Can he break a 50?

September 11, 2007


  • Today's release of the anticipated third albums by hip-hop superstars Kanye West and 50 Cent has prompted a much-publicized race for No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, even if some observers believe country star Kenny Chesney may top both rappers.

    On one level, this latest hip-hop feud is a useful marketing tool devised by two master pitchmen, though Fiddy's been much more aggressive in hyping the showdown. He has even threatened to quit making music if West outsells him this week.

    But the competition has a deeper meaning. Since the early '90s, gangsta rap has been the dominant sound in hip-hop, with lyrics full of misogyny and the glorification of drugs and violence and music powered by lowest-common-denominator party grooves and simplistic hooks. The sound has long since become a tedious cliche, but the more inventive music and thought-provoking messages of what was once called alternative rap continue to be dismissed by some fans as "soft" and inauthentic.

    With the 2004 release of his debut album "The College Dropout" and its 2005 follow-up "Late Registration," West signaled an overdue sea change. His everyman tales of growing up as a middle-class African American on Chicago's South Side and his musical mix of altered samples from dusty soul classics with lush orchestral strings connected critically and commercially, providing a welcome alternative to gangsta-rap cartoons such as "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " (2003) and "The Massacre" (2005), the first two releases by New Yorker 50 Cent.

    Born Curtis Jackson III, Fiddy began selling crack on the streets of Jamaica, Queens, at age 12. That career ended after a stint in prison and an infamous incident in 2000 in which he was shot nine times at close range. Still, the rapper never grew tired of boasting about these exploits -- or of dissing women -- while simultaneously criticizing peers who tried to say something more meaningful.

    Overlooked in coverage of the beef between the two 30-year-old rappers is the fact that it started in 2005, when 50 Cent took issue with West's infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" comment. For this fan, the most tiresome aspect of West's big mouth has been his penchant for whining whenever he loses an award, as he did again after Sunday's shutout at the MTV Video Music Awards. But one of the freshest things about "Graduation" is that he addresses this topic head-on, humorously owning up to his mistakes ("I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/And what I do? Act more stupidly,"), his rampant egotism ("My head so big, you can't sit behind me") and the roots of both in his insecurities about not being gangsta enough.

    " 'Cause they want gun-talk, or I don't wear enough /Baggy clothes, Reeboks, or A-di-das," West raps in "Everything I Am." "So say/They'd rather give me the nigga-please award/But I'll just take the I-got-a lotta-cheese award."

    This kind of self-deprecating honesty is rare in a rap world obsessed with fronting, but it permeates West's new disc, whether he's offering a cautionary tale about the allure of groupies in "Drunk & Hot Girls," or frankly examining the mix of admiration and jealousy in his relationship with his mentor Jay-Z in "Big Brother."

    Meanwhile, just when many listeners thought West's hitmaking formula was carved in stone, he reinvents himself by injecting the exciting new elements of electronic drums and synthesizers and ranging far and wide to find some surprising hooks in samples from fusion legends Steely Dan, forgotten folkie Laura Nyro, the French techno duo Daft Punk and Can, the German psychedelic-rock band of the early '70s.

    It all adds up to one of the most invigorating, inviting and startlingly creative hip-hop releases in years -- and the third unequivocal masterpiece of this career.

    The contrast between "Graduation" and "Curtis" couldn't be more dramatic. In the past, one of 50 Cent's strengths has been his own unerring ear for hooks, updating the basic West Coast sound pioneered by Dr. Dre with a darker, East Coast edge. But the melodies and beats powering new tracks such as "My Gun," "I'll Still Kill" and "Fully Loaded Clip" are as lazy, mind-numbingly repetitive and thoroughly played out as the gun fetishism hinted at in those titles (and driven home in the lyrics).

    The violence and sexism were already pathetic on "The Massacre," but hard as it may be to believe, 50 Cent stoops even lower here while cynically bragging about his own greed and nihilism (and giving shout-outs to mentors Dr. Dre, Eminem and label chief Jimmy Iovine) in "Straight to the Bank": "When I made 50 mil, Em got paid/When I made 60 mil, Dre got paid/When I made 80 mil, Jimmy got paid/I ain't even gotta rap now life is made ... I'm laughin' straight to the bank with this/Ha, ha-ha-ha-ha- ha/Ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha."

    Unlike West, 50 Cent isn't laughing with the fans who listen to his records -- he's laughing at them. But regardless of which album wins the race to the top of the pops, the biggest joke here is on anyone deaf or deluded enough to think that the future of hip-hop is in the crass, corrupt and hate-filled direction championed by Fiddy rather than the boundlessly creative and deeply rewarding path being forged by West. Ha-ha, indeed.