Two of the biggest-selling artists of the last four years go head-to-head Tuesday in the record stores with new albums: Kanye West's "Graduation" (Good/Roc-A-Fella) and 50 Cent's "Curtis" (Aftermath/Interscope).
It's a big day not just for West and 50, but for the ailing music industry. With sales down 30 percent this year, the major labels that have dominated music for the last half-century are in need of a blockbuster album (seven or eight of them, actually) as the holiday buying season looms into view. Hip-hop in particular is tanking. In the `90s the genre led the surge in CD sales. Now it's in the doldrums, with only three of the top-20 best-selling titles of 2007.
Though the industry blames rampant Internet file-sharing for its problems, the music itself is just as culpable. Mainstream hip-hop has been in a creative rut, and West and 50 Cent are being counted on as saviors.
West has done his part. "Graduation" isn't a masterpiece, but it's an ambitious album loaded with sonic invention and grounded in West's almost desperate sincerity. Even when he's bragging, he sounds somehow needy, and humor undercuts his petulance. The rapper dares to be vulnerable, while his music brims with melodic forget-me-not's. On each of his three albums, West has flipped the formula, and worked with a new sonic blueprint each time. On "Graduation," his approach is simpler and more economical, the hooks more insistent, the strokes broader.
In recent weeks, West has been playing the album for groups of listeners around the world and campaigning for it. Explicit in this strategy is the notion that quality music alone is the key to enticing listeners back into the record stores.
In contrast, 50 Cent's most resonant statements recently have not been musical. The singles released from "Curtis" have been lackluster, but the rapper has done a terrific job hyping the album's release date. He said he'd retire if he didn't outsell West, and the threat/promise has had the desired effect, with the media picking up the story and turning it into the equivalent of a pro-wrestling showdown. In one corner, there's West, the arty nerd-turned-producer from Chicago's middle-class South Side. In the other, there's 50, the former crack dealer and gunshot victim turned gangsta rapper from New York's inner city.
The "feud" has benefited both rappers; the pair faces off on the cover of the current Rolling Stone. West has publicly thanked 50 for inspiring the media into doing the rappers' jobs for them.
50, born Curtis Jackson III, has never been shy about selling himself. He is among the savviest businessmen in music this side of Jay-Z; his name has been associated with everything from movies and gym shoes to vitamin drinks and condoms. Forbes magazine recently estimated his personal fortune at $32 million.
What's more, 50's hype-generating acumen goes back much further than his war of words with West. In the past, he's picked fights with rappers Ja Rule, the Game and Cam'ron to keep the commercial fires stoked.
As an artist, however, 50 is more symbolic of what's wrong with the music business than what's needed to bail it out. 50's skills as a rapper were initially championed by Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay and later Eminem as he built his reputation on underground mix tapes. His unhurried flow amped up his aura as a street thug not to be messed with, while his feel for hooks - the sing-songy chorus, the insistent catchphrase - turned him into a hard-edged star on commercial radio. As 50 Cent reminded interviewers and crowed on his songs, he was a former drug-dealer who had been shot nine times - nine times! - and lived to tell about it.
His music has succeeded by turning that street-warrior image into a cartoon. On his first two albums, "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " (2003) and "The Massacre" (2005), 50 mugged like a snarling ghetto superhero with bulging pecs and biceps. The black-and-white cover of "Curtis" hints at a more introspective tack. The rapper furrowed brow and intense gaze radiate seriousness, maturity, complexity. But the music is even emptier and more nihilistic than before.
The album kicks off with the sound of gunshots and a string of songs gorged in blood. "It's not a war when the casualties are all on one side," 50 crows. "I'll Still Kill" warns that despite his riches, the narrator won't hesitate to pull the trigger on his foes: "Don't even look at me wrong when I come through the `hood," sings guest vocalist Akon. "Man Down" portrays a thrice-convicted criminal who will kill to avoid being imprisoned.
He swings the same sledgehammer when extolling his riches or sexual prowess. With the exception of the relatively tender "Follow My Lead," the rapper never drops his thug pose.
Ominous production saturates "Curtis," the narratives framed by eerie backdrops constructed out of beehive keyboards ("I Get Money") and stabbing strings ("Bring `Em In"). A few cameos add much-needed color: Mary J. Blige demands equal time in "All of Me" and Timbaland and Justin Timberlake conspire to pile on the hooks in "Ayo Technology." But "All of Me" typecasts the Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger as a high-priced hooker, and "Peep Show" wastes Eminem on baser-than-usual smut.
In "Movin' Up," 50 Cent berates rappers for copying his style. It's a laughable claim, given how cynical and cliched much of this album is. Particularly lame are "Amusement Park," an abysmal extended metaphor about the rapper's personal playground of pleasure zones, and "Straight to the Bank," which turns a staccato laugh into one of the year's most annoying hooks.
All the trash talking turns out to be just a smokescreen for an album all too satisfied with itself. At a time when consumers are expressing their dissatisfaction with music-industry product in the most direct way possible - by refusing to pay for it - 50 Cent is giving them exactly what they say they don't want: More of the same.