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.