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ISSUE 121 VOL 2 PUBLISHED 9/28/2007

Kanye West beats 50 Cent

By Peter Farrell
Executive Editor

Friday, September 28, 2007

The first time I watched King Kong, I cried. I was only three years old, and when Kong toppled off the Empire State Building, my heart fell with him. Between sobs, I demanded that my flabbergasted mother and father explain what had happened.

They tried to comfort me but, seeing that I was inconsolable, they ultimately decided to rewind the movie and watch it with me again, only this time they stopped it before Kong took his fatal plunge. I went to bed happy, easily discounting my first viewing as an aberration, while my parents relieved themselves of the stress of resolving my first existential crisis.

But I think I've grown up since then. This past week, when Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson - hip-hop's self-proclaimed King Kong - fell from grace, my reaction was celebratory instead of disconsolate. Kanye West, hip-hop's most compelling egomaniac, defeated 50 in a sales battle. 50 had promised that if West's new record, Graduation, outsold his new album, Curtis, he would quit making solo music.

And while it's unlikely that this is the last we've heard from 50, hopefully his very public - and very deserved - drubbing will motivate him to abandon the tired thug posturing that dominates Curtis.

Of course, 50 didn't just self-destruct. The strength of West's Graduation, his third and most accomplished record, made the prospect of 50's victory unlikely from the outset. Strikingly mature in tone and texture, West hits new highs on Graduation, deftly balancing his experimental and populist instincts. Unlike previous West albums, Graduation is a no-frills affair that is devoid of filler, as well as West's notoriously unfunny skits.

Opening with the gorgeous "Good Morning," West is aware he's reaching a new plateau: "I guess this is my dissertation / Homey, this stuff is basic / Welcome to graduation." The "basics" are West's bread and butter, and his favorite production tricks - sped-up soul samples, swampy strings and anthemic drums - are omnipresent. But this time around he's also added juiced-up synthesizers and layered crescendos to his repetoire.

Consequently, the album's standout cuts, such as the ominous "Can't Tell Me Nothing" or the strangely beautiful "Flashing Lights," are impressively restrained. West knows when to hold back and let the simplicity of a blast of synthesizer or the hint of sampled vocal carry the emotional heft of a song.

50 lacks West's sense of subtlety. In the past, he's used the blunt force of his anger and sexuality to powerful effect. But on Curtis, 50's unrestrained machismo coalesces into a paint-by-the-numbers collection of minor-key thug rap and cheesy thug-love ballads.

Part of the problem is that 50 seems unwilling to abandon the Dr. Dre-style beats that made him a star. The minor-key loops and booming drums that reinvigorated Dre's career sound uninspired six full years after the release of Chronic 2001.

In fact, Eminem's appearance on "Peep Show" finds both rappers barely working up the energy to fake their way through the motions. At this point, a track featuring Dre, 50 and Eminem is a surefire bore instead of a surefire hit.

The album's two standout tracks appropriately eschew this tired formula. The space-pop of "Ayo Technology" is undeniably sexy, while "I Get Money" is a fascinatingly raw burst of arrogance. Clearly, 50's money-grubbing strongman persona is not impotent, he's just grown too lazy to employ it effectively.

So, how did the West win? Simply put, Curtis is too dumb. Graduation triumphs artistically and commercially - it makes you want to shout and dance, but it also challenges its audience. King Kong needs to reevaluate his method of destruction.

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