Don't get me wrong—I like Fitty. I liked him enough to adopt his moniker as my Friendster alias way back when things like Friendster and 50 Cent, um, meant something. But like mentor Marshall "Robbin'" Mathers, it seems like Curtis "Gatman" Jackson is spinning his rims. Get Rich or Die Trying? Um, he Got Rich. So the velvety ex-hustler behind the witty, playful breakout dis "How to Rob" has transformed into a megalomaniacal robo-gangsta who's so bored that he's starting beefs not only with nonthreats like Fat Joe and Jadakiss, but with his own G-Unit protégé, Game (since rectified, shockingly). Like every other recent tablet from on high not etched by Jay-Z, half of The Massacre is about how hard our still-street MC is ("In My Hood," "I'm Supposed to Die Tonight"), and the other half is about how hard he is euphemistically ("Candy Shop," "Disco Inferno"). 50's like an all-pro linebacker bitching about not getting any respect just to keep himself motivated. But if he still wants us to love him like we love Pac, well, that's increasingly like Green Day wanting us to love 'em like we love the Clash. Dude's a cartoon, not a visionary, even if his heroin dirge "A Baltimore Love Thing" is a narrative breakthrough. Not like the whole "P.I.M.P." image was that original, but it was at least less contrived than "My Toy Soldier," another interchangeable hard-ass anthem interesting only because it's the polar opposite of Em's pacifistic "Like Toy Soldiers." At least 50 didn't sample Martika. ANDREW BONAZELLI
Awake Is the New Sleep
We're supposed to feel cynical about such things, but Ben Lee found enlightenment, and now his music sounds mature and catchy as all hell. Yeah, the liner notes thank "everybody at the American Taoist Healing Center," and, sure, Jason Schwartzman plays drums on a couple of tracks. But honestly, the album never feels like New Age vanity. Whatever caused Lee to look deeply at himself—and let's not spoil it by talking about Clare Danes, OK?—it isn't a selfish introspection. For all its heartache, Awake is suffused with a wry but generous, inclusive, hook-happy optimism. In "Whatever It Is," the opening gem that gives the CD both its title and thematic pulse, he strums his guitar softly and says, "You're so quiet/In your dreaming/I turn to you and say/Awake is the new sleep/So wake up/and do it/Whatever it is." Does he push it? Sure he pushes it. You'll have to decide whether you need a nearly 10-minute instrumental called "Light," or can tolerate occasional gush like "I'm made of atoms/You're made of atoms/And we're all in this together." But Lee's confident songwriting is pensive without posturing, his voice is genuinely compassionate without getting gooey, and it's all been produced, engineered, and mixed by Brad Wood to sound immaculately informal. It's pure pop that, stripped bare, could hold its head high in the folk room—think Crowded House's Neil Finn or Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame. Lee has been making records since he was a teenager, and at 26 he finally sounds like he's lived a little and found some small hope in the experience. He may sour again, but he doesn't sound too worried about that right now: "While you wonder how's this gonna end/I only want it to begin." STEVE WIECKING
Ben Lee plays Crocodile Cafe with Har Mar Superstar and Zykos at 9 p.m. Wed., March 30. $12.50 adv./$15.
The Red, White & Black
I like that whole "let's put punk and funk together and go ape-balls" movement, but it's a bit chronologically rut-stuck: all Carter administration all the time, with no real sign of moving away from that point. Funny that the first retrofied band that got this genre-splice exercise right came a decade earlier chronologically—stylistically late '60s, formed early '90s—and trump PiL–meet–Arthur Russell with Amboy Dukes–meet–Lyn Collins. The BellRays' method works mostly because it's simple and well tested: Fuse three incendiary elements—Lisa Kekaula's Etta James–gone–vengeful voice, Tony Fate's James Williamson-esque guitar violence, and Bob Vennum and Ray Chin's united front for rhythmic dominance—and channel the resulting fury into a relentless roar. The only thing keeping them from storming the land and beating the living bejesus out of Jet with a bicycle chain is an until recent dearth of distribution, which is why it took over a year for the Europe-only The Red, White & Black to see the light of day in the U.S. What you get for waiting: "Some Confusion City" reassembling the Stooges' "I Got a Right" with a better drummer, better lyrics ("I nearly talk to Jesus/He hasn't heard me yet/I don't get the things I ask for/Don't ask for what I get"), and 10 percent more Muscle Shoals; free-form Sun Ra anarchy that coalesces into a minute of Stax-ishness on "Poison Arrow"; "Find Someone to Believe In," a 93-second bomb-pop uplift; and a dozen or so tracks that suggest the MC5 weren't entirely loud enough, or soulful enough, then offering that maybe soul and volume are the same thing. There are clichés, and then there are universal truths. NATE PATRIN
The BellRays play Crocodile Cafe with Von Iva, the Rotten Apples, and Rock n Roll Soldiers at 9:30 p.m. Thurs., March 31. $10 adv.