Can’t Tell Me Nothing: Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ vs. 50 Cent’s ‘Curtis’
Tracking a moment that changed hip hop, ten years later
Ten years ago today brought a match-up made in hip hop heaven. On September 11, 2007, Kanye West would battle 50 Cent in a contest for album sales supremacy. Which would come out on top, West’s Graduation or 50’s Curtis?
When you analyze a competition, the most compelling outcomes occur when there’s a clear contrast in styles. In one corner, from Queens, New York, you had 50 Cent, the rugged, drug dealer-turned-MC. A rap crossover machine with over 18 millions albums sold to that point, he’d proven himself able (and happy to) squash any opponent in his way. In the other corner, from Chicago, Illinois, you had Kanye West, the eclectic college dropout-turned-producer-turned-solo star. A critics’ darling who had earned six Grammy Awards (with 18 nominations) to that point, he was bringing sounds and influences to hip hop’s mainstream that others hadn’t tried before.
On stats alone, the odds should’ve been in 50’s favor. Now that West has been on top for so long, it’s easy to forget just how much 50 had the rap game in a chokehold a decade ago. By 2007, he achieved 14 top 15 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as either a lead or featured artist. He was the archetype rapper, the perfect melding of rugged New York swag and sinister, melodic California beats. Resurrecting his rap career through a collection of DJ Whoo Kid mixtapes after being shot nine times, he brought an menacing vocal delivery, came onstage wearing a bulletproof vest and delivered omnipresent hits like “In Da Club,” “Wanksta” and “Candy Shop.”
When West arrived on the scene, he wasn’t even respected as a rapper. It was his production work for JAY-Z, Scarface and Talib Kweli that put him on the map. His cultivated image of rocking a pink Polo and a Louis Vuitton backpack didn’t sit well with purists. While West had success with his first two albums—College Dropout and Late Registration each delivered a number one single (“Slow Jams” and “Gold Digger,” respectively)—he’d still sold nearly 10 million less albums than 50 Cent before in September of 2007. But West’s cache as a producer continued to grow after he became a solo star and he began closing the gap between him and 50 in the eyes of the public.
With all their differences, the two had a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both came up slowly with false starts. 50 was mentored by Jam Master Jay, yet his 1999 debut, Power of the Dollar, went unreleased after his shooting and the controversy of its lead single, “How to Rob.” West tooled away as a ghost producer before landing the beat for Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth” in 2000. Each experienced near-fatal episodes, which they then tapped in order to achieve success. 50’s aforementioned shooting gave him an street authenticity that he could use against his sworn rival Ja Rule, who was making pop duets with Ashanti and Jennifer Lopez. Then there was West’s devastating car accident, which inspired his breakout single, “Through the Wire.” The two were both cosigned and backed by artist-made labels: 50 on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath and Eminem’s Shady Records (subsidiaries of Interscope), and West on JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records (a subsidiary of Def Jam).
When the final bell rang, Kanye West was the victor, selling 970,000 copies in the first week, compared to 691,000 from 50. The paradigm had shifted. Not only did West solidify himself as a global superstar, but artists like Drake, J.Cole and Kid Cudi (direct or emotional disciples of West) became the new rap elite with their introspective and worldly records. 50 Cent would never again go platinum and his G-Unit crew never spawned another star.
September 11, 2007, may be considered a crucial moment in the direction of hip hop, but things had been turning for some years before that day. Here’s a timeline of those crucial moments: