’t want to do it, but truthfully, the fans really made me do it. I felt like I would have lost a lot of credibility if I didn’t do it,” he says. “My wife, my son, they all wanted me to get at this dude.”

But don’t expect Joe to engage 50 Cent or any other rapper who decides to take him on again — he’d rather concentrate on the music.

“God forbid that this album is more successful than any other one of my albums. They’re going to say it’s due to the rap beef,” he says. “I want to make music that’s timeless ... They’re not going to be playing battle raps 30 years from now. It’s not what I want to be remembered by.”