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.

Yung Joc -- Hustlenomics

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pros: Several catchy songs that would get any party jumping.

Cons: Rushed album gave Joc no chance to match debut.

Bottom Line:
Sophomore slump could derail Joc's career.

Recommended Tracks:

Play Your Cards

Bottle Poppin

In a strange bit of irony, Yung Joc's new album Hustlenomics is an almost textbook example of a hustle:

1. Capitalize on a brand name while consumers still have a positive association with it. Hustlenomics was rushed to the market a little more than a year after Joc's breakthrough New Joc City. The lead-off single Coffee Shop was released two months after the last single from New Joc City peaked on the charts.

2. Associate the product with as many big names as possible. Though New Joc City became a surprise hit thanks to the synthesizer-heavy chemistry between Joc and producer-mentor Nitti, Hustlenomics has a long list of A-listers thrown haphazardly together: Diddy, Game, the Neptunes, Snoop Dogg and Jazze Pha.

3. Make an appeal to every demographic, regardless of the product's strengths. Joc's fan base is primarily teenagers and party-goers (he has toured with Omarion, Ne-Yo, Ciara and T-Pain). And after an album of clubbing and bottle-popping, his gangsta raps ("You don't want no static / holes through your chest hard to breathe like asthmatics”) feel forced.

Joc’s laid-back drawl and raspy voice work well with up-tempo synthesizer songs like his breakthrough hit It’s Goin Down or the Cool & Dre produced Play Your Cards. He’s likeable enough to deliver drug-dealing rhymes ("First I take they order like a coffee shop / Then I steam it up and cook it like the coffee shop") alongside a children's chorus without seeming out of place.

But instead of letting Joc build on his promising debut, Bad Boy decided to make a quick buck. For all his talk of "teaching you how to hustle," he hasn't figured out who the real hustlers in the rap game are.

UGK -- Underground Kingz

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Long-awaited collaborations with fellow Southern greats
don't disappoint.

Cons: Bloated two-disc tracklist will thrill long-time fans, exhaust
the uninitiated.

Bottom Line:
UGK makes a triumphant return with Pimp C out
of jail.

Recommended Tracks:

International Playaz Anthem

How Long Can It Last

Before Southern rap dominated the airwaves and long before Big Pimpin, Bun B and Pimp C "put out a record at the age of sixteen / rapping about moving work, candy paint and sipping lean." Fifteen years later, not much has changed, as the two Port Arthur rappers follow this same formula over laid-back bass lines and sparse '70s soul samples.

Their unique sound influenced a generation of rappers. And while those same rappers (Jeezy, T.I.) tweaked that blueprint to sell millions of records, UGK stubbornly stuck to their guns.

Underground Kingz, like their previous work, is a relentless chronicle of the street life – cars (Candy), women (Like That) and drugs (Cocaine). But as Bun B makes explicit on How Long Can It Last, it's not a lifestyle they're terribly proud of: "People think hustling is cool or hustling is live / They don't understand hustlers only hustling to survive / They wish they daddy was home, mama wasn't on drugs / And they didn't have to grow up to be dealers and thugs."

The duo share a unique chemistry, which they showcase International Playaz Anthem, the brilliant first single with Outkast. Over a lush loop of a Willie Hutch song, Pimp C's flamboyant charisma makes an undeniably crass verse about pimping seem endearing. Bun B is the thoughtful lyricist, mirroring the menacing drum line perfectly.

At more than two hours long, "Underground Kingz" is equal parts exhausting, uncompromising and triumphant. There is a great album buried somewhere in the midst of its 28 songs, but the listener will have to dig to find it. You get the feeling UGK wouldn't have it any other way.

Common -- Finding Forever

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Best songs rival any in his catalogue.

Cons: Kanye's attempts at imitating J Dilla's sound fall flat.

Bottom Line:
Inconsistent album is weighed down by too many
dreary and forgettable songs.

Recommended Tracks:


"So Far To Go"

Common explains his new album’s title (“Finding Forever”) on its final lines: "It was in the wind when she said Dilla was gone / That's why I know we live forever through song."

J Dilla, a legendary underground producer and one of Common's longtime collaborators, died last year after a long struggle with a rare blood disease. And although he only produced one track, his presence is felt throughout — Kanye West, who produced the majority of the album, made a conscious effort to imitate Dilla's distinct neo-soul sound.

In that sense, "Finding Forever" sounds like what you’d expect of a Common album. And though lead-off single "The People" and epic closing opus "Forever Begins" prove he hasn't lost his edge, the album's familiarity is a little disappointing.

Not only has Common rapped on J Dilla-esque beats since 2000's "Like Water for Chocolate," but West's ubiquity makes it feel like a less inspired reprise of 2005's "Be." Worse many of his stories – a ballplayer caught in the hood, a stripper dreaming of a better life – feel as stale as the beats.

Just because music isn't top-100 oriented doesn't make it deep – too often Common and West aim for serious and end up sounding pretentious. The album comes alive when they stop taking themselves so seriously, especially on “Southside”, the Chicago anthem where they trade whimsical rhymes over a hard-hitting guitar lick.

Not surprisingly, the Dilla-inspired album sounds best on the one Dilla-produced track ("So Far To Go") where the evocative and understated instrumentation blend beautifully with the D'Angelo assisted vocals. Subtlety has never been West's strong point, and his attempts at aping Dilla's restrained sound ("Black Maybe," "Break My Heart") are dreary and forgettable.

Common made classics with J Dilla (2000's "The Light"), but time always marches forward, and if he wants to continue making timeless music he can't keep looking back.

T.I. -- T.I. vs. T.I.P.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pro: T.I.'s technical skills as a rapper continue to improve.

Con: After four albums in five years, he's running out of
things to say.

Bottom Line: A rare miss for a normally consistent rapper.

Recommended Tracks:

Big Shit Poppin

Respect This Hustle

T.I. declared himself “King of the South” when he was a little-known local act out of Atlanta. He earned the title in 2006 with a Hollywood movie and the year’s best-selling rap album. The aptly named KING served as the culmination of a career of striving, spawning two Billboard hits and a Grammy nomination.

But the shadow of his previous success looms over his follow-up T.I. vs. T.I.P. After dedicating his career to reaching the throne, he seems unsure what to do now that he has it. The album’s narrative concept, the struggle between two sides of his personality — T.I. the mature businessman and T.I.P. the hotheaded gangster — is recycled verbatim from a 2003 song.

So he falls back on the subject he is most comfortable with — himself. While he previously balanced his arrogance with introspection, T.I. vs. T.I.P. has songs chronicling his style (My Swag; We Do This) and his toughness (Hurt). Even he seems bored on his lackluster second single You Know What It Is: "Chart topping ain't a car I ain't got / Number one customer at my own car lot."

Without longtime producer DJ Toomp, the album lacks an anthemic single like What You Know or Rubberband Man. Instead there is a string of synthesizer-heavy beats jam-packed with some of the biggest names in rap (Jay-Z, Eminem, Nelly). The rapid-fire flow he has gradually adopted over the years is near flawless. The shame is, as his skills on the mike continue to improve, he has increasingly less to actually say.