Music

How The Showdown Between Kanye’s ‘Graduation’ And 50 Cent’s ‘Curtis’ Changed Hip-Hop Forever

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It should be uncontroversial to say that for many, 2017 has been a bewildering year. For different reasons, this is likely especially true for 50 Cent and Kanye West. 50 is two years removed from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. He recently harassed an autistic janitor. His music career is virtually nonexistent; he hasn’t had a hit in seven years.

Meanwhile, Kanye announced $53 million in personal debt via Twitter. He’s locked in a cold war with idol/mentor/“big brother” Jay-Z. Last year, he endorsed the presidency of Donald Trump, cancelled his tour, and was subsequently hospitalized for stress and exhaustion. Let’s rewind back to 2007 after that list, don’t you want to? No such complications loomed ten years ago, when Kanye and 50 reigned as rap’s dominant juggernauts. 50 had last released The Massacre –- a creative plateau, but a massive commercial success armed with a formidable slew of hits.

He had also adeptly leveraged the G-Unit brand, churning out successful albums from his crew including Lloyd Banks, Young Buck, The Game, and, remarkably, Tony Yayo. Kanye never replicated 50’s business portfolio, but his grip on the zeitgeist tightened with the twin critical and commercial triumphs of The College Dropout and Late Registration. When Kanye shifted the release of his third album, Graduation, to September 11, 2007 — the day 50’s third album, Curtis, was set to arrive — it set up an imminent clash of titans.

Hip-hop as a genre is uniquely fixated on conflict, so fans lapped up the matchup like any one of a variety of delicious Vitamin Water flavors. 2007 Kanye was notably non-confrontational (“I own your child!!!!” 2016 Kanye would come later) — as opposed to 50, who shoved Fat Joe into a locker simply for daring to release a hit the same year he did. Despite his typical aggression, 50 held his fire with Kanye. Perhaps it was simply shrewd business, an awareness that the intensifying hype was mutually beneficial.

“50 said ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was his favorite song, so I said, ‘OK, that’s my first single,’” Kanye told Rolling Stone in an amicable pre-9/11 joint interview. “We push each other.” Publicly at least, they pitched it as healthy, a natural extension of rap’s competitive streak — more sport than ill will. “The competitive nature of this art form doesn’t exist in R&B or in classical music or jazz,” 50 added, conveniently glossing over the Mozart-Salieri beef of the 1780s. “They make great music, but it’s not as competitive as hip-hop.”

Whether their friendliness was genuine is debatable, but as publicity stunts go, this was an unqualified success. Beyond promotional tactics, though, Kanye and 50’s face off ultimately served as something of a proxy battle over the future of hip-hop. Both artists emerged with wildly different strengths and aims, but each garnered a considerable audience.

Questions loomed, then, about what the future of hip-hop would gravitate towards: 50’s raw, primal gangsta rap, which leaned heavily on ’90s influences, or Kanye’s more benevolent but sonically progressive vision, which nudged the genre into uncomfortable places. While the ground was shifting beneath their feet in other important ways (including the rise of Soulja Boy, whose “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” would hit No. 1 later that month), theirs was a battle of great visibility and consequence.

Ultimately, the latter vision emerged victorious. When first week figures rolled in, the results were decisive, with Graduation walloping Curtis, 957,000 units sold to 691,000. These were stunning numbers; this was only the second time since the dawn of SoundScan that two albums each sold more than 600,000 in the same week (the other was the dual release of Use Your Illusion I and II by Guns N’ Roses sixteen years earlier). For 50, though, it was a pointed decline from The Massacre’s million-plus debut two years earlier.

“Let’s raise the stakes,” 50 said shortly before release. “If Kanye West sells more records than 50 Cent on September 11… I won’t put out any more solo albums.” It was, of course, a bluff; he would release his next record just two years later. His confidence proved shortsighted; despite a period of chart supremacy, G-Unit was a bubble ready to burst, and Curtis was the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Unfortunately, the cooler reception was merited. Curtis is assembly line pandering at its worst, a patchwork compilation that flexes 50’s worst tendencies. Curtis Jackson’s laziness as an executive producer was manifest on nearly every G-Unit record. His strategy was identifying the thinnest outline of a winning formula and replicating it without concern for freshness or creativity. Gritty, hard-hitting opener? Check. Transparent stab at a radio single? Check. Token Eminem appearance? Check. A few “songs for the ladies”? Check.

50’s methodology for crafting tracklists more closely resembled the assembly of a grocery list than any actual creative endeavor. Tracklist issues aside, the biggest problem is that 50 himself sounds uninspired, a listless, lethargic shadow of his best self. Audiences signaled that they were tired of 50’s style — maybe because on Curtis, 50 seemed tired of it too.

Perhaps predictably, then, major stretches of the album sound solid on paper only to falter in execution. Robin Thicke guest spot “Follow My Lead” is music to duck off the dance floor for a bathroom break at junior prom. “Amusement Park” is shameful, a remarkably unsexy retread that makes “Candy Shop” sound like “God Only Knows.” Even the big name guests fall flat. “Come & Go” rouses Dr. Dre from a self-imposed slumber, but, burdened by one of 50’s laziest hooks, it probably shouldn’t have bothered.

“Peep Show” showcases Eminem weathering a brutal career meltdown, and he uses his verse to (naturally) advocate for consumption of urine. The Timbaland-produced “Ayo Technology”, featuring Justin Timberlake is… fine, barely. But its FutureSex/LoveSounds piggybacking is transparently opportunistic.

The record puts most of its chips on 50’s gangsta image, to mixed results. “I’ll Still Kill” aims to pack the punch of previous bangers, but it features Akon at his weakest and a limp, amateurish beat. “My Gun Go Off” similarly underperforms, a bland and toothless “What Up Gangsta” ripoff. Other attempts work moderately better — “Curtis 187” is sufficiently grimy, and “Man Down” is the most casually menacing song to sample the “Scooby Doo Theme” ever made. “I Get Money” is the record’s crown jewel, and remains one of 50’s best songs.

In vivid contrast to the emptiness of Curtis, Graduation is bursting with ideas. Kanye records never lacked confidence, but Graduation glows with the ambition of an artist aiming to become a stadium-level behemoth. This was likely because he got a taste of it – after Late Registration, Kanye opened for U2(!) on a world tour, an experience that reportedly had a strong influence on these recording sessions. You can hear it. Graduation was the rare victory lap that refused to rest on its laurels — a triumphant boast of a record that still strived to be forward thinking.

Many years and several Kanye eras later, Graduation’s scope and ambition are its enduring legacy. “Stronger” sounds tame compared to the abrasive industrial funhouse of Yeezus, but at the time it was a dramatic leap forward, injecting Daft Punk’s propulsive electronic music into a genre that saw it as a foreign entity. Even more successful is “Flashing Lights”, which crafts a synth-driven pseudo-European backdrop, gorgeously cinematic. “I Wonder” takes a similar route, minimalist in its sparse vocals but intimate and emotionally affecting.

Beyond the electronic and European leanings, one of Graduation’s noteworthy feats is honing Kanye’s pop instincts. Wielding a masterful, inspired “PYT” sample (and a good natured “In Da Club” reference, too), the T-Pain featuring “Good Life” is as purely joyful as anything in Kanye’s discography. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “The Glory” are unshakeable, boasting lyrical performances that are among Kanye’s wittiest and most compelling.

As undeniable as much of Graduation is, though, it is often remembered as Kanye’s weakest due to a spotty tracklist. The woozy dirge of “Drunk And Hot Girls” is a misguided dud that grinds all momentum to a halt. “Big Brother” is Kanye’s worst closer, a heartfelt but poorly written ode to Jay-Z (“Translate espanol no way Jose”). These aren’t album-derailing flaws, but they do bring it down to earth.

The final sales outcome was likely colored by Graduation, a vital record, favorably comparing to Curtis, a glorified graveyard for failed singles. But beyond the yawning quality gap was a natural progression for an audience more inclined to embrace new sounds than double down on well-worn formulas. 50 Cent was inclined to play it safe at a time when listeners were increasingly receptive to boldness.

Kanye’s victory signified a weariness with 50’s cookie-cutter approach and an openness to Ye’s progressive cocktail of genres and influences. Sales battles have diminished in importance in the streaming era; this type of competition feels almost quaint. But Kanye vs. 50 had implications beyond WWE sensationalism. Ten years later, Kanye (difficulties aside) remains a potent cultural force, while 50, despite an impressive run, is an afterthought. Whether or not it should be seen as a referendum on 50’s complacency, it became an all-out battle for the soul of the genre.

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