In the battle for supremacy between Kanye West and 50 Cent—who both released their third albums on Sept. 11—Ye trounced Fif to the tune of 265,000 copies. If 50 were a man of his word, he’d be looking into collecting a pension check from Interscope right about now. The beef they manufactured to beef up sales has worked—at least for one of the parties involved. The stream of insults and boasts and face-offs the men engaged in would actually be pretty funny if their listeners weren’t buying into the ridiculous good (West) versus Evil (50) nonsense that the argument is built on.
Let’s be clear: Proclaiming West to be the best thing to happen to hip-hop in ages while deriding 50 is as silly as picking sides with the Simpson sisters. Imagine one team heralding the breezy, carefree style of Jessica while the other maintaining that Ashlee was keeping real pop music alive. Both girls are similar inventions of the popular music machine—and so, for that matter, are 50 and West. West, after all, isn’t Common or Talib Kweli—he shares many vices with Curtis Jackson. Though West, to his credit, has never dug into violence on record, he curses, uses the NAACP-banned N-word, likes his groupies and his drinks, and actually outdoes 50 as far as materialistic excess is concerned. On “Champion,” a track from his new album, Graduation, West claims to “shop so much, I speak Italian,” while 50 measures his wealth by the fact that he can cruise down a turnpike without having to stop and fish for ashtray change like the rest of us mugs. “Breeze past with the EZ Pass/Fuck the toll,” he raps on “Straight to the Bank.”
Those similarities expose the fact that many hate 50 just because he’s a burly, tattooed brute, as opposed to a “well-spoken,” clever prepster such as West. It’s not that 50 is undeserving of criticism. He just doesn’t deserve to be held as the embodiment of all that is wrong with hip-hop. (No one does. Don’t hate the player and all of that.) The reality is that whether he deserves to be villainized or not neglects the fact that his album fails miserably when compared to West’s.
Graduation trumps Curtis because West is a talented producer—he’s gifted at bringing together seemingly discordant sounds in ear-pleasing ways. Plus, he knows how to craft complete albums, a dying art in hip-hop. 50, a corner freestyle kid who had the good fortune of becoming pals with Dr. Dre and Eminem, is basically a singles man. Mastering the individual track meant for radio play is fine, but putting 50’s collection of isolated jams against a West opus makes his album sound like some idiot’s asinine ring tone going off in the middle of a symphony.
But the difference isn’t subject matter. The only reason guardians of hip-hop revere West and revile 50 is because West is a bit more self-aware: Whenever he’s bad, he pauses to explain that he knows he’s being bad but just can’t help himself. That somehow passes for intelligence and wit and gives West a pass on his misdeeds. But since when did the man who commits the crime and knows it’s wrong become less culpable than the man who does the crime and doesn’t really understand what the problem is? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
One of the main problems with Curtis, and with 50’s previous two albums, is that he has little knack for choosing producers. Rather than attempting to work with people who might complement him, he simply plucks the current chart-topping beatmakers, or whoever he thought was hot when he was a youngster, no matter how their talents have held up over the years. Havoc of Mobb Deep, one of the architects of the dark early-’90s New York hip-hop sound, delivers a pair of disappointing beats on “Fully Loaded Clip” and “Curtis 187.” Havoc used to excel at taking jazz samples and giving them a slightly crazed edge, but his work for his new boss just sounds like typical G-Unit rabidity.
The same goes for Eminem, whose insistence on making every one of his tracks sound like something that frat boys listen to while pumping themselves up for a night of Jäger shots and date rape is becoming increasingly annoying. He produced only one track for Curtis, but a host of up-and-comers on the album are clearly trying to emulate him. The Fyre Dept.’s “My Gun Go Off” is a jarring, choppy mess in the Marshall Mathers mode, and 50 has a hard time forcing his lazy flow to fit its twists and turns.
But while the production is lackluster, 50 is pretty much the same as always: He shoots a little, he shops a little, he sleeps around. Tales of his sexcapades make for the best and worst tracks on Curtis. The chorus of “Amusement Park”—“Girl you ain’t gotta take your panties off/Just move ’em to the side”—is a hilariously nasty line. But “Ayo Technology,” a rejection of porn in favor of the real thing, falls flat: 50 and guest Justin Timberlake lack chemistry, and Timbaland’s contribution to the track inexplicably relies on the same cold, robotic elements that the lyrics claim to want relief from. “Follow My Lead,” featuring Robin Thicke, is an improvement: It’s the requisite “bitch”-less love song, the sort of laid-back grown-up track that some hoped would fill 50’s entire third album once he announced that he was going the self-titled route.
But the grown-up track isn’t the best thing on Curtis. That would be “I Get Money,” which brilliantly pairs 50 with a sample of Audio Two’s “Top Billin.” It’s a middle finger to all the nostalgic types who love old-school rap and claim newer rappers are too flashy and cash-obsessed: “Top Billin” was recorded in 1988, and exhuming it is a reminder that old-school rappers liked bragging about cash, too.
The song also shows that 50 understands how preposterous both he and the business he works in are: “I took quarter water/Sold it in bottles for two bucks/Then Coca-Cola came and bought it for millions/What the fuck?” he rhymes, poking fun at his success with Formula 50 Vitamin Water. Later he raps: “Have a baby by me, baby/Be a millionaire/I’ll write the check before the baby come/Who the fuck cares?” So if 50 is in on the joke, does that mean it’s OK to like him now?
Graduation isn’t as genius as 2004’s The College Dropout or 2005’s Late Registration. West is better at mining beats and marrying words that actually sound somewhat alike, but he’s no longer a breath of fresh air. Like Curtis, Graduation suffers from the fact that we’ve seen most of the artist’s tricks at this point. Still, if West’s production work on the album isn’t as interesting as the Dilla-tribute work he did for Common’s latest record, Finding Forever, it’s still more creative than the vast majority of recycled snap and bounce tracks in circulation.
And he hasn’t toned down the most interesting aspect of his personality—his ego. Apparently, if you’re Kanye West, you can both embody all that is good and pure about hip-hop and be an arrogant little prick at the same time. On “The Glory,” he comes off more like a braggart in the old-school hip-hop tradition rather than some kid trying to convince his listeners and himself of his worth. The nadir of the song is this line: “When you meet me in person what does it feel like?/I know, I know, I look better in real life,” he rhymes. “Champion” is worse. Did West realize that he was “a champion in their eyes?” “Yes, I did!” he says. This is hip-hop’s pure-hearted savior?
But “Champion,” which uses a Steely Dan sample, is also an example of one of West’s other talents. He may not be a great rapper, but when it comes to appealing to the nerdy white guys who make the hip-hop universe go ’round, he’s unparalleled. He gets his songs (and himself) placed on HBO’s Entourage, hires hipster comic Zach Galifianakis for the video for “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and resurrected Daft Punk for “Stronger.” All of those things give him an edge in terms of broadening his appeal while letting him maintain his underground cred. Like 50, he knows how to give the people what they want—but unlike 50, he aims for the Pitchfork set first and lets his audience grow from there rather than aiming for the masses up front.
That savvy is evident on “Good Life,” his collaboration with T-Pain. The track uses a Michael Jackson sample from “P.Y.T.” and flips it in a way that keeps it recognizable—everybody loves a good MJ song—but makes it different enough so that the song doesn’t simply coast. On the track West discusses many things. He reveals his preference for regular girls because they have “more ass than the models.” He claims that he has popped Champagne on a plane while getting brain. He also shares his business philosophy, which sounds very familiar: “Go ’head switch the style up/And if they hate, then let ’em hate/And watch the money pile up.” The line, of course, is borrowed from 50’s “In Da Club,” but it fits perfectly in the context of his song—just further proof that the two men really aren’t so different at all.