Following an announcement from 50 Cent that he would stop creating solo albums if Kanye West’s “Graduation” outsold his latest album “Curtis” (both released Sept. 11), the competition between the two rappers has begun to bear an uncanny resemblance to the increasingly bankrupt American political system — right down to a pointless, over-hyped and morally offensive “debate.”
For all intents and purposes, West and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson are as opposite from each other as two of mainstream rap’s biggest stars can be. Or at least, their highly constructed, shallow images would have us think so: ‘Ye is the monied, styled and coiffed product of a middle-class upbringing in the suburbs of Chicago, while 50 Cent is the nine-gunshot-surviving, crack-slinging, prison-time-serving threat to society who grew up to “run New York” and make Jay-Z quiver.
But the first feature this “clash of the titans” (as B.E.T.’s television show “106 & Park” called this Tuesday’s face-off between the two rappers) shares with contemporary American politics is the illusion of choice: Listeners/voters are presented with two ostensibly different options which, upon closer inspection, are too eerily similar to be really called opponents. Democrats are just Republicans-lite, and 50 is just Kanye with a Glock.
For example, the video for one of 50’s singles, “Follow My Lead,” features the gangsta rapper singing and crooning in a posh nightclub with Robin Thicke, a sharp departure from his former persona and an acceptance of the well-dressed, preppy aesthetic West typically embodies. The singing especially represents McCain-quality hypocrisy, because just a few years ago 50 Cent helped end Ja Rule’s career by ridiculing the artist for singing on his tracks. Additionally, according to an interview with West in Rolling Stone, the two met months ago to listen to each other’s tracks. “50 said ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was his favorite song, so I said ‘Okay, that’s my first single’,” West told the magazine.
The proliferation of new media technology — YouTube, peer-to-peer downloading software, satellite radio, bloggers — has enhanced the abilities of both citizens and music fans to get information beyond the usual standard fare. For voters, this means they no longer have to depend on mainstream news sources to find out what politicians are up to; for music fans, this means they can find out about new, little-known artists and download their music in minutes — and if they happen to find the new West single catchy, they can download it for free, too.
All this makes for very desperate, stressed-out musicians and ruins the cool of two of hip-hop’s most self-assured MCs. The debate on “106 & Park” was studded with such moments of desperation. A lucky girl from the audience was selected to stand in a special glass tube, aiming to stuff her pockets full of dollar bills as they flew in a whirlwind around her. When the show’s Rihanna-look-alike host asked how she intended to spend the $1,200 she had won, the girl pointed to the audience and said “Give it to my mom.” Her answer was nearly drowned out, however, by 50 Cent interjecting with “Use it to buy my new CD, ‘Curtis,’ in stores today.” Classy.
Such shameless self-promotion, of course, is standard procedure for West as well, who has taken self-obsession and ego stroking to astronomical new heights. In the span of a four-minute interview, he managed to complain about not getting the main stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, call his album’s cover art a “collector’s item” and drop this little gem of self-importance: “My album is the pinnacle of what music is at [the time it’s released].”
Add to all this the supreme irony of building fanfare and spending so much energy on moving units while others were observing the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, and you have a perfect storm of conceit. The buildup may have been forgivable if either album represented the best of each artist’s career or even the best rap album of the past few months, but they don’t, not by a long shot.
Still, the news is not all bad. While West’s new album does not achieve the near perfection of his two previous ventures, it’s not terrible, and it definitely beats 50’s boring offering. Both West and 50 have taken a step down on these albums, but at least West started on a higher plane.
West is best as a producer, and the tragedy of this album is that his production is becoming less “Kanye,” and more “50.” Most of the songs sound too thick, with too much messy orchestral synth garbling the bare and efficient beats that marked his past work.
The production on 50 Cent’s album is far worse. Though he snagged a diverse team of artists ranging from Timabland to Havoc, most beats sound like they were drawn from the boring fountain of mainstream hip-hop that won’t stop flowing.
It was startling to see 50 Cent greet cheering fans on “106 & Park,” people who, presumably, actually enjoy hearing about his gangster and hustler lifestyle for the umpteenth time, in the exact same way as before. But then again, if Bush hand-selected the crowds of supporters at his presidential rallies, why can’t 50?
The paradox about “Curtis” is that, while all the songs are equally boring, there is no flow or unity to the album. Each song ostensibly deals with themes of violence, money and sex, but this is achieved either by repeating evocative words over and over (“Fully Loaded Clip”) or by using vague and disturbing innuendos that never really say anything interesting, much less address the subject directly (“Amusement Park”).
In this respect West again outperforms 50, but still Mr. West’s album lacks the important messages that made his previous work so powerful. There is no “Jesus Walks,” “Roses” or “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” here. West’s lack of lyrical prowess can be forgiven when he’s saying something really moving, but on “Graduation” the most interesting topic he tackles is his wonderment (on “I Wonder”) about “what it all really mean.”
West is not a bad rapper (and is arguably more lyrically inventive than 50 Cent), but many of his album’s high points occur when he lets others take the microphone. West has a skill for crafting beats that complement a guest artist’s style: Lil’ Wayne’s verse on “Barry Bonds” totally justifies the gritty and sparse beat. It’s hard not to notice, though, the irony of comparing the home run hits of the Giants’ big steroid user to West’s suddenly hollow hit tracks.
In the song “Stronger,” West asks the question: “Does anybody make real shit anymore?” Good question. Both 50 Cent and Kanye West should ask this of themselves.
This fall, a hip-hop fan’s best bet may be to simply go for the third-party dark horse: Talib Kweli. The veteran’s new album “Ear Drum,” released last August, is full of high points, beats both “Curtis” and “Graduation” hands down and continues to cement the artist’s reputation as one of the best rappers alive.
Read Will Alden’s review of 50 Cent’s “Ayo Technology” on www.yaledailynews.com/blogs/sceneandheard