Friday, September 14, 2007

50 vs. Kanye

When it comes to music, I've been out of the loop for a while. I didn't even realize there was a new Rogue Wave album and it took me over a week to finally listen to Ben Harper's new one. In fact, other than the latest Rilo Kiley offering, I can't remember the last time a new album become a key part of my day. Obviously, this is one of the many costs of working 60-hour weeks.

Luckily, the big 50 Cent and Kanye West duel popped up this week to ease me out of my slumber.

These are two artists that I've been following closely for pretty much this entire decade; 50 when he was the most feared and relentless underground rapper I can ever remember and Kanye when he was the masterful and anonymous sound behind some of Jay-Z's best work ever ("Kanye, you did it again; you're a genius!"). They both burst onto the scene as mainstream solo artists in a way that struck people as "out of nowhere," when really it was more of a "long time coming" kind of thing. They each dropped a debut that was met with both critical acclaim and massive commercial success. They quickly became known for their particular brands of charisma, their eccentric behavior, their massive egos, and their iconic videos and anthems. And while Kanye continued to expand his producer image behind the scenes (seriously, who has a bigger imprint in popular music right now?), 50 turned himself into a brand name that would make even P Diddy feel lazy. Trust me, the these two fellows are more similar than they are different.

However, this week of simultaneous 9/11 releases saw these two artists go in completely different directions. It's not just that Graduation is amazing while Curtis is dog poop (even though that is true), but rather that Kanye continued his trend of self-revelation and experimentation and commitment to the art form, while 50 Cent just recycled the same old formula and burned it onto a bunch of compact discs.

I'll start with 50's release. Curtis probably isn't bad as everyone is saying. There are a few "bangers" (as the kids are saying these days) on there and a lot of the production is technically solid. It's certainly a better collection of rap songs than we got on The Massacre, but that's not saying much. The problem is that it is just a copy of a copy of a copy. More specifically, it is a copy of a copy of Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. This is a problem. Where were all the soul samples that 50 was supposedly going to incorporate into this album? For that matter, where was the outstanding reported title of Before I Self Destruct? It is obvious that 50 has no hunger and probably no time to spend in the studio, because he just mailed this thing in. I will never turn on 50 like so many have and I'll always maintain that he was once great, but he's certainly not anymore. As an artist, he relies on passion and anger and whatever fueled his creative drive. In that way, he's like a less talented Eminem - massive success hasn't done either of them many favors as rappers. And that is why Curtis is unmemorable and disappointing and totally expected all at once. We all know that the old 50 is gone and is never coming back. And you know what? Good for him that he's not so full of pain and anger anymore. But bad for us.

Meanwhile, it seems that success only breads contempt for Kanye West. Contempt for the industry, the world, whatever. Over the course of three albums he has remade himself from a happy-go-lucky braggart into a egomaniac and then into an isolationist. But unlike 50, Kanye's journey has pushed him creatively. Every album tries more crazy things and features better songs and showcases even more exceptional composition skills. The man knows how to put a rap album together, that is for sure. And maybe I turned into a bit of a homer where rap is concerned after my time in Chicago, but I could honestly drop every single hip-hop artist that isn't from Chicago from my iTunes catalog and not suffer in the least. Give me Kanye and Common and Lupe and Rhymefest and I'm all good.

All told, I couldn't be happier to see Kanye bring the goods yet again ... although a small part of me wishes it had been Public Enemy #1 50 Cent that performed the trick.