Rob Brunner
May 30, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s like Frank Sinatra hitting the road with Elvis Presley. Okay, maybe not. More like Jack Nicklaus going head-to-head with Tiger Woods. No, that’s not quite right either. Let’s just put it this way: When Jay-Z and 50 Cent team up for a 34-city tour that kicks off June 25 in Hartford, it’ll be one of the most scintillating superstar pairings since Julia Child broiled a Chateaubriand with Jacques Pepin. Damn, these analogies are difficult. * In any case, it’ll be big. For much of the past decade, Jay-Z has been hip-hop’s heaviest hitter, delivering one cross-over smash after another (”Hard Knock Life [Ghetto Anthem],” ”Big Pimpin’,” ”Girls, Girls, Girls”), innovative party jams about money and cars and girls…and money and guns and money. 50 Cent is the new kid, an up-from-the-underground success story whose major-label debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, has ruled the charts since its February release. Both rappers came from nothing, selling drugs to get by in their New York neighborhoods (Jay-Z in Brooklyn’s Marcy projects, 50 Cent in South Jamaica, Queens). Both have seen their share of violence: Jay pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge that stemmed from the stabbing of a record exec in 1999, and 50 was famously shot nine times in May 2000, in a street-war incident. And both turn out to be charismatic, good-natured, and funny — nothing like the stone-faced braggarts they portray in their videos. In a summer tour season ruled by headbangers (see page 48), the Jay-Z/50 Cent tour — which will also include Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, and Sean Paul on various dates — promises to be a particularly riveting money machine.

Much like rap itself. Even as the music biz reels from plummeting sales and the chaos caused by online piracy, hip-hop reigns as pop’s big income generator. ”The record business is in trouble, not the music business,” says Jay-Z, whose eight platinum and multiplatinum albums suggest he knows what he’s talking about. ”People are always gonna make music. But the record business, they’ve got some things to fix. First and foremost, though, we’ve gotta put integrity and soul back in the music.”

He’s right: In this increasingly desperate (and disparate) pop-music climate, it’s harder than ever for artists to make great, heartfelt music and maintain a stable career. Just look at Beyonce Knowles, who’s cannily branching out into films to broaden her appeal (page 34). Or alt-rock darling Liz Phair, who’s radically remaking her sound in a bid for mainstream success (page 39). Or even power-pop misfits Fountains of Wayne, who came up short at a major label but continue to make quality music in a smaller, more sympathetic corner of the industry (page 45).

For now, Jay-Z and 50 Cent have no such concerns. Instead, they have to contend with more pressing issues, like how to count all that cash and who really is the greatest rapper….

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY So, for the record, which of you is the better MC?

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