So it’s the day of the big showdown. I’ve heard both releases, thanks to iTunes and the ability to preorder, and here’s where I weigh in.
I became a Kanye fan after his first album, became somewhat less of a fan after his second, and became even less of a fan after his string of singles/cameos that followed. There was little to nothing redeeming on his mixtapes, too. It wasn’t that I disliked his second album, it just wasn’t revelatory. It still had quite a few good singles.
I became a 50 fan after hearing “How to Rob.” I became a less of a fan after his first album, when Game completely stole “Hate It Or Love It.” But the power of 21 Questions and In Da Club was undeniable. I became even less of a fan after “The Massacre,” but there were still tracks there to admire. Then his posse projects ruined him for all but a few mixtape cuts. But then he had a few hot bars with Eminem on the The Reup album.
So, both Kanye and 50 find themselves facing roughly the same prejudice, at least from me: They’ve faded, and they need to prove their worth.
Do they succeed?
First: Kanye. “Graduation” was a nice surprise for me. The production is much better than either of Kanye’s first two records—every single track has a building intensity impervious to boredome. The tracks are far less complex that those on his first two albums, but at the same time their comparative simplicity makes them catchier. Musically, at least, if tracks don’t make you nod your head, you just don’t like good beats.
Lyrically, Kanye has allowed himself to become something of a cipher. He claims to have a higher consciousness, and affiliates himself with truly witty and insightful lyricists like Talib, Mos Def, and Common, yet Kanye is undeniably in love with his bling, too. A s a result, he ends up trying to come off like Jay-Z much of the time, espousing a “don’t hate me ‘cause I’m rich/don’t love me ‘cause I’m rich” philosophy. I don’t compare him to Jay lightly–Kanye invites the comparison, himself, several times on the album. Unfortunately for Kanye, he can’t pull it off as easy as Jayhova, perhaps because West lacks the street cred of his self-proclaimed bigger brother. He’s also never had much of a sense of humor about himself, something that always helped Jay sell his most over-the-top anthems (like Hard Knock Life). And as for humility, I believed Jay when he said that he didn’t think he was as good a lyricist as Kanye. As nice and sweet as Big Brother is, Kanye sounds somewhat disingenuous while he apologizes to Jay-Z for having had a swelled head and called him out in public. But I admit, the best part of Big Brother is trying to figure out when he’s lying. (Did Jay really steal the idea of doing a Chris Martin duet? Does Kanye really believe that without Jay he’d have no career, in contrast to the self-congratulatory figure he cuts in most interviews?)
Still, there’s only two cuts on the entire album that I immediately disliked: Drunk and Hot Girls, which takes the usually smart Mos Def and dumbs him down; and Homecoming (if I never hear Chris Martin again, I’ll be happy). On the flip side, there were several songs that immediately liked a lot: Flashing Lights is a standout track, with Kanye taking a stab at electronica but adding a smooth Dwele hook. (Compare it to Fiddy’s cut with Akon, and tell me which sounds more soulful. I like Akon and all, but this track blows 50’s song away.) Also high on my list are Champion, Stronger (the Daft Punk sample song), Can’t Tell Me Nothing . . . More than half of the album is really good, actually.
In all, “Graduation” is a top-notch corporate rap album. It’s nowhere near as creative, insightful, insidious, or catchy as a true hip hop record (i.e., backpacker, mixtape, or underground), but it’s got solid mass-market “rockin’ the suburbs” material.
My reaction to “Curtis” is as opposite as possible. Whereas “Graduation” has several great tracks and few complete duds, “Curtis” has nearly all clunkers. Every song has similar beats, similar lyrics, and similar delivery. The agile and witty, funny and brash Fiddy is finally dead. Amusement Park is stupid and Straight to the Bank, with that little laugh he puts in, just gives me douche chills. The best 50 verses, on Fully Loaded Clip, would have been much better if he’d dropped it six years ago. First of all, he already did this on How To Rob. Second, he’s not a believable gangsta anymore. It sounds stale. The Game has moved into this territory, and he’s a much more menacing rapper. Maybe the whole reason 50 said he’d quit if didn’t outsell Kanye is because 50 is bored. He sure sounds it.
Even the Eminem cameo (Peep Show) is juvenile, displaying little of the wit, sarcasm, or charm we heard on How To Rob, In Da Club, or even Candy Shop. And as for the the Timbaland/Timberlake collaboration, Ayo Technology, it is just awful. How it’s already charted is beyond me. And for crissake . . . A duet with Robin Thicke? The sole ray of sunshine here is Mary J’s track, where 50 wisely steps back and lets the diva belt it out.
“Curtis” is exactly what corporate rap moguls look for: Lots of big name guest stars, recycled hit beats, and songs that not only obviously were created solely to make money, but also can’t stop talking about it (I Get Money; Straight to the Bank). I might have enjoyed this record more if I didn’t know who 50 was, but knowing how long he’s been in the business, I find it a crushing disappointment.
So, Kanye Graduates, with a solid B. Curtis fails. But if it’s really good hip hop you won’t, spend your money on Brother Ali’s 2007 release.
Clap Them Thangs-Bobb Deep (with 50 Cent)
Massacre of 50-Fat Joe
Milkshake Freestyle-Kanye West w/Common, Neptunes
Purple and Blue-50 Cent and Eminem
Did it Before-Lil’ Wayne (Produced by Kanye West)