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But though there have been grumblings from associates like rapper Remy Ma (who parted ways with Terror Squad after her debut album), the Joe franchise has never really sputtered, and his career has taken on new vitality in recent years due to his association with a Southern clique that includes Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Rick Ross, Flo Rida, and Birdman, and has coalesced around DJ Khaled's two albums. "I started working with artists that show each other unity and camaraderie, people that cheer each other on and try to help each other," Joe says. "It's the weirdest thing I ever seen. Some people get mad at me for that, but don't get mad because we got each other's back. Rick Ross, his album [Trilla] drops the same day as mine, and I don't feel one inch of competition."
As Joe puts it on his Grammy-losing hit, what's everybody so mad at the South for? "You think Aretha Franklin wouldn't perform with Stevie Wonder 'cause he's from the South?" he demands. "To not like someone because they're from L.A. or they're from Atlanta is like the stupidest thing I ever heard. New York hip-hop has been pretty stale for a minute, and they are just getting real mad and frustrated." He evokes the cynical title of Nas's last album: "Hip-Hop Is Dead? No, it's not. Step your game up. Make some hits."
Though Joe says he's been courted by both the Clinton and Obama campaigns ("They need that Latino support. I love 'em both, man"), he feels slighted by the cool-kid New York rappers, particularly 50 Cent, with whom he's engaged in a long-running dis feud. (Internet rumor mill MediaTakeOut.com recently published rumors that rapper Papoose had punched Fat Joe in the face. As evidence, they posted a picture of Joe with a black eye, although they later admitted that the picture was doctored by someone in 50's camp. Joe denies he was roughed up.) But if discussing 50 wearies him, he delights in spinning Lil Wayne yarns, recalling the time Weezy showed up to the "Make It Rain" remix video with smoke coming out of his ears. Joe chalks up Wayne's eccentricities to runaway intelligence: "The most incredible geniuses are pretty weird, and he's a genius, man. R. Kelly, weird. Big Pun, weird. Eminem, weird."
If Wayne's strength is his effortless flow or zeitgeist-capturing weirdness, Joe's is his financial savvy, and The Elephant in the Room is the closest thing you'll find to sure-bet profitability in hip-hop this year. Over soaring, big-name beats, he raps about drug distribution and high-life living, with a track called "My Conscience" featuring KRS-One thrown in for good measure. It won't sell millions, but Joe's figured out how to stay comfortably in the black, regardless. He keeps a close eye on the Joey Crack, Inc. balance sheets and will quickly rattle off album sales, ringtone sales, and chart positions when prompted. After being dropped by Atlantic Records in 2006, he went "independent," putting out his albums through Terror Squad Entertainment and securing distribution through Imperial Records, a subset of EMI. He now owns his masters, no longer gets a big recoupable advance, and earns a bigger share of each CD's proceeds—he says $7 apiece. Since he's now largely responsible for his own marketing and recording expenses, he splurged on a full-cover 2006 Daily News ad to promote his last album, Me, Myself & I, but pulled the plug on "Party All the Time," a song he recorded and was considering for Elephant. (Who knew Eddie Murphy samples were so pricey?)
And so, even though a Joe album doesn't usually sell much more (or less) than a few hundred thousand units—even 2004's Terror Squad release True Story, which spawned the monster hit "Lean Back," only moved about 400,000 copies—he says he makes more money now than he ever did on a major, though he did have to sell his private jet a few years back. "Joe's a real, real, real smart guy," says the forever emphatic DJ Khaled. "He's seen the best and he's seen the worst in his life. When you see that, you learn a lot. A lot of rappers are broke after their third or fourth album, but Joe always makes good decisions."
One such decision may have been staying here at the fairly gauche Sheraton Universal, where teenage skateboarders jockey for position with valets near the front door. "When I come to L.A. for these events, I don't want to be in a hotel where people are looking for the artist, where there's a million artists and everybody knows where you stand," Joe says. "I like to go where it's just us, where we're comfortable. None of the bells and whistles."