Like other musical genres of the 20th Century, hip-hop was considered a fad in its early days. Over the last thirty years or so, it finally gained enough sales clout to earn some respect, but it continues to labor to maintain its credibility and creative strengths in mainstream America. As a lover of hip-hop, I want it to be around for years to come, not only as a fringe genre, but as a popular one. But how can that be achieved without miring in its current form of bitches, bling and bullets?
One sign came last week with the simultaneous release of new albums from Kanye West and 50 Cent. Fifty’s third album, Curtis, was pushed back from June and its issue then lined up with West’s third album Graduation. A simple record release date was hyped up like a clash of boxers battling for the heavyweight crown.
In one corner stands Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. He operates in the gangsta rap mode and is viewed as an authentic musical figure having been a drug dealer and surviving nine gunshots at close range during the early days of his rap career. In the other corner stands Kanye West. He took an outstanding reputation as a producer and leveraged it into a career as a rapper. He’s as famous for his mouth, having made a series of comments over the past few years about feeling unrewarded by various music awards. He also famously made a comment of George Bush’s feeling towards African Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
On September 11th, the fight began. Given each of their controversial high profiles, and their differing musical styles, it’s tempting to regard this battle between Fifty and West as a fight for the soul of hip-hop, but now that the results are in and the first round has been scored, it will probably turn out to be more of a minor meaningless skirmish in the bigger commercial conflict.
I viewed it with some skepticism, since it seemed more designed for both artists to sell more CDs and downloads than any real artistic battle. But there were those who championed sales of Graduation as an opportunity to uplift some other kind of hip-hop besides the prevalent gangsta genre. I must confess, I’m a big fan of West’s, both musically and lyrically, but my real beef with Fifty isn’t the violent or misogynistic lyrics, the ridiculous series of publicity fights he has picked with other rappers or his criminal background and thuggish ways. The problem is that he’s just not as interesting as Kanye West.
The Curtis album is okay; there’s no denying that 50 Cent has some skills as a pop artist. But his lyrics, which alternate between portraying himself as tough guy and as a lover man, come across as mere posturing. So much of the gangsta genre as a whole seems to have moved from being a genuine reflection of life in the ghetto to just an act, a way to appeal to white record buyer’s appetite for violent fantasies.
And while both Fifty and West have reputations as arrogant egomaniacs, the differences are revealing. 50 Cent has had a series of public beefs with competing rappers over the years – including Ja Rule, the Game and Sean Combs, among others – which have always seemed a combination of childishness and calculation, allowing him to both swagger with machismo and benefit from the publicity. By contrast, Kanye West’s new album includes a stand-out track entitled “Big Brother,” addressing the relationship with his mentor Jay-Z. The lyrics paint a complex portrait, including complaints of feeling disrespected, while also showing West’s awe for Jay as a stronger performer.
The first week’s sales figures were a K.O. with Graduation selling 957,000 copies to 691,000 for Curtis. But these figures have to be put in a larger context of hip-hop’s overall economic health. Billboard has reported that rap sales are down 44% from 2000, with rap dropping from 13% of all music sales to 10%. Rather than crowing excessively, West has indicated that he feels humbled by the results: “It feels overwhelming,” [he] said. “Everyone is coming up to me and telling me how proud they are of me.” Given what’s at stake for the success of hip-hop, he is right to feel humility.
The future of hip-hop will probably lie with artists like West who care about more than grandstanding for publicity. In recent remarks, Jay-Z has indicated the creative success is what drives West: “It’s pretty much how much he cares about it. It’s not done for any other reason but to be the best music out at that specific time.” While there are those who complain about the current state of hip-hop (and those who have never liked it), there are many gifted artists who don’t attract the attention or money they should. If the musical genre is to survive in the sales market, then striving for artistic greatness is a good place to start.
For a more on Graduation, read this detailed analysis of Kanye West’s new album.