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A decade ago, Kanye West became the king of mainstream hip-hop.
Photo by Marco Torres
Hip-hop has certainly witnessed its share of beefs. The Tupac-Biggie/East Coast-West Coast feud certainly comes to mind, as do numerous others. Jay-Z and Nas had their differences. Ice Cube waged verbal warfare on N.W.A. after leaving the group. Drake certainly has his detractors within the rap community. And Eminem feuded with damn near everyone at some point.
Some of these feuds have ended tragically. Others managed to end in friendship. But no matter how each ended, at some point in time, each seemed to feature some real animosity. Which brings us to Kanye West and 50 Cent.
Ten years ago this week, the two hip-hop superstars – each of whom maintains a famous name, if slightly lesser musical portfolio, to this day — waged a war that didn’t center on violence or personal slights. Instead Kanye and 50, ever the businessmen, centered their battle on record sales.
Yes, there was a time when record sales were an actual thing. Artists would release CDs, people would go to stores to purchase them, some company called Soundscan would tally up these sales and report them. Sell a half-million copies? You go Gold. Move a million? Congratulations, you’re a Platinum-selling superstar. So, yes, we’re dating ourselves a bit in reliving the Kanye v. 50 battle, if only because it’s hard to imagine Drake and Kendrick Lamar battling to see which artist could receive more streams in a week.
But, for a time in September 2007, Kanye v. 50 was the biggest thing in music. This was an odd fact, considering the two really had no history whatsoever. Whereas Biggie and Tupac at least shared a past of sorts that paved the way toward their feud, Kanye and 50’s feud kinda just popped up one day, when the two decided that a publicity stunt centered on record sales would generate interest and line their pockets in the process.
It was essentially music’s version of Floyd Mayweather v. Conor McGregor, two accomplished fighters from vastly different backgrounds who generated interest in a glorified exhibition match, all in the name of financial gain. Thing is, the approach worked then, just as it did now. The Mayweather-McGregor bout was a hit, as was the Kanye-50 showdown.
When first-week figures were released, Kanye’s Graduation sold more than 950,000 units in its first week, compared to a shade under 700,000 for 50’s Curtis. This marked only the second time in history that two albums moved more than 600,000 copies in the same week (Guns N’ Roses managed that feat on its own in 1991 with Use Your Illusion I and II). Sure, Kanye won, but in the end, both men emerged victorious.
This held particularly true for 50, considering Curtis was about as mailed-in a record as one can imagine. No wonder 50 Cent engaged in the publicity push; it was really the only way to garner interest in his latest record. Which brings us to career arcs. The 50-Kanye record sales duel not only marked the end of a time when record sales really mattered, it also marked a change of course for each artist involved in the battle.
For 50 Cent, 2007 marked the beginning of the end. Coming off a pair of multiplatinum smashes, 50 was arguably the biggest player in the hip-hop game in the mid-2000s. However, with Curtis – which only went Gold – he began to fade from his perch atop the rap kingdom. Since its release, he has yet to release another Platinum album, went bankrupt and hasn’t notched a hit single in nearly a decade. In fact, he’s changed career paths altogether and has actually become a fairly capable actor in his own right.
And Kanye? Oh, Kanye. The record sales battle with 50 Cent presented a different sort of change for Mr. West. At the time of the feud, West had put out a pair of multiplatinum albums and was widely regarded among the hottest young artists in the hip-hop game. However, while certainly confident, West was almost lauded for what appeared to be a very humble approach to both music and life in general. Hell, going into the sales battle, Kanye was actually viewed as the gracious underdog. Yes, Kanye West, a humble character worth rooting for; how times have changed.
Graduation changed all that and presented the first glimpse of the Kanye West fans know today – arrogant, self-indulgent, almost ambitious to a fault. These are not necessarily insults; West’s bravado and musical ambitions have resulted in one of the more unique catalogs you’ll find over the past decade of pop music. They have also, however, resulted in public tantrums, pop feuds aplenty, a nervous breakdown and a musical slide of late in which West’s persona has long since overtaken his talents as a hip-hop producer (and, make no mistake, Kanye is one hell of a hip-hop producer when he’s got his head on right).
The Kanye-50 battle, in many ways, is refreshing. These two artists didn’t have a personal beef with one another, but rather chose to put their talents on display in an effort to provide for themselves and their families. It marked the end of one era, in which 50 Cent and his G-Unit mates ruled the hip-hop roost. It also marked the dawn of a new one, an era in which Kanye West the underdog rapper and super-producer gave way to Kanye the controversial pop-culture figure.
Are we better off with the previous era or the one in which we currently inhabit, in which 50 Cent gave up music altogether and Kanye has seemingly lost his way? It’s hard to tell; hell, it’s probably a matter of age and personal taste anyway. But for a few weeks in September 2007, two titans of hip-hop settled it on wax. And, in that time, we were all better off for it.