Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Showdown -- Kanye vs. 50

Album: Kanye West Graduation

4/5 stars

Pros: New minimalist sound keeps album sounding fresh.

Cons: His self-absorption and egotism are becoming increasingly
hard to take.

Bottom Line:
Graduation makes strong case for album of the year.

Recommended Tracks:

Good Life

Everything I Am

Album: 50 Cent Curtis

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Consistent album with very few misses.

Cons: Uninspired work breaks no new ground lyrically or musically.

Bottom Line: How many times can 50 remake Get Rich or Die Tryin?

Recommended Tracks:

I Get Money

Ayo Technology

The Kanye West/50 Cent showdown is finally here. From the Rolling Stone cover to 50's conditional retirement (if Kanye outsold him) announcement, the rappers have masterfully hyped today's releases of Graduation and Curtis for months.

But they face a challenge bigger than outselling each other. Not only are they being counted on to reverse rap's nosedive on the charts (2006 saw a 21 percent drop in album sales), but also to breathe new life into a genre that Nas famously declared "dead" a year ago.

And although they reside on opposite sides of the hip-hop spectrum, their rise to the top is similar. As gangsta rap exploded in popularity in the '90s, it no longer became enough to deal drugs on wax; to rap required a rap sheet. The entire industry became obsessed with keeping it as real as possible — with 50 and his nine bullet holes the logical conclusion. Less than a year later, Kanye rose to super-stardom by flipping "realness" on its head — reveling in his insecurities and not-so-subtly positioning himself as the antidote to 50's macho posturing.

"Realness" was the selling point for their groundbreaking debuts — Kanye's College Dropout and 50's Get Rich or Die Tryin. Two albums later, they're no longer lovable underdogs, but international mega-stars. Fame has dramatically altered their lives, how would it affect their music?

Curtis high point is the aptly titled I Get Money. Over a blistering beat that combines a retro '80s rap sample with menacing synthesizers, he reminds us that: "I take quarter water and sold it in bottles for two bucks / then Coca-Cola came and bought it for billions, what the f*ck?"

An earlier single is even more explicit, as 50 and Tony Yayo laugh Straight to the Bank: "I ain't even got to rap now, life is made / Said I ain't even got to rap, I'm filthy made." OK, he's rich, now what? It's a question Curtis never really answers.

Lyrically, he hasn't progressed at all, recycling the same themes from his first two albums. He's either a killer still walking the streets (see: My Gun, Man Down, I'll Still Kill) or a thug with a soft side (see: duets with Mary J. Blige and Robin Thicke). Things bottom out with the failed first single Amusement Park, a remake of the already heavily recycled Candy Shop.

But songwriting, not lyricism, made 50 who he is. That's Curtis’s biggest surprise — there aren't many hits. Before The Massacre was released, he had four songs in the Billboard Top 10; only Ayo Technology is likely to make much such noise on the charts. And that has more to do with the Timberlake/Timbaland tandem than 50's superfluous verses.

The production, farmed out to a roster of no-names, is functional — the melodies won't stick in your head, but they'll keep it nodding. Curtis, essentially a less-inspired remake of Get Rich, is an unrepentant New York gangsta rap album. It should satisfy his fans, but even a salesman as good as 50 can't resell the same product forever.

While 50 steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that his life has changed ("I ain't fresh out the hood / I'm still in the hood"), Kanye can't stop talking about it. Graduation is his most personal album yet, in the sense that Kanye West is the only real subject.

The social commentary of his earlier works is markedly absent: "Say goodbye to the NAACP award / I'd rather get the 'I got a lot of cheese' award." Whether he's rubbing his success in his doubter's faces (Can't Tell Me Nothing) or exulting in the Good Life with T-Pain, Graduation is a defiant celebration of his career.

Kanye has never been afraid to take risks musically, and Graduation is no exception. While many songs are still rooted in familiar samples (Michael Jackson on Good Life, Daft Punk on Stronger), he opts for a minimalist approach around them — light synthesizers, airy drums and soulful piano chords — instead of the grand hip-hop orchestrations of Late Registration. The result is a futuristic sound that, befitting the album’s celebratory feel, is almost impossibly cheerful.

This accentuates Kanye the MC, for better or worse. More than ever, he sounds like a star: charismatic enough to remain likeable as he delivers increasingly absurd raps: "I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / When I awoke I spent that on a necklace / I told God I'd be back in a second / I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny / And what I do? Act more stupidly." Yet his technical skills are still barely passable — flowing like an older roller-coaster picking up speed as it barrels downhill, just barely staying on top of the beat and the edge of disaster.

50 and Kanye aren't just rappers anymore; they're celebrities. Ignore that celebrity in your raps too much and you become a self-parody (Snoop Dogg), but embrace its insanity too fully and you become an uninteresting bore (see Eminem's appearance on 50's Peep Show). At times in their third albums, both fail to manage that balancing act.

If they want to stay relevant, they had better learn how.

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