BY M. EMANUEL For the sake of hip hop, on Sept. 11, make tracks to your local music spot, your iTunes, your friendly neighborhood Target store, or wherever you legally buy music and purchase two copies of Kanye West’s eagerly anticipated Graduation. Why two? Well, the extra copy will go a long way in assuring that Kanye wins round one of his faux-WWE Smackdown-esque showdown with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
The infamous date and ensuing hype surrounding the respective releases is to be expected, as West and 50 are considered in most circles as the two biggest rap stars in the hip-hop galaxy. West, who counts production for some of the biggest names in the industry and brings to the table two classic albums of his own, The College Dropout and Late Registration, is fresh off supplying the musical backing for Common’s Finding Forever (Phawker-certified Hip-Hop album of the summer, dontcha know). Fiddy, the G-Unit general, readies Curtis, his third solo release, following subpar showings from G-Unit Soldiers Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and Mobb Deep. Fiddy is expected to straight-up and singlehandedly resurrect his G-Unit empire. The Massacre was the best-selling release of 2005, moving 1.14 million copies in its first week, while the same year, West’s Late Registration sold more than 860,000 copies its first week.
Fast forward to the present. West and 50 have enjoyed a working relationship with one another, even allegedly collaborating on a track that didn’t make the final cut for Curtis. But upon confirmation of their shared 9/11 release dates, 50 declared that if West’s first week’s sales beat his, he would not release any more solo albums. The gauntlet lost some of its luster when 50 softened his position by adding that if West outsells him, he’ll “write music and work with his other artists, but won’t put out any more solo albums,” possibly insinuating some uncertainty about the success of his project. Kanye remained uncharacteristically humble and refused to fully trade barbs about record sales. From 50’s side, the verbal jousting bordered on ridiculous, even challenging West to a debate on BET’s 106 & Park.
The weeks following the “challenge” found 50 retreating from his original position even further, backing out of the retirement rhetoric completely, and even sharing the stage with West during the Madison Square Garden incarnation of the Scream Tour, a show for which neither artist was originally listed on the bill. Nevertheless, the “challenge” and notion of a battle for supremacy between West and 50, contrived or not, leaves an important statement to be made regarding the future of commercial hip-hop as the two serve as diametrically-opposed examples of how diverse the genre can be, and where it could be headed.
My support of West in the “battle” between him and 50 is not indicative of my views on 50 Cent. He’s certainly a talented artist, capable of crafting incredibly catchy songs whose appeal knows no geographic boundaries, from the blighted streets of Everyhood, U.S.A. to the well-manicured lawns of Middle America, U.S.A. (surely we all remember that “It’s your birthday song?). But the reality is that lately 50 has gotten lazy. A quick look at his recent track record includes four — yes, four — lead-off singles for Curtis, each of which have been formulaic at best and often uninspired. The most recent of the four, “Ayo Technology,” a duet with the pop go-to-guy of the moment, Justin Timberlake, revisits the tried-and-true gentleman’s club theme that has been done with more enthusiasm by [insert your favorite drrty southern rap star here]. While Timbaland’s production is well-suited for the inside of your neighborhood strip club, and the song is pre-packaged with an incredibly glossy high-priced video, it’s not groundbreaking material. Further telling is that the album has had four lead-ins. It’s as if the powers that be just can’t find the right hit. In an era where most artists are unable to get three singles out, Fiddy has managed to release four singles without even dropping an album. We won’t even include the recently leaked “Follow My Lead,” featuring Robin Thicke. Upon finding the video had been leaked, allegedly by his own label, 50 went on a plasma screen bashing and cell phone throwing tirade that hasn’t been seen this side of Naomi Campbell. After catching the leaked video on YouTube, it proves to be simply another well calculated but contrived attempt at the pop charts.
Which brings me to Mr. West, and why Kanye must outsell Fif in his first week. Hip-hop fans need to send a message to the major record labels that the same music repackaged with movie-budget video clips is tired. The only way to effectively get this message across to a business that is primarily concerned with the bottom line is to allow money to talk.
In contrast to 50’s missteps, for Kanye, the lead-up to Graduation has been rife with creative innovation and growth. On the introspective “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Kanye delivers heavy lines like “had a dream I could buy my way to Heaven/woke up spent it on a necklace,” and explains his much crticized candor with the media when he admits he’s “on TV talking like it’s just you and me.” The follow-up, “Stronger” (sampling Daft Punk), coupled with a slick Akira-inspired video, while irreverent at times (“you could be my black Kate Moss tonight”) is unlike most of what is in heavy rotation on today’s radio, with its futuristic production.
Hip-hop needs more songs like “Stronger” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’,” songs that show thought, innovation and self-reflection. Hip-hop needs more artists willing to take chances and break outside of the preconceived notions of what makes a hit, what is “radio enough” and what executives think the public wants to put its money behind. I seriously doubt that at first listen, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin'” would have fit neatly into a radio landscape alongside current hits like “Crank dat Souljah Boy” and “Ay Bay Bay.” While I’m using two extremes here, it’s still reality that West took a chance with his first single, and in order to spur more artists to take the chances, the public needs to show that it is open to change.
If you want to hear something new, and see form lead over substance, buy West’s album and let’s see if it shakes up the industry. While these may be the musings of an eternal optimist, I’d still like to see if the message is felt and hope that we can see our artists pushing artistic boundaries in ways that will inspire future generations of hip hoppers.
Now take that to the bank.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The easiest word to describe M. Emanuel is “complex.” At least as it relates to tastes and interest, he offers a varied palate for that which inspires thought or emotion. Typically framed against the backdrop of hip-hop culture, but with a sharp awareness of what preceded the culture and what is now influenced by it, he’s intrigued by the intersection of commerce and art. It’s a rather natural position and balance of contrast that one would expect from a former college radio DJ turned corporate attorney who collects sneakers on the side and still writes rhymes from time to time. While we can’t expect to hear a full- length anytime soon, you can expect unique and hopefully enlightening insight from someone who, while navigating the world of corporate politics, has always kept his ear to the pavement. Hailing from Virginia, but now firmly entrenched in the 215, M. Emanuel focuses his daily grind in the areas of intellectual property and entertainment law. His many interests include music, film, the arts, fashion, sports, and travel, holding hands on the beach, shots of Patron, and making it rain.