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The best moment from the just-aired MTV Video Music Awards: Kanye West and 50 Cent walking onstage from opposite sides to present an award together. The two looked kind of genuinely surprised to see each other (I refuse to believe 50 is that good an actor), surprised and not pleased. They marched toward each other, wordless, just getting in each other's face as if a fist fight were imminent, and that was when West bust the hilarious move of standing on his tiptoes, reaching for 50 Cent's height. What's more is that West did it with a totally straight face. After that, the two just read off the nominees for the award they were presenting, the silence between them continuing. Of course anyone who hasn't been under a musical rock for the past week is already well aware of the "beef" between the two, 50 Cent having threatened to quit music if outsold on Tuesday's release date by West.
I can't imagine a more perfect visual metaphor for the Kanye/50 showdown that has been brewing of late than the pair's MTV appearance. This being Wednesday, the following persona analysis comes after yesterday's official numbers, Kanye West having already flagged his summit on Billboard by selling some 200,000 more albums than 50 Cent. So I'm basically here to provide a fascinating time capsule for the loyal LAS readers of 2017, an accurate picture of how this truly newsworthy musical brinkmanship between two hip-hop megastars. You can spin it many ways: Good vs. Evil, Art vs. Commerce, even Democrat vs. Republican. But any way you dice it, the Kanye/50 showdown is a compelling meeting between beacons of two very distant corners of hip-hop, and the albums should be sized up on merit as well as sales numbers.
Rating: 7.0/10 ?
Rating: 9.1/10 ?
In the left corner, the Challenger: He is a raucous and highly acclaimed producer-turned-rap-superstar, with a huge hit about Jesus and seven famous, well-televised words for the U.S. president. He possesses the arrogance and desire for universality of a hip-hop Bono; he's never sold ten million records, but his sales and hits are more than sizable. He's won the world's largest critics' poll twice in a row, a feat previously matched only once, by the Clash, more than twenty years ago. Yet in spite of his credentials, he becomes most agitated when he loses awards to has-beens like Ray Charles, although it should be noted that he had the sense of humor to sample the guy on yet another huge hit afterwards.
In the right, the longtime Champion: He is a known troublemaker, a guy who bought a crack brick with his first major record advance (a smart move it turns out, as the deal fizzled), ended once-ubiquitous thug-popster Ja Rule's entire career, and put over one of rap's all-time best-selling albums on his dangerous reputation and street cred. alone. He has no interest in critical reviews of his music or in winning awards or even making friends; even his much maligned second-album was the second best-selling album in the country that year. He plays his chart clout like poker chips, pledging to quit rap entirely if the challenger sells more records. Oh, and he was shot nine times.
The Verdict: They're making the right move, these two. For starters, this is a guilt-free feud: the MTV appearance and its parallel Rolling Stone cover and all the willingness to work the publicity together, in tandem, is more than enough evidence that no one involved needs to suit up in Kevlar. They're doing it for the showbiz. They even upped the ante with entertaining rival "pop" armies on the records in question. On 50 Cent's side, we have the Famouses: Billboard turf-mongers Akon, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. Even noncombatant Mary J. Blige is continually unthreatened in her watchful niche over the current R&B landscape. On the other sited, West brings forth the Critically Acclaimeds, underdogs like himself, both perennial and wet behind the ears: T-Pain, Mos Def, Lil' Wayne, Daft Punk, and if his mixtape counts, Common, Jennifer Hudson and Peter Bjorn & John. 50 Cent's collaborators can toss off their garbage; their names alone guarantee a hit, while even Kanye's top wingmen like Common and T-Pain haven't been at the top very long, or in Lil' Wayne's case not at all.
I'd like to believe that settling this publicity beef will come down to the artistry of the records themselves, but that is a tough, tough bluff. 50 Cent's airtight piece of product is all steroids with very little skeleton, with the barely-a-hit "Ayo Technology," as professional a single as Midas tag-team Timberlake and Timbaland have released in a stream of professional singles. Not a word of 50 Cent's rapping hasn't left the lips of another rapper or himself already, and every single beat on display is a retread of a proven hit. None of these qualities make Curtis, as is widely mistaken, a bad record. It is a remarkably hollow record, with less insight or knowledge on display three albums into a recording career than say, a rerun of Hannah Montana.
But the whole of these very unstable parts is an impressive show of consistency. Nothing on Curtis is great, but everything is listenable or better: "Amusement Park" bests "Candy Shop" simply by being more nondescript, and "Come and Go" works a catchier Dre-knockoff beat and call-response chorus than anything on last year's Game album. Occasionally Curtis delivers a real payoff, like Mary J. Blige's actually-trying heartache soul on "All of Me," or 50's uproarious send-up of his own villainy on "I Get Money" ("Have a baby by me baby, be a millionaire/ I write the check before the baby comes, who the fuck cares,"). There is, however, a chink in Curtis' armor that the great compensator would rather you not notice, and that is the insecurity that brings his bullying full circle. 50 Cent named his album Curtis to show the less visible Cam'ron how he could give a fuck about beefing. But then he did give a fuck, or else he wouldn't have acknowledged Cam's YouTube-hit playground taunts of "Cuuuuuuuuuurtis," with the very title of his album.
Kanye West, however, is more out in the open with his new joint, and he knows his chances are tough. So he slimmed down his arsenal to the bare essentials, folding in mainstream pleasers like Coldplay and blog-foggers like Can while omitting annoying skits, stale introductions and bloated orchestrations. Every track on Graduation is a delight, loaded with replayable hooks (Steely Dan on "Champion" is an easy favorite) and impressive quotables ("Say goodbye to the NAACP award/ goodbye to the India.Arie award/ they'd rather give me the 'Nigga, please' award"). Throughout Graduation's course, West examines his character flaws every few tracks in a manner that's neither pitying nor arrogant, a practice that peaks on the secret sing-along, "Can't Tell Me Nothin'," and the gorgeous, piano-flecked "Everything I Am."
Breaking it down, Graduation is a true achievement for Kanye West, an artist who has yet to show signs of slowing down after proving himself over and over. Weighed and measured, Graduation is easily the best rap album this year. If 50 Cent's Curtis had beat it to the #1 spot on the sales charts yesterday, it would have been a blessing; as long as West always stays hungry, is continually willing to challenge and then top himself and everyone else all over again, hip-hop is in good shape. SEE ALSO: www.kanyewest.com
SEE ALSO: www.50cent.com
SEE ALSO: www.rocafella.com
SEE ALSO: www.g-unitsoldier.com
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.
See other articles by Dan Weiss.
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