Robber Barons

But when their lips met, the tension between them burst like a thundercloud

But when their lips met, the tension between them burst like a thundercloud

Kanye West 
Island Def Jam

50 Cent

By this point it's probably clear to anyone who cares (anyone out there—is this thing on?) who won the commercial battle between these two self-proclaimed titans of industry. And don't get it twisted, the rap game is comparable to America's capitalist landscape at the turn of the 20th century—power is consolidated into the hands of a few barons, product is mass-produced and marketed on an unprecedented level, and nobody seems to give a shit about all the pollution being dumped on the once-beautiful scenery.

So when looking at arguably the two biggest rap figures of the last five years (a period of time that made materialist misogynic violence so established as to be beyond lampooning), any hint of passionate expression winning out over crass marketing would be not only surprising, but downright unpatriotic. Even more fitting, then, that both these cats chose to square off on 9/11, an anniversary that already seems (perhaps because of the exact heavy-handed government marketing that made it once so compelling in the first place) passé, even cliché. To be king of rap in 2007 is to be Donald Trump with tattoos, a (make money) money machine on steroids.

50 Cent, holding down the overt overground, plays the part well; Kanye West, the most "underground" of commercial artists, still talks a good game ("I shop so much I can speak Italian"), but who really deserves the crown? Or, more important, is that even a crown worth rocking?

Both Curtis and Graduation are their respective maker's third albums. For most rappers lucky enough to make it that far, it's a chance to either solidify their greatness, or fail to deliver on the potential of their initial spark. (That is, if they haven't already run out of original expressions.) West, ever the contradictory and complex artist, certainly hasn't, as Graduation eschews the mess-of-satisfying-tracks-thrown-together formula of his first two LPs for a cohesive and succinct suite of rich and mood-lit pieces that bleed together (almost too well?).

But for 50 Cent, Curtis is worse than bad; by rehashing the same generic gangsta truisms that catapulted him to superstatus, only without any of the sonic magnificence of Dre or anyone else, he's created an experience akin to listening to a collection of throwaways from his first two LPs. (Seriously, I could discern only three lyrical themes in 17 songs: My money is long, I will sex you right, I will still murder if provoked.) There's nothing to say about the music except that it's the most boring thing I've had to listen to all year. And product-wise? The liner notes come with a second packet consisting solely of products 50 endorses, along with a ringtone voucher. The shiny main insert shows he's still rocking the constipated face in every photo op and still playing dress up like a girl in her mother's closet (Ken Doll 50 as businessman, then hard rock, then pimp...).

This, then, is strictly business—but like the rest of the music and film industry (who bemoan the lack of sales while shilling out the same old drivel), if he expects people to actually buy Curtis based solely on savvy marketing, he's way wrong—or at least I hope so. At least West has the decency to give us creative and colorful packaging (including a foldout poster), making consumerism at least seem fun (his lyrics suddenly suggest as much, too).

Both rappers are sub par, but although West's stinker lines reek worse than 50 Cent's (sample: "I'm like the fly Malcolm X/Buy any jeans necessary"), he's still self-deprecating enough to make up for it. But while 50 Cent's alternating empty threats and sleazy-syrup advances affect nap time, West's shtick is Jay-Z-lite, full of semi-amusing punchlines and a conversational tone that has about as much flavor and flow as ice.

The deal breaker, then, is in the beats. Curtis is chock full of generic Dre rip-offs, all ominous synths and stadium handclaps. But West has taken it to a new place entirely, and while his drums are still weaker than my right-handed layup (is it really too much to ask for one or two bangers?!), he makes up for it with beautiful synergies of disparate elements and sweeping melodies that speak for themselves. In his quest to be either celebratory, introspective, or dismissive, he goes electro, then lite rock, then damn near disco, but never slips. That's why in the end, West's middle-class values (celebrating family, love lost and won, living your dreams, and Coldplay) will likely triumph in the capitalist arena over 50 Cent's gauche Hamptons reality (and working-class fantasy) every time. Americans want "artists" who may be in on the joke that their "art" is really just another product to push, but who still play along and pretend to care. Is West the absurd hero of the 21st century? Don Quixote, dance to the soothing groove and eat your heart out.