By some ingenious twist of fate (or at least marketing), Kanye West and 50 Cent are set to square off on September 11. Make no mistake: This isn’t just about two rappers battling the enormous expectations that accompany album No. 3. This isn’t just the greatest rapper-release face-off since A Tribe Called Quest (Love Movement), Jay-Z (Hard Knock Life Vol. II) and OutKast (Aquemini), knocked skulls on September 29, 1998. This is a referendum on the future of hip-hop.
50 Cent has already gone on the record as saying that he’ll retire if Kanye’s Graduation outsells his Curtis, a statement possibly inspired by an affinity for professional wrestling’s steel-cage winner-leaves-town matches and/or contemporary politics (which, if you think about it, might be the same thing). Of course, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Professional wrestling, politics and Kanye vs. 50 are all manifestations of a similar duality: good guys vs. bad, blue states vs. red, the super-ego vs. the really, really super-ego.
So consider this an election, one of those rare occasions when you’re forced to pick a side and all the baggage that accompanies it. The old cliché states that people get the politicians they deserve. Well, if that’s the case, they get the rappers they deserve as well.
50 Cent(Curtis James Jackson III)
Born: July 6, 1975 (age 32)
Past First-Week Sales Performance: Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003): 872,000 units; The Massacre (2005): 1.14 million
Ideology: In late 2005, 50 Cent told GQ magazine that president George W. Bush was “incredible. A gangsta president,” one who he would’ve voted for if he hadn’t been a convicted felon. He also expressed a desire to “shake [Bush’s] hand and tell him how much of me I see in him.”
A true conservative, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and The Massacre were N.W.A retrograde, a reactionary trying to update the gangsta-rap template. And like Bush reheating Ronald Reagan Republicanism and recasting it as “compassionate conservatism,” 50 craftily schemed to widen the gangsta-rap tent by including a few “for the ladies” songs on each record. (See “21 Questions,” “So Amazing” and “A Baltimore Love Thing,” a song presumably not about crab cakes and/or the Orioles.)
Gay Rights: Yet to proclaim his views on the gangsta president’s Federal Marriage Amendment, 50 did recently release a mixtape cut called “Part Time Lover.” In the song, he drops a Li’l Wayne/gay-bashing hook: “It’s more than your body, baby, damn it’s your brain/You make me wanna kiss you like Baby kiss Wayne/And make you call me daddy like Baby do Wayne/Damn, that shit sound gay, it’s insane.” Which leads one to believe that despite his homoerotic predilection for appearing shirtless and covered in baby oil on every one of his album covers, 50 is probably against gay marriage.
Economic Policy: 50 Cent would be the staunchest advocate of traditional conservative laissez-faire capitalism around. The guy never met a Fortune 500 company he wouldn’t shill for, inking deals with Reebok for G-Unit sneakers, Time Warner for G-Unit books and even his own line of condoms. Most notably, the sale of Glaceau’s Vitamin Water brand netted him anywhere between $100 million and $400 million, according to various media estimates.
Emblematic of the corporate-wealth explosion of the Bush years, 50’s video for his latest single, “I Get Money,” consists solely of shots of 50 Cent waving $100 bills while alternately partying and/or sitting on green Italian sports cars. The lyrical content revolves around one theme: that, yes — shock of shocks — 50 Cent “gets money.”
Foreign Policy: Since 2003, 50 has had beefs with Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Nas, Jadakiss, Diddy and Cam’ron, trumping Bush’s mere two confrontations with Afghanistan and Iraq.
Struggles With Cabinet: Like Bush, who has only retained one original cabinet member (Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao) in the six-plus years of his presidency, 50 Cent has had his own share of problems with his confidants, including a high-profile internecine squabble with the Game. Most recently, 50’s reportedly been at odds with G-Unit goombah Young Buck.
Gun Control: Duh.
Kanye Omari West
Born: June 8, 1977 (age 30)
Past First-Week Sales Performance: The College Dropout (2004): 441,000 units; Late Registration (2005): 860,000
Ideology: Well, there was that whole “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” thing (which 50 said he disagreed with). He appeared at both Live Aid and Al Gore’s Live Earth. And a Barack Obama endorsement isn’t unthinkable considering their shared Chi-town roots and the fact that Common gave Obama love on the West-produced “The People.”
Kanye might not be as sonically inventive as DJ Premier, Pete Rock or the RZA in their prime, but compared to whatever’s left of major-label hip-hop, he’s light-years ahead of the pack. Enlisting Jon Brion to help with Late Registration and sampling Thom Yorke, Daft Punk and Peter, Bjorn & John on his last mixtape, Kanye’s tastes seem to suggest a serious Ecstasy habit or manic depression. Perhaps both.
Gay Rights: West became the only major rap star to speak out against hip-hop’s rampant homophobia when he equated the gay rights movement to that of civil rights. In an MTV special, West claimed that hip-hop has always been about “speaking your mind and about breaking down barriers, but everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people .?.?. We need to stop that.” He also added that some of his favorite fashion designers ?are gay.
Economic Policy: Like most Dems in the post-DLC years, West is an unabashed capitalist, constantly extolling the virtues of diamonds and Louis Vuitton, while excoriating himself for his profligacy in the next breath (witness John “$400 haircut” Edwards). Like the Democrats, West has no problem with special-interest groups, inking deals with Pepsi, Lincoln and Nike. (Thankfully, no line of condoms is in the works.)
Foreign Policy: A pacifist, West has had few beefs, collaborating with everyone from West Coast gangsta rappers like the Game to Southern-fried slingers like Li’l Wayne. Even in his confrontation with 50, Kanye has shied away from any direct provocation, repeatedly articulating his admiration for the leader of G-Unit and begging him not to retire after Graduation outsells Curtis.West also would not have invaded Iraq without U.N. approval and/or a smoking gun. I’m just making up that last part.
Struggles With Cabinet: In a genre known for its short-lived artistic relationships, Kanye’s clique has been remarkably consistent. There has been little turnover in a group that includes Jay-Z, Common, Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest.
Gun Control: Kanye recently declared, “There’s nothing about wearing a pink Polo that would make anyone believe that I would hold a gun.” Enough said.
A Completely Unscientific Straw Poll for the Purposes of Predicting the Winner (Margin of error: high)
THE HISPANIC VOTE
50 Cent: 74%
Why: Undying loyalty to 50 Cent’s mentor Dr. Dre for producing the soundtrack of every lowrider in Los Angeles from the years 1992–1999.
THE SOCCER-MOM VOTE
50 Cent: 15%
Why: Kanye is safe, nonthreatening and downright cuddly compared to 50. Plus, his mama’s-boy move to appear on the cover of his mother’s parenting book sealed the deal.
THE HOOD VOTE
50 Cent: 50%
Why: The streets are 50 Cent’s base, and his challenge to Kanye is clearly an effort to galvanize his supporters, a tactic reeking in Rove-ian savvy. Then again, deep down everyone knows Kanye’s record will be better.
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THE HIPSTER VOTE
50 Cent: 0%
Why: C’mon, everyone knows hipsters don’t actually buy records. However, I’d bet my life that Kanye wins the hipster illegal-download sweepstakes because of the Daft Punk sample.