On September 11th, 2007, where did your loyalties lie?
The meeting between an unstoppable force and an immovable object occasionally yields spectacular results. To this day, some still wonder if the infamous showdown between 50 Cent and Kanye West altered the course of hip-hop history. On a symbolic level, it seemed to indicate a shift in the cultural aesthetic. A new demographic was rising. The hipsters had set their sights on rap music; unconventional external influences began permeating contemporary production. For an artist like 50 Cent, who seldom deviated from his musical roots, the shift appeared to be working against him. On the other hand, Kanye West’s acceptance of innovation helped facilitate his transition into the new musical landscape. Some might even say singles like “Stronger” helped shape its foundation.
On September 11th, 2007, 50 Cent and Kanye West decided to engage in a competition. The premise was simple: whoever sells higher takes the crown. For Fif, that meant riding behind Curtis, his third studio album and follow-up to 2005’s The Massacre. For Ye, it would be Graduation, the beginning of an intriguing and experimental direction for the reigning sample-king. At this stage, 50 Cent was far and beyond the bigger superstar. His previous two albums helped solidify his place among the biggest rappers in the world. Songs like “In Da Club,” “21 Questions,” “Candy Shop,” and “Disco Inferno” were mainstays on the radio, and thus, the pre-streaming culture. The XXL “Three-Headed Monster” cover positioned him as an equal to Dr. Dre and Eminem, protege no more.
Kanye West, on the other hand, was enjoying upward mobility in his own right. With College Dropout having exorcised some of his more-than-a-producer demons, Late Registration displayed his hitmaking ability in a major way. Expanding on his established formula, “Gold Digger” became an instant classic, pairing Ye’s signature hilarity with his infectious ear for melody. While 50 was attempting to establish his post-Massacre identity in a new era, Kanye West was looking ubiquity in the face, with the Daft-Punk assisted “Stronger” serving as the theme song. As both men prepared work on their respective third studio albums, they would soon find themselves embroiled in a healthy competition of their own design.
Upon learning that Kanye West had moved his release date to coincide with Curtis, 50 Cent decided to make lemonade. During a segment on BET’s 106 & Park, Fif broke down the unique marketing opportunity that had seemingly fallen in his path. “Kanye didn’t say anything disrespectful or show any discomfort to the success I’ve been having,” explains Fif. “It’s not actual beef, it’s just being competitive.” Speaking with Rolling Stone, Kanye seemed to mirror Fif’s mentality. “When I picked that date, I was like, ‘People are going to talk about this so much,'” he explained. “Do you know how great this shit is for hip-hop?”
As there was never any genuine animosity, both men were able to share a couch on the aforementioned 106 & Park episode, leading to some wholly entertaining WWE-level theatrics. Prior to receiving the verdict, Fif seemed to relish in playing the heel, challenging both Yeezy and Jay-Z with boorish charisma. Ye countered with a “kill-em-with-kindness” approach, claiming that he’d be beaming win-or-lose. Yet the mutual respect between parties was evident, and lo and behold, their competitive instincts proved entirely accurate. The Graduation Vs Curtis battle made for a compelling narrative, causing over one million to march into record stores to and pledge their allegiance. Once the dust settled, the final first-week tally was amassed. Kanye West’s Graduation proved the decisive victor with 957,000 units, while 50 turned in a respectable 691,000. According to Uproxx, it was the first time two artists pushed over 600,000 units in the same week since 1991.
For Fifty, the fallout proved bittersweet. As his lowest selling album thus far, Curtis seemed to represent a shifting of the old guard, the death knell of mainstream gangsta rap. On the other hand, Kanye’s victory solidified his position as both a cultural icon and trendsetting innovator; where Fif opted for a smoldering gaze, Kanye commissioned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to breathe life into his vision. Sadly, history hasn’t entirely been kind to Curtis, and one has to wonder whether the Ye shadow will forever loom overhead. In truth, there are plenty of gems to be found throughout, and it’s fair to call it an underrated chapter of Fif’s discography. Yet compared to Graduation, which has already been deemed a classic in some circles, Curtis has all but faded into obscurity.
Looking back, it's fair to examine the moment as a transitionary period for both artists. Today, Kanye West's eclectic "Final Form" is the natural logical conclusion to be drawn from Graduation's hypothesis. 50 Cent seems more concerned with his growing television empire than his musical output, and one has to wonder if the "writer's block" plaguing Curtis' creation was the inciting incident. Not of his "downfall," but of his lane-switch. Either way you look at it, hip-hop fans were certainly well-fed that day. Have you listened to Curtis or Graduation recently? If so, what are some of the standout moments?